By Sandra el Hajj
The world has been in a pandemic mode for two years. In Lebanon, the unparalleled economic crisis also aggravated the situation, educational, and philanthropic levels. Children’s camps, a crucial part of our Baptist Children and Youth Ministry (BCYM) work, were put on hold. For refugee children specifically, camp programs were necessary to ease the burdens of solitude and confinement, providing a safe environment to develop social skills, express their feelings, and above all, to encounter Jesus.
Planning a kids’ camp in restricted health conditions was no small challenge. However, with the heartfelt calling of our partner, First Baptist Church Alexandria, a new hope arose. When the health state finally started to improve last December (before it worsened again), Alex, Ross, Jason, and Nick came from Virginia to serve in a Syrian refugee kids camp in Lebanon. It was their first time to experience serving in the Middle East.
As Christians, we hear and talk so much about forgiveness and the necessity to forgive. What sounds good in theory often feels insurmountable when you’ve been deceived by your supposed-best friend, abused by your parent, or lied to by your child. Yet conveying the concept of forgiveness to the most hurt, the most vulnerable of children, is something else.
Over 3 days at a church camp, 50 children split into two shifts and carefully listened to Bible stories on forgiveness in a well-planned program: the story of the adulteress in John 8, the Parable of the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18, as well as Peter’s question on forgiveness. Although there were some disagreements with the idea of forgiveness at first, participation and interest carried the day. Children asked questions, engaged in active conversations, shared their own life experiences, sang along to hymns, played games, and designed crafts to represent their understanding of forgiveness.
The camp took place in Zahleh, the largest city of Beqaa Governorate and the fourth-largest city in Lebanon.
That is where our local partner church resides, the True Vine Church, 24 miles from Beirut. Amidst all the uncertainty that surrounds us, the Lord’s presence and blessings prevailed in every way.
When asked about his experience, Alex said, “The best times were when the kids told their own stories, even though some seemed uncomfortable on the first day. They challenged the idea of forgiving. They even used the words ‘I’ll hit them’, ‘I’ll kill them’, ‘I’m not going to forgive, why would I?’ On the second day, they started asking: ‘How do we forgive?’. Children moved from rejecting the idea to asking how to do this. What’s more unique about following Jesus than forgiveness? It is so unique that you don’t have to earn it, unlike all other religions of the world! And when we know that God has forgiven us, it’s our turn to forgive others.”
Broken by the brutal losses of family members due to war, these kids were able to at least overcome the barrier of anger, bitterness, distrust, and started asking “what is forgiveness” and “how can I forgive”, and “how can we know that God forgives our sins”? This is when we start to reap the fruits of our labor.
For Jason, the team leader, the camp was an amazing experience. He was impressed to see how much influence the organization and the church had on the children they had reached.
“To see those enthusiastic kids who come from different non-Christian backgrounds, open to hearing about Jesus, singing, engaging in spiritual discussions, listening and talking about it, that blew me away,” said Jason.
Well, this was not just another heartwarming story for the ears to be “itched”. There are lessons to be learned. We’ll leave you with two thoughts to ponder:
- Most of the time, we seem to hold tight to anger and hurt, but seeing these children, living in such dire circumstances, coping with so much loss and devastation, are we still allowed to feel bitter? When we encounter the most vulnerable and underprivileged who still struggle daily just to survive heat, cold, hunger, illiteracy, and other aspects that do not affect our lives even by inches, open up to the idea of Jesus and forgiveness, shouldn’t we feel ashamed?
- One more time, Paul’s words in Colossians echo: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” We are the strongest when we are the weakest, for it is God who works in us and around us when we are empty from all boasting and self-assurance. Even when the situation feels as if “our ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind” we can trust God is in control. Despite the political, economic, and financial unpredictability our country is facing, this is when we see our missions multiplying and ministries expanding.