As ISIS continues its aggression in the Middle East, pastors in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Armenia and Jordan have found themselves on the receiving end of thousands of refugees. Churches are serving as a place of refuge and home for displaced Christians who have left with only the clothes on their backs.
In some cases, refugees outnumber church members and pastors have found it increasingly difficult to meet the needs of such large groups.
The Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, recently hosted a training for pastors and church leaders to help them not only reach their congregations, but find ways to help themselves and develop resilience for continuing service in the midst of crisis.
The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, coordinator for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, was among those invited to attend the training because of her work in compassion fatigue. Together with the Rev. Dr. Alan Baroody, a pastor and therapist who also serves on PDA’s National Response Team and colleagues from the Near East School of Theology, Kraus participated in leading this event, which was partly supported by a gift from the Outreach Foundation.
“We have ongoing projects with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and the Iraq church and I was grateful to be a part of this training,” she said. “I wanted to reconnect with the pastors that are working in disaster relief and war response.”
During the five day training, pastors and church officials shared stories of how they personally witnessed the destruction of churches and homes and how a number of strangers have become like family as they sought refuge from ISIS clutches.
“There is a fairly wide range of emotions amidst the group. Some pastors have sent their families away for safety from the conflict and then watched the bombings take place in the church communities where they have remained to minister,” said Kraus. “One minister went from pastoring one church to four as his congregation has been separated by the conflict and destruction and can no longer worship together.”
Kraus said many church leaders believe the future stability of the Middle East depends on the ability to maintain a multi-faith and multi-cultural society.
One pastor said the church is full of refugees who didn’t know whether they would be welcome.
“But we received them with love and open arms. What we think about most is embracing them. As a pastor, what I am asked the most is, shall we leave or shall we stay?” he asked. “There is great uncertainty about the future. We don’t know what the future has for us and my country is moving toward the unknown.”
In one of the early sessions, the wife of an Iraqi pastor referred to Psalm 137, “In this psalm, I see hope. Because they hung up their harps when they could have thrown them to the ground and smashed them into pieces. But they hung them on the tree branches because they had hoped that one day they would sing again.”
Kraus and Baroody led sessions on the signs of trauma and how to engage with people who are traumatized. Other sessions included compassion fatigue, resilience strategies, self-care and the importance of staying connected with each other.
“These churches want us to focus on the needs of those most vulnerable during this crisis, but we can’t ignore the churches themselves and the incredible cost churches and their leaders are paying with their own lives, their families and spirituality,” said Kraus. “Ministers have to wrestle with deep questions of God’s presence and absence and the ways these kinds of circumstances change and impact faith. I was moved to tears day after day by the power of their witness and incredible willingness to stay faithful amidst the chaos, while continuing to serve others.”
PDA is working in coordination with the ACT Alliance, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and the National Evangelical Church of Iraq to provide water, food, clothes, hygiene items and more for those who are displaced by the crisis.
You can support the response to the war in Syria and Iraq by directing gifts to DR 000081 (Syria) and DR 000082 (Middle East). More information is available at http://pda.pcusa.org/situation/iraq-violence/.