Tag Archives: Zaatari Refugee Camp

The lamb who becomes the shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 21, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

This week we enjoyed hosting Darrin Yoder, MCC’s material resources manager. Darrin has been responsible for coordinating shipments of relief kits, school kits, health kits and blankets to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in the wake of the Syrian crisis.

These two brothers eventually each received an MCC school kit

These two brothers eventually each received an MCC school kit

On Monday we visited Caritas Jordan distribution sites in Husson and Mafraq and talked with Syrian families about the violent situations they left behind in their own country.

Caritas has an orderly, efficient and dignity-preserving distribution system, taking time to assess each family’s needs and tailoring its response accordingly. Caritas makes extensive use of a network of Jordanian and Syrian volunteers.

Darrin Yoder, MCC material resources coordinator; Dana Abawi, Caritas Jordan communications coordinator; and Nada Zabaneh, MCC Jordan program coordinator

Darrin Yoder, MCC material resources manager; Dana Abawi, Caritas Jordan communications coordinator; and Nada Zabaneh, MCC Jordan program coordinator, at Husson distribution site

At Caritas’ distribution site in Husson, a family with two boys received several MCC blankets, a relief kit and one school kit. The brother’s both wanted the school kit and had a friendly tugging match for who would get it. As the boys walked away from the distribution site, the Caritas staff member realized that they had made a mistake in the allotment and called the family back. The family ended up leaving with three school kits and lots of smiles.

A Syrian volunteer opens a bundle of MCC blankets at a Caritas distribution site in Mafraq

A Syrian volunteer opens a bundle of MCC blankets at a Caritas distribution site in Mafraq

At the Caritas distribution site in Mafraq an elderly volunteer removed his baseball cap and showed us a large bandage on his head. “I just had surgery,” he said. “I can’t go to my job, so I thought I’d volunteer with Caritas today!”

On Tuesday we visited the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, where MCC SALTer Willy Stell works with children on the deaf-blind unit and offers administrative support for Brother Andrew, who heads the school.

Willy Stell communicates with Hazim in the deaf-blind unit at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

Willy Stell communicates with Hazim in the deaf-blind unit at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

Wednesday we welcomed guests from MedAir, a Swiss organization responding to the Syrian crisis.  On Thursday, Paul Parker, a professor at Elmhurst College who is spending his sabbatical at Sabeel Ecumenical Center in Jerusalem, joined us for lunch. Paul regularly leads groups of students and adults on tours to Palestine/Israel.

In the region this week:

Syrian refugee Fatima practices her hobby of drawing at a facility run by Noor Al Hussein Foundation's Institute for Family Health at the Zaatari Refugee Camp on Wednesday (Jordan Times photo courtesy of the Institute for Family Health)

Syrian refugee Fatima practices her hobby of drawing at a facility run by Noor Al Hussein Foundation’s Institute for Family Health at the Zaatari Refugee Camp on Wednesday (Jordan Times photo courtesy of the Institute for Family Health)

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about shepherds and sheep.

In the reading from Acts, Peter puts into practice the charge that Jesus gave him to “tend and feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). When the beloved disciple Tabitha becomes ill and dies, Peter prays and restores her to life (Acts 9:36-43).

The psalmist describes the shepherd who cares for the sheep by leading them to green pastures and still waters, on right paths and through dark valleys (Ps. 23).

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus says in the Gospel reading. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish,” he promises. (John 10:27-28).

The reading from Revelation offers a stunning image. The Lamb who was slaughtered and who now sits with God at the center of the throne, will become the shepherd, guiding God people to “springs of the water of life.” (Rev. 7:17a). With such a shepherd, God’s people “will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat … and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (vv. 16, 17b)

The Bible is filled with paradoxes:

  • A shepherd boy with only an abiding faith and a sling shot defeats a bullying giant in full military armor (I Samuel 17).
  • The prophet Isaiah paints this image of God’s coming kingdom:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them (Is. 11:6)

Granddaughter Sydney enjoys playing with bubbles

Granddaughter Sydney enjoys playing with bubbles

  • Gentile men and women – thought to be outside the community of the faithful – are lauded by Jesus as the examples of true faith (Mathew 8:5-10; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 4:25-27).

