Building Bridges of Gracism Through Refugee Relief

Isn’t it ironic that Christians are commanded to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them only to have such teachings dismissed when it comes to refugees? Or worse, Christians are taught to love their neighbors and yet many, not all, do the opposite when it comes to immigrants at their doorstep. What is it that causes us to preach love, but when given the real live opportunity to go beyond our comfort zones to obey such outrageous commands, we cower in our practice of love?

Practicing what I preach has been the one of the greatest challenges of my life! Yet, I had the most eye-opening life lesson recently about true love in the midst of hurt, hate, and historical hurdles. This lesson was front and center when I recently traveled with World Vision, a Christian Non-Governmental Organization, to Beirut, Lebanon.  Assembling a diverse group of American bridge building pastors, an NFLplayer, a public relations professional, and an international photographer, off to Lebanon we went to have our hearts broken and our minds filled with undeniable images of human survival.

That Was A First

After our security briefing was complete in the back of our hotel in Beirut, we were told to fill out “proof of life” questionnaires in case we were kidnapped. That was a first! Then, we were directed to a map where we would visit medium and high risk areas. Full of faith and anticipation, we drove to the Bekaa and Akkar regions of eastern and northern Lebanon. Some locations were just 20 minutes from the Syrian border. We visited children who stared at us with smiles and hope, following us throughout the village. We witnessed women and some men in poor refugee settlements who seemed both nervous and honored that we were there. We also visited homes of refugee families. 

One home I visited was a family of several adults and children. Maybe 15 in all were living in a temporary shack of a dwelling. We sat with the family and communicated through an interpreter. The man of the house spoke about his life in Syria and how he fled with his family from the unrest. When I inquired about who he blamed for the unrest he couldn’t settle his mind on the current Syrian regime or ISIS. It seemed as if he didn’t care much to discuss blame, just safety. The last straw that pushed him into fleeing across the mountains to Lebanon from Syria was when his wife and daughters were shot by a sniper while they were sitting on their balcony one day in Syria. They had survived and were all with us there in the tent dwelling. I asked if the daughter would show me her gunshot wound. She did. That was also a first for me!

 I had never witnessed the aftermath of a sniper’s bullet on the arm of a 10 year girl. And yet, now 4 and a half years later, she is in another country just waiting to return to a safe home. In the end, every Syrian refugee we talked to simply wanted to return home. They were not pining to come to America. Their only hope about America was that we would in some way help peace come quickly so that they could return to their homes back in Syria. Many of them had been in Lebanon for 4 to 6 years. 

The Lebanese

What I didn’t know was the history and feelings of the Lebanese. When talking to the Christian Lebanese workers, pastors, and everyday citizens the major task of welcoming the stranger carried much more weight than compassion. There was the weight of forgiveness and the actual practicing of love before them daily. You see, many Lebanese people recounted with great emotion how their country had been occupied and dominated by Syria for 15 years until 2005. Imagine how difficult it was and is for many of them to be faced with caring for the Syrians who returned to them just 6 years later in 2011. But this time not as occupiers, but as refugees! Can you imagine having to now care for the very people who they felt victimized by? Imagine the grief of losing loved ones to the Syrians who dominated you just 5 years ago and now you are called upon to clothe, feed, and care for those very people. If there were ever a bridge of forgiveness and reconciliation to be built, this is an undeniable one!

Friends, this is real love in practice. It is the kind of love where you grit your teeth and wash the feet of the very ones you loathe. What a challenging lesson for me from the West. Jesus’ words come to life when he commands believers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And when Jesus said, “What you have done for the least of these you have done for me”, how do we swallow the pain of that command when the “least of these” are the families of the people who killed the best of yours? This is gracism…extending favor to others in spite of, maybe even because of, their color, class, or culture. No one ever said that embracing gracism would be easy. In Lebanon and Syria it is anything but easy. But it is right. And the courage, care, and amazing work on the ground by World Vision and their strategic partners demonstrates that love can win, forgiveness can set free, and gracism can indeed be embraced. 

Is there an answer?

I’m not sure what the answer to the Syrian crisis is but I do know that these people just want to go home. They want to be safe. I also know that the Lebanese have taken on a lot in caring for 2 million refugees and that their patience is wearing thin. Yet in many ways their compassion is incredibly heroic. 

As I challenged the group who traveled with me to think and pray about how we might use our platforms to bring awareness to the crisis and use our influence to serve these people like our faith would demand, I am also challenging you to consider how you might do your part. 

There’s a lot of great work on the ground there in Lebanon and I’m convinced that whatever our group does to love on these refugees and Lebanese, we will be doing it in partnership with World Vision. For now, we can all pray!