Editor's Note: This article deals with the intense suffering of persecuted Christians and refugees at the hands of ISIS. It includes some graphic imagery.
Eerie is the sensation flying an empty plane hovering over a country torn. The world doesn't want to visit these places. The worship music in my headphones and smell of coffee betray the war and potent evil just beneath. As I've traveled around refugee camps, cities overflowing with displaced, and war zones the last few weeks I must confess I didn't really want to know about the depths of evil, didn’t want to enter that world. I have, along with many, been anesthetized by the news ticker stream that converts human suffering into statistics and nameless demography. I was awakened yet again by hearing the human story behind the scenes.
There is an exhaustion written on faces here that is physical, emotional and spiritual. People carry things humans were never meant to bear and ask questions of God that I didn't even know needed asking. I’ve borne witness to horrific stories, miracles, and devastation but amidst it all the suffering church offers a unique antidote and there is even… hope.
Nour* walked into the second hand clothes shop located in a refurbed container on a sunny afternoon towing her two year old son Mohammad. We had been whirlwind touring some projects in war torn Lebanon, home to the largest concentration of refugees in the world. This temporary school complex was setup amidst thousands of tent camps as an oasis from the chaos around to serve a few hundred kids affected by war. The NGO here provides everything for them, right down to shoes and water bottles; they came with nothing.
I asked Nour where she was from, and the conversation quickly moved to her family story of flight, betrayal and tragedy. The flood gate emotional narrative opened quickly once I got over the fact that we were going to be late for our next appointment. Not hearing her story seemed somehow cheap.
They had fled Syria when once considered friends, neighbors, started butchering relatives and stealing homes and possessions in the name of a religion Nour thought she knew. They fled with little notice, her husband and she towing two kids, Mohammad still in the womb. Nour hasn't seen her uncle or brother for over 2 years, they were conscripted to fight; she fears them dead.
Arriving to a country they once counted enemies, they had nothing, but found a tent to shelter them. Her husband found work in a metal shop. It didn't take long, and more disaster struck. He was knocked across the room by a piece of L channel that hit his head, having been caught in spinning grinding wheel. He was out, blinded, and helpless.
Nour knocked on doors. Mosques, churches, charities, no one helped with more than a paltry handout while her husband languished at home. She finally heard about one church where they helped people, and coming one Sunday after the service, she met a pastor who offered to listen. Nour says 'he was like an angel... I've never met anyone that cared like that.'
Hearing the all too common story of flight, but now the loss of income and medical issues, he signed the family up for monthly food assistance. Then he offered to pray. Nour says he prayed as if he actually knew God. They prayed for the return of her husband's vision, for food, for work, for an end to the evil next door. Returning home an hour later her husband had regained his sight.
In parting, we offer to say a prayer for Nour. She wants to be reunited with her lost family, for her husband's brain injury to heal, for her kids to have a normal life. We talk about heaven, and how we share a citizenship there. We speak of a coming time when God will wipe out evil and restore things the way they were intended. She hadn't heard much about the heavenly kingdom, and restoration of this earth that is to come. Her pupils are as big as quarters as we talk about what Syria might be like after God sets things right, the way they were intended, perfect, no evil, no tears.
My local friend prayed with a conviction born of experience in this mess that God is unlimited in resources and power, and answers those who ask... like more often right away these days, not later. Here they’ve gotten used to relating with a God that's much more active and big than I imagine, and many have come to know him in this intimate, tangible way. Last week the church prayed for a husband to find work, and he got a call as they were leaving the meeting. Another hadn't heard from her father in over a year, he’d been fighting and disappeared. The next day he showed up in the camp.
Nour met Jesus in the love of a pastor, the hands that took her food, and in the power of God demonstrated in an answered prayer. A community of faith witnessed her suffering, and acted. These promises of Jesus regarding hope for the future were made tangible in the care of a faith community in times of suffering. Nour now sees a glimpse of this heavenly reality that is to come.
Around Mosul, newly displaced families are quite literally running away from ISIS, new villages freed each day. Moms hold out babies for a Peshmerga soldier to kiss, a gesture symbolizing the life debt to these who are literally named "those willing to die." Others are not so fortunate, they are mowed down as they run by jihadists who think they're doing God's will. As we drive near some of these places temporary camps dot the horizon as Apache helicopters and C130’s fly overhead. Journalists and the forces of many nations are focused here now as the horrors of ISIS are on display.
Zara, a Yazidi girl, was recently ransomed back to her family after 2 years of captivity for $14,000. Her family sold what they had and borrowed from extended family, friends and neighbors to redeem their little girl. She was broken, not realizing she was free, still asking when and where she must go to pray, even weeks after returning. But there are glimmers of hope as she tells her story through paintings, and attends a trauma healing group with other girls who befell the same fate. A church hosts the group and offers a potent hope via their presence, words and provision for she and her family.
A Yazidi spiritual leader shows us a picture he received while we were visiting with him. Children, many of them infants, hacked apart and burned in a heap (see image below). I couldn’t believe how graphic, grotesque. I physically reacted to the image, our media sterilizes these things for us, reading about it but not seeing it somehow protects us. I read no emotion in this leader’s face. He has seen too much.