But perhaps the ultimate paradox is that the Lamb who was slaughtered – the picture of utter vulnerability – becomes the powerful shepherd of the sheep, offering them protection, guidance and sustenance.


Turn, seek, satisfied

Lent 3 (March 3, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

This was a full week. Cindy had 45 Iraqi adults in her ESL class on Monday evening. She is now teaching three classes each week – two for children and one for adults.  All of her students are in the process or resettling to third countries – primarily to the United States.

Prince Hassan greets performers Rose El-Weer, Hayffa' Kamal, Dr. Ayman Tayseer and Deacon Emad al-Bawab (Music House photo)

Prince Hassan greets performers Rose El-Weer, Hayffa’ Kamal, Dr. Ayman Tayseer and Deacon Emad al-Bawab (Music House photo)

Wednesday evening we attended “A Spiritual Chants Concert” – an event to strengthen interfaith understanding and appreciation by sharing sacred music from Christian and Muslim traditions.  The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies organized and hosted this event, which was sponsored by MCC.

His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal, brother of the late King Hussein and head of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, told the crowd that, around the world, music has lifted the human spirit in times of struggle and has been a bridge between various cultures and faith groups.  Prince Hassan called for taking the necessary steps to “transfer from the culture of hatred to the culture of love.”

This 88-year-old Syrian woman arrived in Za'atari six months ago from Daraa

This 88-year-old Syrian woman arrived in Za’atari six months ago from Daraa

On Wednesday Daryl attended a workshop on worker care issues for NGO staff who are responding to the growing Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan.  MCC is working with Lutheran World Federation to design a program that offers strategies and tools for humanitarian workers who are increasingly stressed by the burgeoning crisis.

Syrian girls at Za'atari Camp

Syrian girls at Za’atari Camp

On Saturday Daryl visited the Za’atari Camp near Mafraq along with worker care experts Amber Gray and John Fawcett, who are designing a proposal for supporting humanitarian workers.  More than 100,000 Syrian refugees live in the camp — about six miles (10 kilometers) from the Syrian border.  Click here for more photos.

Za'atari Camp receives as many as 4,000 new Syrian refugee arrivals each nite

Za’atari Camp receives as many as 4,000 new Syrian refugee arrivals each night

As many as 3,000 to 4,000 new refugees arrive at Za’atari Camp on any given night, stressing the camp’s infrastructure and placing heavy demands on NGO workers for organizations like Save the Children, which has some 300 staff working in the camp.  Street vendors are cropping up everywhere in the camp, selling everything from fruits and vegetables to washing machines.

Water arrives twice a day in the Za'atari Camp

Water arrives twice a day in the Za’atari Camp

In the region this week:

  • Iran and six nuclear powers (China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the United States) engaged in talks about reducing sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran scaling back its nuclear program activities.  The negotiators agreed to meet again in April, hopefully helping to avert a major confrontation that would benefit no one.

The Common Lectionary Readings this week remind us that humans tend to seek satisfaction in things incapable of offering fulfillment.

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” asks the prophet Isaiah (Is. 55:2). “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them.” (v.7)

The psalmist recognizes the source of satisfaction.  “My soul thirsts for you,” he writes. (Ps. 63:1).  “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast.” (v.5), he reflects.  “My soul clings to you.” (v.8)

Children walking the streets in Za'atari Camp

Children walking the streets in Za’atari Camp

In the Epistle reading Paul describes how God delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and provided resources during their 40 years in the wilderness (I Cor. 10:1-4).  And yet many of them turned to idolatry (v.7), sexual immorality (v.8), testing God (v.9) and complaining (v.10).  Paul urges his readers to learn from this negative example and to stand firm in times of testing, for “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” (v.13)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus repeats the call for repentance (Luke 13:3, 5) and tells a parable about a fig tree that fails to bear fruit (vv. 6-9).

