I am living in the midst of a community that has fled war over mountains and across oceans on the small little inflatable boats you’ve seen all over the news. My new friends have family in Belguim, Finland and Sweden. The “lucky” ones are assigned apartments (flats donated to the Greek Orthodox church and then handed over to the UN) where they share toilets and kitchens sometimes with 3 other families. The rest sit in over-crowded camps (managed by the UN) or in squats (managed by anarchists) sharing rooms, yes, ROOMS with another family or two. Each of these families are on a 2-6 month time line to be assigned to a random country of the top 3 choices on the checklist IF they are registered – more than half of the refugees here are not yet registered. Our sweet little church, every Tuesday and Thursday, is filled with a random, eclectic mix of families each in a different place in this process, each in a different living situation. Just this past Saturday, one of our families got their call. Even though we know that this stop is temporary, it is still hard to say goodbye…. There were a lot of tears.
Eleni Melirrytou is the pastor’s wife of the Church of Christ: Omonia Square. She is who I want to be when I grow up. She welcomes every single person into their little church building 3 days a week, cooks for 60+ each of those 3 days, cries when she hears stories, organizes and juggles 3 different ministries working to assist her, falls in love with every new person she meets: Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Ukrainians, Romanians, Nigerians and even us silly Americans. She doesn’t have the luxury of having and caring for these souls for YEARS. She mostly gets those months. And heavens, she loves fiercely and falls hard for every single person through those doors. Through her tears, she hugs and sends folks on their way praying and gifts of fine meals.
I think this is the bigger part of the lesson the Lord has for me in all of this: The hardest part of being Matthew Koerber’s wife is being placed in an academic setting in the city. Urban centers see loads of change – people moving in, people moving out. I have often lamented my church family is so much more transient than many other churches in our Presbytery. I’ve been a somersault of emotions throughout our 11 years in Pittsburgh: celebrating the fact that I am an ENFP who loves to meet new people; cynically raising my hand to agree to come alongside parents helping them raise their children when baptized,until they leave ME. I meet each summer with both loads of grief having to say goodbye to folks that have meant so much to me and my family and also with joyful expectations of what beautiful families/people the Lord is looking forward to bringing into our community. It’s such a strange tension! THIS summer in particular not being there has made me feel heart-achy. We started our sabbatical with conversations with some our best friends thinking about leaving, hearing a week into of our dear Chappell’s moving on and now, wow, the Sawyer family. These folks have been an intimate part of our lives the past 10 years.
This sabbatical is encouraging me to view this summer of transition with new lenses. Eleni and the transience of place of my sweet refugee friends put things in to perspective for me. They help me feel grateful for the opportunity that I have to share years with people instead of months. And yes, I am teary writing this – but as I say goodbye to very dear friends this summer (from afar) I praise God that our season together wasn’t just months, but life-forming years. Years of having children together and parenting alongside. Years of conversations that lifted my heart towards our Savior. Church, I love that we have the opportunity to settle into very transformative years with one another and be shaped by one another. Nothing is guaranteed to last on this side of eternity. Isn’t that what makes us long for the other side? I thank you Lord, that you have used this piece of my summer experience to shape and help me see joy in every summer of transition. I am tearfully joyful …..
Over the past couple of days we have had several people attending our lunch and language program who are from the Syrian city of Aleppo. Some are Kurdish and some are Arabic. Aleppo is in Northern Syria, close to the border with Turkey and the fighting has been particularly strong there. One man encouraged me to watch videos on you-tube which showed the before and after footage. It is a remarkable contrast. (See picture above.) What had been one of the largest cities in the middle east and one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world was been reduced to a smoldering rubble. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled for refuge elsewhere.
Pre-war Aleppo had a thriving Christian community. Although I have not yet met a Christian from Aleppo, I understand that the Christians have been particularly hard hit. It is hard for me to imagine the extent of their suffering.
Aleppo is a prime example for not only the devastation of war, but also the confusion of war. Currently the city is occupied partly by government forces and partly by the Syrian Free army - a rebel force that is also in conflict with ISIS. Internet reports indicate that the rebel forces have fought with each other there. It is not easy for the Syrian refugees to understand the source of the conflict in their country.
I recently spoke with a man from Aleppo who has good English. He had a good job and a promising future. The war took everything away. His wife and 8 month-old daughter are still in Syria and he is trying to be relocated into a European country so that he can bring them to a new place. He told me, "Sometimes I think to myself: who has done this to my country? I do not understand why it has happened. Some days I wake up in the morning and I hope that all of this has been a bad dream. But it is not." He told me that he named his daughter "Salem", which means "peace" in Arabic. He hopes that her name points to a better and brighter future for his country.
Pray for peace in Syria and pray that the Prince of Peace would extend his rule into this troubled land.
(Matt) The past week was a fairly rough week. We realized that we were no longer tourists here, but we are also painfully aware that we are not locals. Everything from hailing a taxi to bagging groceries can provide an opportunity for miscommunication. Most significantly we are spending time with a lot of refugee friends who are in desperate circumstances, but we feel like there is not much we can do to help. We are uncertain of our roles and of how to care for our kids in a small apartment in a foreign city.
The entire team has been pretty fatigued. One of the young women we work with (Courtney) finished her time and returned to the states. Her absence is felt. We were joined by a new member from Alaska, but the other three girls are nearing the end of a month of hard core service. They were weary last week. Even our local church partnership has been stressed. Eleni (pastors wife and refugee ministry coordinator) has an injured foot and responds to desperate phone calls nearly 24-7. The ministry is flourishing, but it takes a toll on her.
We tried to escape last week, but found a trip to the Mall resulted in more family frustrations. A trip to the beach on Friday ended with a swim in sewage from a recent storm. But friends were praying for us and a few encouraging notes lifted our spirits. Dreariness has driven us to the Lord in more serious ways. I wrote in my journal recently, "I am convinced that nothing good can come of our time here unless God does something supernatural." I didn't write that our of despair, but just as a matter-of-fact observation. I have no human abilities which can bring easy answers to the problems that we witness.
This morning, I had a very refreshing time of prayer and Bible study. I found new confidence to walk through the day with hope. There were beautiful things to witness at church today as we bade tearful farewells to Syrian friends who will relocate to Belgium. One thankful man said through an interpreter; "We have been welcomed here like family. I want to know Jesus more."
God is good and he is clearly at work here. We are dependent upon your prayers and hopeful for renewing power of the Spirit. The ministry is not easy, but when you catch a glimpse of God working it is breathtaking.