We arrived in Lebanon last October with little relevant job experience and wonky Arabic accents. After five years of teaching English on the Arabian Peninsula, Brady and I had traded in his steady paycheck for an unpaid post working with abused and abandoned street kids outside of Beirut, Lebanon.
Those first days were crowded with new experiences. We tackled a scabies outbreak (tricky in a country whose inconsistent electricity makes hot water and washing machines available only limited hours each day), Brady had a makeshift knife held to his neck, and the two kinds of Arabic we knew from Oman were entirely unintelligible to kids who’d never been to school. We were easily more trouble than help.
So I was surprised when the director ushered me into his office early one Monday morning to “help” our staff social worker with a parent. I slid through the narrowly cracked door and got my first glance of the Syrian woman whose cries were filling the hallway. She stood in full abaya and shayla (the black outerwear of conservative Muslim women throughout much of the Middle East), and gasped for breath out an open window.
The day before, two of her daughters called seeking refuge at the Home, and we welcomed them. In a previous stay the elder daughter had made a decision to follow Jesus, and the subsequent pressure from her extremist Muslim family had become too much. She requested to return to the Home permanently, and her sister came with her. And now the mother stood alone, mid-panic-attack, wailing in the irreparable distance her threats created between she and her daughters.
I stood motionless just inside the door absorbed in my own observations and questions, just taking it in, content to not get involved. But my social-worker friend was already acting. She didn’t know what to do, but chose to act, leading the hysterical mother to the couch, placing a reassuring hand on her back, and removing the pins of her head-scarf, loosening it so that she might breathe more easily. Swaddling herself prostrate on the black bench, our guest eventually caught her breath and the attack waned.
Helping an isolated stranger seems simple enough, but as usual, it’s a bit more complicated than it seems.
Lebanon’s is a history of hostility going back more generations that I’ve lived years. The peoples who share this land do so delicately, and every now and again the emotional floodgates burst and conflict reigns. Not long ago, for fifteen long years, Lebanon’s Christians and Muslims faced off in a civil war that buried 150,000 bodies.
And they may not like each other much, but Lebanon’s many religious sects unite in a near-universal hatred and cynicism against Syrians, who occupied Lebanon after the war and whose recent refugees (over one million of them) feel like a whole new occupation.
So when my Christian co-worker moved in toward this Muslim mother from Syria, doing what she could to serve and comfort her, she was reaching out to a sworn enemy. An actual enemy from an occupying tribe, with sons who wouldn’t mind killing my friend’s Christian family if they had the opportunity. An enemy who had also relationally abandoned her own daughter, a girl my friend cares for deeply.
I saw that day how different Jesus’ hospitality is from my own.
Though I’m comfortable breaking bread with people throughout the Middle East, and though I serve kids whose baggage makes them particularly difficult to love (especially in large numbers), and though I often choose friendliness where others feel fear, my hospitality still has limits. But Jesus’ did not. And does not.
I may not have bitterness or fear where others do, but I regularly look at my feet or divert my eyes deliberately when I’m uncomfortable. I avoid situations with people who make me feel awkward and I’m content to let others suffer in choices they’ve brought upon themselves. But Jesus did not. And does not.When I reach out to my fellow humans, I do so almost exclusively for my friends and people who are popular or whom I suspect might be interesting. Jesus did not. And does not.
He actually spoke directly against such practices, which means by doing so, I’m explicitly defying God, and squirreling away the Kingdom I claim to proclaim.
I’ll never be up for any traditional hospitality awards. I forget to light candles, I let friends sleep on floor mattresses, and I intend to make cookies but run out of time. I don’t even have a kitchen table.
But I don’t need to change a single one of those things to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. To validate a stranger’s humanity by looking them in the eye and smiling. I don’t need to rearrange my schedule or tidy the myriad things collecting at the front door to give the thirsty a drink or the hungry stranger a bite.
When I see created image-bearers instead of strangers, and act instead of pass by, I transcend the borders that divide and practice the hospitality of Jesus.