One of the staff at Za’atari camp told us she used to work in a high-paying profession but left to become a humanitarian worker.  She finds the latter to be much richer and fuller of meaning.  Likewise, repentance is our human acknowledgement that we too often look for meaning in the wrong places and the wrong things.  It is only as we turn away from that which is hollow and seek God and God’s ways that we are satisfied as with a rich feast and that our lives bear fruit.

Amber Gray and John Fawcett are helping to design a worker care program for humanitarian aid staff

Amber Gray and John Fawcett are helping to design a staff care program for humanitarian workers

Beloved and belonging

1st Sunday after Epiphany (January 13, 2013)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 43:1-7; Ps. 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-22

Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas, Jan. 7.  The Christmas season in this region runs for a full month – beginning with Western Christmas on Dec. 25 and ending with Armenian Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 19.

A Palestinian Orthodox Christian in Gaza lights a Christmas candle (AFP photo by Mohammed Abed)

A Palestinian Orthodox Christian in Gaza lights a Christmas candle (AFP photo by Mohammed Abed)

On Monday we did a briefing for a 40-member tour group led by Patty Shelly, head of the Bible and Religion department at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.

Snow-covered Coptic Orthodox Church in our neighborhood of Amman

Snow-covered Coptic Orthodox Church in our neighborhood of Amman

A huge storm system dumped rain and snow on much of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine-Israel this week, causing flooding, stalled traffic and power outages.  Some Jordanians used the crazy weather to poke fun at local customs and politics.

Hi winds and heavy rain damaged tents at Al-Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan (Reuters photo by Ali Jarekji)

Hi winds and heavy rain damaged tents at Al-Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan (Reuters photo by Ali Jarekji)

But for others, particularly Syrian refugees living in Za’atari Camp, the storm caused serious hardships. Riots broke out at Zaatari Refugee Camp after bad weather damaged some 500 tents.  Citing UNHCR reports, the Jordan Times wrote: “The clashes came as high-speed winds and heavy rainfall pounded the desert camp for the second straight day, damaging 500 tents and leaving dozens of families without shelter.”

Flooding preceded the snow storm in Amman (Jordan Times photo by Hassan Tamimi)

Flooding preceded the snow storm in Amman (Jordan Times photo by Hassan Tamimi)

Students at Jordan University navigate high waters

Students at Jordan University navigate high waters

Also in the region this week:

  • In a radio address, Latin Catholic Bishop of Amman, Maroun Elias Lahham said that Christians and Muslims share the value of peace. He called on Jordan to keep its borders open to refugees who seek safe haven here. They “are our brothers that we have to welcome,” the Bishop said, noting that it remains a big burden for a small country like Jordan which is the fourth poorest in the world in terms of water supplies. “But when you love you share,” the Bishop concluded.
  • An Iranian Member of Parliament said that Iran’s oil revenues are down 45% in the last 9 months as a result of international sanctions against Iran.
Snow-ladened trees provide cover for cars in the Jabal Webdah neighborhood of Amman

Snow-ladened trees provide cover for cars in the Jabal Webdah neighborhood of Amman

The King Abdullah Mosque in Amman is beautiful with or without snow

The King Abdullah Mosque in Amman is beautiful with or without snow

The Common Lectionary readings for this first Sunday after Epiphany focus on belonging and being loved.

