One Life at a Time
Hope and Redemption Amid the Syrian Refugee Crisis
September 05, 2013
Grabbing a few loaves of bread, the Lebanese church planter headed for the refugee families he’d befriended and was now discipling. On his way he kept an eye out for new ones to help. He didn’t have to look far. Since the Syrian civil war erupted two years ago, more than a half million refugees have flooded into Lebanon.
Up ahead he noticed three children playing in the street. They looked Syrian. “Would you like some bread?” he asked, holding out a loaf. The oldest child looked at the bread and then ran toward a small ramshackle dwelling, the opening of which was covered with a dirty piece of fabric. “It’s free! It’s a gift,” he called after the children.
Within moments a man appeared in the opening and motioned for the missionary to enter. His wife gratefully accepted the bread and insisted he stay for tea. A table and chairs were conspicuously absent, so he joined the couple on a threadbare blanket atop the dirt floor. Furniture is a luxury few refugees can afford.
After friendly introductions, he listened to their stories—the life they’d left behind in Syria, his struggle to find employment, her worries about their children’s future. The conversation lulled a bit and a single tear escaped her eye, making its way down her cheek. The missionary knew it was time to share the hope and the future that is found in Christ.
They listened intently as he shared the gospel, asking a question here and there. When he felt it was time to leave, he invited the children to come to Sunday school and left them with a Bible and a few gifts. In a couple of days, he would drop in for another visit.
In the face of such overwhelming need—masses of Syrians, crammed into tents and hovels, far from home and terrified of what the future holds—native ministry leaders are urging their gospel co–workers to focus on one life at a time.
“This type of personal involvement is what is needed with thousands of refugee families,” a Lebanese ministry leader said. “It is more than just giving out food to the multitudes. We demonstrate Christ’s love by personally interacting with them.”
Nowhere to Hide
According to most estimates, one–third of Syria’s population has been displaced, 2 million of which has fled the country. And that number is only expected to increase with no resolution to the civil war in sight. The Syrian government continues to fight against a faceless rebellion, unorganized and broken into sectarian militias. Without a clear rebel leader, there is no one to agree to a truce, even if the Syrian government wanted one.
Meanwhile, it appears the danger level is only escalating for Syrians who remain at home. On August 21, rockets filled with poisonous gases crashed into suburbs, suffocating more than 1,400 people—one–third of whom were children. It was the largest massacre since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, which has already claimed 100,000 lives (though locals say this number is much higher).
And while the U.S. determines whether or not it will strike Syria with a missile attack as punishment for what it assumes was the regime’s use of chemical weapons, Syrians aren't waiting around for the answer. According to a ministry leader in Lebanon, 16,000 Syrians crossed the border into his country in a single day.
“Several of the refugee families I visit have received even more relatives, with 15 to 20 people living in the same small room,” he writes.
Arriving in a strange country without a way to earn income, most wonder how they will survive. But apart from physical needs are the emotional needs—the trauma of having lost loved ones, homes, and businesses; the drastic change in lifestyle; and the danger still present in their daily lives.
Even the journey out of Syria is perilous. Buses and taxis are stopped at numerous army checkpoints, and passengers are commonly robbed at gunpoint of their few possessions.
And despite having put hundreds of miles between them and their volatile homeland, many Syrian families are finding it difficult to relax.
A recent car bombing in a Beirut suburb that killed nearly 40 people—the worst in Lebanon in decades—is evidence to many that the Syrian violence has followed them over country lines.
“People are terrified as rumors of more bombs and more infighting are spreading like crazy,” writes a Lebanese ministry leader. “Many on the streets are becoming suspicious of anything and everything.”
Each Life, a Light
While reports of bloodshed and destruction paint a grim picture of the Syrian refugee crisis, indigenous ministry leaders are sending word of an unprecedented openness to the good news. “We have never had so many opportunities,” reports one Lebanese leader. “We are asking fellow believers to leave their jobs and work with the refugees because there is such hunger for the gospel. And they are! Christians are leaving their jobs and going out by faith. Life will never be the same for any of us.”
Another Lebanon–based ministry finds that an increasing number of Muslim parents are entrusting them to teach their children about Jesus. Of the 150 families they are reaching through Sunday school and women's Bible studies, 98 percent are Muslim.
But revival isn’t only limited to Lebanon. A ministry leader in Iraq, home to 180,000 Syrian refugees, writes, “Christ's message is very effective in such circumstances, and we find as soon as we open our mouths, a listener is praying, asking the Lord with tears of repentance for divine intervention. Hundreds of people have surrendered their lives to the Lord through our door–to–door visits. We pray with them and invite them to a house church meeting.”
In response to Christian Aid’s question about how indigenous ministries are handling the overwhelming needs and numbers, a consistent answer has emerged from nearly all of them: focus on one life at a time.
Following the pattern of Christ, Who chose only 12 men to disciple, ministry leaders have chosen to concentrate on a relatively small number of people.
One ministry has gradually increased its outreach to 50 Syrian refugee families. They began by approaching ten families at a time, visiting them at their homes multiple times each week to listen, pray, offer material aid, and eventually share the gospel.
Likewise, an Iraqi ministry focuses on discipling a small number of families it has led to the Lord, encouraging them to lead their friends and family to Christ.
Instead of becoming flustered by the amount of work to be done in the fleeting hours of each day, native missionaries are taking the time to sit and love the person in front of them—engaging in a personal encounter that means so much to someone lost and scared in a strange place. In this quiet way, lives are restored, hope is renewed, and the gospel goes forward. Against the backdrop of darkness, lights are appearing one by one.
What do these lights look like? Like the Syrian widow in Lebanon who gave her life to Christ when a native missionary discovered her a month after losing her husband in the conflict. Subsisting on a meager income by tending animals on a farm, she and her three little boys slept on a single mattress inside a concrete storage unit. Sharing the gospel message and the love of the Savior, the missionary provided her with three additional mattresses and warm bedding—resources that were purchased with funds sent by Christian Aid donors.
The lights look like the Muslim couple who became Christians when an indigenous ministry provided them with the funds to pay for an operation needed by the husband after he was hit by a car. “We will not forget what you did for us—we are in debt to you for the rest of our lives,” the wife told the ministry leader. He told her that she owed him nothing, but to thank Jesus, Who had seen them in their distress and loves them.
The lights look like the couple who escaped to Turkey with their two daughters. A native missionary assisted by Christian Aid visited them and found only a rug in their home on which the children slept. They’d left Syria without any possessions. The missionary returned with beds and food. Touched by the act of kindness, the wife read the New Testament left by the missionary to her family daily. They accepted Christ during one of the missionary’s regular follow–up visits.
The lights are the eight additional people this Turkish missionary baptized last month.
Hundreds more lights shine forth, as native missionaries who focus on one life at a time are freeing “captives from prison, releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” Isaiah 42:7 (NLT)
Your prayers and gifts are crucial to the work of native believers ministering to lost and hurting refugees. Here are the top four prayer requests:
- Pray for grace, guidance, and stamina for native missionaries working to share Christ's love with Syrian refugees.
- Pray that many refugees will hear the gospel and find hope in Christ Jesus.
- Pray that spiritual needs can be met (Arabic New Testaments $2 each, children’s Bibles $4 each).
- Pray that physical needs can be met (food for a family for a week $15).
- Pray that material needs can be met (mattresses $20 each, heaters for approaching winter $25 each).