“It was as if God had prepared us for this,” says Pastor Hikmat Kashouh of his congregation. He is recalling the time, almost eight years ago, when over a million Syrian refugees started pouring into Lebanon, fleeing civil war.
Resurrection Church, Beirut, had already built strong connections with local Syrian workers. But what the church was less prepared for was the radical transformation it would take to welcome former enemies as equal members of their church family.
From an unremarkable congregation of 90 people to one that welcomes 1,300 people through its doors and broadcasts to thousands across the Arab world via SAT-7, Resurrection Church has experienced a great transformation in the last ten years.
Pastor Kashouh, a key speaker at SAT-7’s Network conference this spring, shared the church’s story with SAT-7 UK Press and Communications Officer, Lindsay Shaw.
“When we started the ministry ten years ago, God had put it on our hearts to reach out to the marginalised,” Pastor Kashouh explains. “One of our pastors went to an area where there are many Syrian workers, to sit on the floor, eat and develop a relationship with them. We got to know them and invited them to take part in serving the community.”
Then, in 2011, when Syrians began to flood across the border seeking safety, the church had a ready-made base “to serve those in greatest need with compassion and love”.
To begin with, the church provided food, shelter, winterisation kits and medication. As time went on, with the assistance of local and global partners, it opened classrooms and two clinics.
“These brothers and sisters from Syria struggled a lot,” Kashouh says. “Many were traumatised. They had lost beloved ones. They had no community or family to live with, so we became their family.”
It wasn’t an easy process, though. The new arrivals included Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Kurds. Religious and ethnic differences as well as different national and cultural traditions were some of the barriers. Then there was a deep resentment borne of Syria’s long occupation of Lebanon, from 1976 to 2005. Kashouh admits that the church needed a change of heart before it could truly embrace them.
“When people from different backgrounds come into a church, some people feel ill at ease,” Kashouh says. “Some would say, ‘I don’t want my children to play with these kids’. Some said, ‘I don’t feel safe anymore’. Others asked why we were putting a lot of resources into serving strangers instead of serving Lebanese people.
“Syrians were our enemies for so many years,” he says, explaining that the instinctive feeling when they arrived was to retaliate in some way. “But this is not what God wanted, of course.”
The whole church had to confront itself, Kashouh explains: “You discover how much you need a conversion yourself in order to share your faith with others. We were transformed and they were transformed.”
That it happened was “the power of the Spirit transforming us,” Kashouh says. “Otherwise, we could not have done it. Slowly, through teaching, through being role models, we have come a long way and we really feel we are one family now.”
In his final talk at Network, Kashouh recalled a watershed moment. It was a day when he invited one of the Syrian community leaders, Hanif, to the church platform. Kashouh took a bucket and sponge as he prepared to wash Hanif’s feet. As he did so, he found his own anger and hurts flooding his mind.
“As I got close to his feet, I saw the feet that stepped on our childhood and destroyed Lebanon. I remembered [our] war and all that happened to us.”
But, as he stooped to wash the feet of his Syrian friend, something happened. With a light in his eyes, Kashouh says, “I felt that God bowed down and started to clean my wounds. I learned a great lesson. When you bow down to wash the feet of your enemy, God bows down to heal your wounds. And I discovered that the most powerful tool in evangelism is forgiveness.”
As the church has grown, so has its partnerships, Kashouh says. It’s only by partnering other NGOs and churches that it can serve its diverse and still changing community effectively.
One of these is with SAT-7: “Through this amazing partnership we manage to love and serve the community throughout the Arab world. We have thousands of people watching us. I thank God for SAT-7’s work, which is expanding what God is doing locally around the MENA region,” he explains.
Above: A pastor in Sudan sent this clip to thank Dr Kashouh and SAT-7 for the weekly broadcasts and Bible teaching at the Church
One of Resurrection Church’s five weekly services is broadcast live on the channel every Sunday morning. As a result, it receives messages and even video clips of people watching the programmes or thanking him for them. A clip Kashouh shared at Network comes from a pastor in Sudan thanking the church for its Bible teaching. But perhaps the most moving footage shows a young woman kneeling on the floor while watching the service on a mobile phone. Above her phone, we see a rough, home-made wooden cross.
“A lot of the refugees who became part of our family have now gone to Canada, Australia or Europe,” Pastor Kashouh adds. “Because of our partnership with SAT-7, they are still following us through the programmes.” While they settle abroad and take time to find a church or learn a new language, they can stay connected with the fellowship they have been part of.
In 2019, Syria’s war at last seems to be nearing its end, and its refugees in neighbouring countries are facing pressure to return. In Lebanon, authorities have ordered refugees who built hard shelters to destroy them, as the government does not want them to settle permanently.
How does Kashouh feel about these pressures? “We believe in a safe return for refugees,” he stresses. “Many do want to return, and they will be a great witness when they go back. They can share the love of Christ they’ve experienced and can serve their own communities. So we’re excited about their returning, so long as it’s safe for them.”
In his new book, Following Jesus in Turbulent Times: Disciple Making in the Arab World, Hikmat Kashouh draws on the experiences of Resurrection Church to teach us how to disciple refugees from Arab contexts.