The Old Testament reading contains assurances of God’s love. “I have called you by name, you are mine,” records the prophet Isaiah (Is. 43:1). God promises to be present when the people “pass through the waters” and “through fire” (v.2), and to act in the best interest of the people, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (v.4)

The Gospel reading chronicles the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. A voice from heaven reassures Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22)

Dozens of folks were being baptized in the Jordan River -- near the site of Jesus' baptism -- when we visited in October 2012

Dozens of folks were being baptized in the Jordan River — near the site of Jesus’ baptism — when we visited in October 2012

The Epistle reading also records a story of belonging. The apostles at Jerusalem receive word that Gentiles in Samaria have accepted God’s word. Immediately they send Peter and John to welcome the new believers and share with them the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17).

Especially in difficult times – when we pass through deep waters and through fire — it is easy to forget that we belong and that we are God’s beloved. The Lectionary readings this week offer comfort and reassurance for just such times.

Jessica and Elias Khoury, niece and nephew to our MCC Jordan colleague, Suzi

Jessica and Elias Khoury, niece and nephew to our MCC Jordan colleague, Suzi

Our MCC Jordan colleague's niece, Jessica, with a cap crocheted by our daughter Jessica

Our daughter Jessica crocheted this cap for her namesake

Faith of our fathers

25th Sunday after Pentecost (November 18, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Dan. 12:1-3; Ps. 16; Heb. 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

We spent the week in Harrisonburg, Virginia, enjoying quality family time — including with our granddaughter Sydney, who becomes more talkative by the day.  Elwood and Lorene Schrock have graciously made an apartment available to us for the duration of our home leave.  We thank God for their generosity.

Grandma Cindy reads books to Sydney

At this time of November, we especially remember our fathers. If still living, Daryl’s father, Jesse Byler, would have turned 84 on November 18. Cindy’s father, Vernon Lehman, died four years ago on November 19.  We miss them greatly.

We are grateful for the legacy of Christian faith that our fathers have left to us.  Cindy’s father had a servant’s heart, always looking for ways to lend a helping hand.  Daryl’s dad had a shepherd’s heart, encouraging many through gifts of teaching, listening and counseling.  We still draw strength from their examples.

This gravestone in Kidron, Ohio, marks the site where Cindy’s father is buried

In the Middle East, things have heated up this week:

Protesters in Mafraq burn tires (Petra photo in the Jordan Times)

  • There are now 230,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan; 100,000 have registered with UNHCR.  With winter coming mobile houses are replacing tents at the Za’atari Refugee Camp. Small businesses – including falafel stands – are beginning to spring up in the camp.

A falafal stand at Zaatari camp provides a small “piece of home” for Syrian children (photo by Muath Freij)

  • Israeli military strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip increased dramatically this week, as have rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza.

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about the end times.

Daniel contrasts distress and deliverance.  “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence,” writes Daniel.  “But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book.” (Dan. 12:1)

The writer of Hebrews portrays Jesus — who has for all time offered a single sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:12) — as waiting at the right hand of God until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet (Heb. 10:13).  As we “see the Day approaching” we are to hold fast the confession of our hope (v.23); provoke one another to love and good deeds (v.24); and meet together and encourage one another (v. 25).

Mark describes a time of conflict and disaster – wars and rumors of wars. “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” Jesus prophesies.  “There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:6-8)  Therefore, we are to be alert and keep watch (vv. 32-37).

The Psalmist reminds us that God is our refuge (Ps. 16:1), offers counsel (v.7) and will show us the path of life (v.11).

We live now in extraordinary times – not unlike what Jesus predicted thousands of years ago.  Our task is not to despair.  Or to make bold claims about “end times.”  Rather, we are to be alert and keep watch, living out our faith day by day through love and good deeds, and by encouraging one another.

Holden and Heidi get Sydney ready for bed

One God, only one

23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 4, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deut. 6:1-9; Ps. 119:1-8; Heb. 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

We enjoyed a quiet Eid holiday, highlighted with a wonderful lunch at the home of Dr. Kamal Abu Jaber and his wife Loretta, Oct. 28.  We have learned much about Jordanian hospitality from the Abu Jaber family, who have a gift for making guests feel welcomed.