He reports there are still hundreds of their clan's girls in sexual slavery, having been sold over and over for as little as $100, the value going down commensurate with her level of cleanliness and perceived usefulness remaining. Yazidi and Christian girls are raped repeatedly, sometimes by several different men, and then forced to pray 5 times a day, one ritual following right after the other. Other atrocious violations I dare not pen will haunt their quietest moments for generations. “What have we ever done to deserve this, we are a peaceful people that have never attacked anyone in our history?” the Sheikh moaned more than asked.
Visiting another small church, Abu Adam, a Chaldean Christian man with a hollow look in his eyes, tells me his son was decapitated by ISIS right in front of him. "What am I supposed to do after I see this?" He inquires. “Daesh took my son, my home, my car, my life, I have nothing left.” His Kurdish friend reports that a neighbor was forced to watch as his children were slowly dipped in a barrel of acid. Another man who decided to leave Islam and now comes to church wondered aloud "If this is what God tells people to do, what is Satan like?" These three, arguably enemies by culture, find solace together in a small fellowship of Christians where they are cared for physically and reminded from the pulpit that heaven is a sure hope, God is a God of justice, and their suffering is temporary.
My friends working in this crisis teach me that we must enter into discomfort and evil and bear witness. It is the first step in a uniquely Christian response to suffering. The instinctual human reaction causes us to shy away, to insulate ourselves from the drama. In avoiding the suffering of others however, we can complicate their trauma by refusing to acknowledge that what happened to them was wrong. Jesus did not shy away from the suffering, in fact he sought out the anguished. He left the glorious safety and comfort of heaven itself and entered a world that hated him, to bear witness to evil, to confront it, and eventually to take it upon himself, conquering through it.
Dr. Diane Langberg notes “Trauma has a profound spiritual impact… It mutilates hope; it shatters faith; it turns the world upside down.” She pleads with us to invite the traumatized to declare the truth of their story: “As we listen and bear witness to their trauma, we grant them dignity, safety, and comfort.”
Though powerful, bearing witness through compassionate listening alone is only a beginning. Certainly, words can give hope, but pat answers and platitudes fail in the presence of people who have lived grievous circumstances. Do Christians have anything weightier to leverage on behalf of the suffering?
James warns Christians “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James’ hypothetical well-wisher assumedly knew of the circumstances of the poor brother or sister, and perhaps listened compassionately to their story, but refused to actually do anything on their behalf. His words lacked power because there was no congruent action to accompany them. The synchronization of heartfelt compassion along with the meeting of tangible needs is a powerful combination that James says prove authentic faith. But what else do the suffering need?
Jesus said to his fearful disciples in John 14:1-3 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” And in John 16:33 he said “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” He gave them a sure hope.
I learned firsthand from local Christians that the church has a uniquely potent response to the suffering. The combination of a compassionate presence that bears witness, ministering words, consistent acts of mercy, and a stout theology that emphasizes truth, justice and the sure hope of heaven have ministered to thousands of poor souls here.
I feel ashamed that I initially wanted to scurry through the tour that day in Lebanon. I might have missed Nour’s story. When the Yazidi Sheikh offered his phone for me to see, I confess feeling bothered, wanting to distance myself, like I was being forced to view a horror film. When Abu Adam grabbed my arm and pleaded with me, “Please help us. Tell the world what is happening here. We have nothing left.” I was again tempted to make due with pleasantries and leave. But, each time, seeing Nour's emotion erupt, the Sheikh’s stone face, and the horror still reflecting in Abu Adam’s eyes, I was reminded that these were my brothers and sisters.
One must be proactive to enter this fray, for the god of comfort in the West has helped us create a world too nice for pain. Perhaps we ought to learn from our brothers and sisters in Lebanon and Iraq and seek out the stories, the heartbreaking and the faith-restoring, and bear witness. Maybe we should also act. Despite the distance there are great needs we can meet in partnership with non-profits and churches.
In the compassionate face and listening ear, in the providing hands, and after awhile, in the ministering gentle tongue, we can help proclaim that He sees every tear, and hears every mother’s wail of agony, and father’s prostrated whisper of exhaustion. We can assure the suffering that God also is bearing witness and storing up wrath for a day to come when He will put an end to mourning, tears, and pain.
This part of the world seems hopeless if you just listen to news of war, or politicians talk arrogantly of things they don't understand. There are tens of millions of stories of suffering to hear in this war alone. Only an all powerful God could possibly grasp the horror and depth and insidiousness of what people have experienced here. But there is hope. He has put a church here to listen and bear witness, to act in faith and to curate in hope. They are ‘little Christs’ as the first church was called, and they are touching those physically suffering as he touched and speaking words of hope as he spoke.
There’s no lack of tragedy to report, but here is another headline that needs to be shouted... God is restoring the faith of many and reviving a new Middle Eastern church. He is healing people, releasing slaves from captivity and answering prayers for freedom. Oh there is tragedy aplenty, but there is always hope.
* All names are pseudonyms.
Scott Gustafson has extensive experience in global ministry and business in the Middle East, having lived or worked in the region for nearly 15 years. He serves as the Middle East Director for a US based ministry and is also the Managing Partner of Purpose Global Strategies, an International Business and non-profit consulting firm. He advises large funding agencies as well as indigenous businesses and ministries in Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He teaches as an adjunct faculty member of Cornerstone University. Read more of his work at The Acts 2:11 Project.
Photo credit: All photos taken by Andrew Hood
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.