As a child I lived for a few years in Beirut, Lebanon. For the next 35 years I never had the opportunity to return—not even for a visit. That all changed recently when I traveled to Beirut for Global Mission meetings to see some of the work that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has restarted in that region following a war that has dragged on for so long.
Beirut has changed in a number of positive ways. Gone are the burned-out vehicles, the buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, and the cavernous wounds of mortar fire. Real glass can be found in the windows again, with no sandbags stacked in front of them. The nights were quiet. Instead of falling asleep to the rattle of machine guns and the exploding of rockets, I drifted off to the standard sounds of traffic and construction. On the negative side, the Adventist Church work in Lebanon and the Middle East in general still struggles to resume. During the war most Adventists in Lebanon emigrated to other parts of the world, leaving only a handful to continue the work after the war.
In addition to the current war in Syria, Lebanon, which borders Syria, is dealing with a refugee crisis. No census data for Beirut has been available for many years, but it’s reasonable to assume that refugees may have doubled or even tripled the population of the city in recent times. While this is certainly a crisis for the hurting people who have lost their homes and have been forced to flee for their lives, it is also an opportunity for Adventists to show God’s love to a group of people who have been living in a country totally resistant to the good news of the gospel. We have a limited time frame in which to touch as many lives as possible so that they can carry this good news back home with them whenever the war in Syria ends.
A few people in Lebanon are taking advantage of this opportunity. When I arrived in Beirut, a taxi took me to the campus of Middle East University. I walked into the administration building just as dozens of smiling refugee families filed out. I stepped into the small auditorium to find out what was happening. In a few minutes a group of local Adventists together with missionaries from other countries gathered for a report on the first-ever seminar held for refugees.
The seminar was organized by missionaries and Global Mission pioneers, who, while working with the refugees, had recognized the serious cases of depression that many of them faced as a result of their crises and decided to offer a seminar on the subject. They had no idea whether refugees would respond to the invitation, but to their surprise, entire families showed up and willingly shared their struggles. Since I had missed the seminar itself, I had to be content with listening to the missionaries who excitedly recounted how the Holy Spirit had led.
What’s Happening Now?
Apart from working one-on-one with refugee families, a number of Adventists are making an impact in the BourjHammoud section of Beirut at the Adventist Learning Center. This urban center of influence is a school for refugee children that offers free classes in both English and Arabic.
I toured the center, which is located on the top level of an apartment building and offers English-learning classes for children.
After staff worship the stairwell echoed with the voices of children as they excitedly flew up the stairs for school, making their way to the flat roof instead of their classes. Teachers stood at the doorway leading to the roof, slapping hands in greeting as the children ran to their places under an outside canopy. Once they were lined up by grade and in single file, they sang a rousing chorus of “God Is So Good,” prayed, and were released to their classrooms. They are fortunate to be in an actual school—and they know it. There is a long waiting list for enrollment because the current facility can accommodate only about 80 students.
Since these children do not come from a Christian background, I asked if the school had any difficulty teaching Adventist beliefs. One teacher replied, “We are entirely open about what we teach. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to come. There are many who are ready to fill their spot.” The classes are all Bible-based; for example, the first graders are taught number recognition—one through seven—using the story of Creation.
Receiving an education in English is considered to be a great gift among refugees, because a knowledge of English is thought to be the key to a better life. At the same time, however, since many families are completely illiterate, the school teaches children to read and write in their native Arabic, which further enhances their lives at home.
More Help Is Needed
The Adventist Learning Center project has been successful thanks to such dedicated leaders as Alexis Hurd-Shires, who has built the program from the ground up and continues to manage it on a daily basis. There are plans for expansion in other locations; however, this first school must deal with a move itself. The building that houses the school is slated to be demolished in about a year to make way for new buildings. Beirut is not an inexpensive city, and Hurd-Shires estimates that it will cost nearly US$100,000 just to make the move—something they are unable to do until they have the funding. “I’m not too concerned,” said Hurd-Shires. “God will provide, just as He has so far.”
While money is always a challenge, the biggest problem the school and other projects in the Middle East and North Africa Union Mission face is the lack of people who are willing to help. Opportunities in this area of the world are boundless, but the people taking advantage of them are few. There is a dire need for devoted Seventh-day Adventists who are fluent in English and prepared to teach, as well as for those with the ability to learn Arabic and are willing to work with refugees and plant house churches among various groups.
To learn more about the work of Global Mission, visit www.adventistmission.org/global-mission.