At the Abu Jaber farm: Agnes Chen, Cindy, Dr. Abu Jaber, Daryl, Loretta, Kristy Guerten and Audra Brady (left to right)

On Nov. 1, we flew to United States to begin two-month home leave. In addition to quality family time, we are hoping this will be a time of discernment as we consider next steps when our MCC terms ends in August 2013.

On Nov. 3, we attended the wedding for Cindy’s brother Doug Lehman, who married Bonnie Steffee in a beautiful ceremony in Dalton, Ohio.

Doug and Bonnie at the wedding ceremony, Nov. 3

In the Middle East this week:

  • A new pope was chosen to lead the Egyptian Coptic Church, Nov. 4.
  • According to Jordanian officials, some 210,000 Syrians are now living in Jordan.  Between 30,000 and 40,000 Syrian live in the restive Zaatari Refugee Camp. The remaining Syrians live with Jordanian families or rent flats, placing growing stress on Jordan’s infrastructure.
  • Jordanian officials are expressing growing concerns about fighters from Jordan joining the battles in Syria.  There are also reports of Palestinian refugees inside Syria joining both the pro-Assad and pro-rebel groups, leading to fears of a widening conflict.

Lyndsay and Jeremy Byler at the wedding reception in Ohio

The Common Lectionary readings this week remind us that our beliefs must shape our actions.

Both the Old Testament and Gospel readings include this affirmation of faith: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:29). From this affirmation, the Lectionary readings call us to the following actions:

  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5; Mark 12:30)
  • “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)
  • We are to seek God with our whole heart and walk in God’s ways (Ps. 119:2-3)
  • We are to worship the living God (Heb. 9:14).

There is one God, only one.  God’s desire is that all of our life choices will be shaped by this simple and singular affirmation.  If humans would act accordingly, the world would be a different and better place.

Amid Hurricane Sandy, our granddaughter Sydney celebrated her first birthday, Oct. 29 (photo by Holden Byler)

God restores

22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 28, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 31:7-9; Ps. 126; Heb. 7:23-28; Mk. 10:46-52

This week we attended SEVEN, a powerful play weaving together stories of seven women’s rights activists from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Guatemala, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Pakistan and Russia.  Six Jordanian women and the Swedish ambassador to Jordan presented the play at the Al-Hussein Cultural Center in Amman.

Kristy, Audra and Agnes — three young volunteers in Jordan — surprised us Wednesday by taking us out to dinner at Ghaith’s, one of our favorite restaurants

The four-day Eid-al-Adha (or Feast of Sacrifice) began Oct. 26.  The Muslim festival commemorates Abraham’s obedience to God – even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his own son.  In the end, God provided a sheep for the sacrifice.

To remember this event, many Muslim families slaughter a sheep, goat or camel.  One-third of the meat is eaten by the immediate family, one-third is given to friends, and one-third is donated to the poor.  The Eid is also a time of family gift-giving.

Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the “Jamarat” ritual, the stoning of Satan, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, on Oct. 26 (AFP photo in Jordan Times)

Earlier in the week, Muslims from some 189 countries made the pilgrimage or hajj to Mecca and participated in the “stoning of Satan” ritual on the first day of the Eid.   The event reenacts Abraham’s throwing stones at the devil, who, according to legend, thrice tempted Abraham not to be obedient to God.

In the region this week:

  • Jordanian authorities arrested 11 Jordanians with alleged links to al-Qaeda.  The group is believed to have been planning attacks on several malls, embassies and hotels in Amman.
  • Aid officials expressed concern about the challenges Syrian refugees will face in the Za’atari Camp as winter approaches in Jordan.  Our friend Amy Hybels produced a four-minute video highlighting life inside the camp.  The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has plans to distribute MCC blankets and relief kits in the Za’atari camp.
  • The Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army agreed to a ceasefire over the four-day Eid, but the truce was quickly broken.

A car bombing damaged this building in Damascus hours after a cease fire began over the Eid (AP photo)

  • An Iranian filmmaker and lawyer were jointly awarded the European Union’s Sakharov Prize, awarded annually for dedication to the promotion of human rights and freedom of thought.

The theme of the Common Lectionary readings this week is “God restores.”

God restores us from places of exile.  In the Old Testament reading God promises to gather a great company from “the farthest parts of the earth” – including the blind and the lame (Jer. 31:8).  “I will lead them back,” God promises (v.9). Likewise, the psalmist writes that God will restore the fortunes of those who have been sent into exile.  “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps. 126:6)

Our granddaughter Sydney enjoys playing in the leaves at her home in Virginia (photo by Holden Byler)

God restores us to right relationship.  The writer of Hebrews compares the temporary service of human priests with the service of Jesus, who “holds his priesthood permanently” (Heb. 7:24) and makes a sacrifice “once for all” (v.27). In so doing, Jesus is able to save us, restoring us to right relationship with God and one another.

God restores us to health.   In the Gospel reading, Jesus heals Bartimaeus (Mk. 10:46-52).  Reduced to a life of begging, blind Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” (v.48).  “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks (v.51a).  “My teacher, let me see again,” Bartimaeus pleads (v.51b).  Jesus immediately restores his sight and Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way (v.52).

God restores.  But not always when we want or in the way we want.  The exile to Babylon lasted some 70 years.  Our own desert experiences and times of waiting sometimes seem to last forever.  Broken relationships often take years to mend.  Many of the people Jesus healed had been sick for years.

Our faith is stretched as we hold fast to the promise that God restores, even when – especially when — it feels like nothing is happening at the moment.

Sydney turns one on Oct. 29 (photo by Holden Byler)

As God intended

19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Gen. 2:18-24; Ps. 8; Heb. 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

This week we hosted meetings for MCC representatives serving in Europe and the Middle East.  While the meeting schedule was full, we also enjoyed lots of time for visiting and encouraging each other.

A student at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf hugs Misha, 2-year-old daughter of MCC East Europe Reps, Ruth Plett and Krystan Pawlikowski

We met at the Rosary Sisters’ retreat center just outside Amman.   On Thursday, we visited several MCC Jordan partners – Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, YWCA Jordan and Caritas Jordan.

Tom Snowdon, MCC Egypt Rep, watches the weaver at Holy Land Institute for the Deaf

In the region this week:

October 5 demonstration in Amman, led by Muslim Brotherhood (AFP photo)

  • A planned pro-government rally was suspended at the last minute in order to reduce the likelihood of a major confrontation.
  • Heavy fighting continued in Syria, including Syrian cross-border fire into Turkey and retaliatory strikes by Turkey into Syria. In spite of the poor conditions in Syria, some refugees in Jordan are choosing to return home, saying they prefer to die as martyrs than to live as refugees.

Children at Za’atari Refuge Camp in northern Jordan during one of many dust storms. More than 30,000 Syrian refugees now live in the camp.  (photo by Bert de Vries)

The Common Lectionary readings this week reflect on God’s intent for humans in the created order.

In the Old Testament reading, God gives Adam the responsibility for naming every living creature and creates male and female as partners (Gen. 2:18-24).

The psalmist writes that God created humans “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor,” giving them “dominion over the works of God’s hands.” (Ps. 8:5-6).

Pictures of our granddaughter Sydney keep us smiling (photo by Holden Byler)

The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8, noting the prominent role of humans in God’s creation. In theory, God left nothing outside the control of human beings (Heb. 2:8b). Still, in practice, we do not yet see everything subjected to human control, “but we do see Jesus . . . crowned with glory and honor” because of the suffering he endured (v. 8c-9a).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ question about divorce. He reaffirms that, in creating male and female, God’s intention is for them to become one flesh, and not to be separated by the human act of divorce (Mk. 10:2-9).

We live in a violent and broken world. Clearly humans are not living as God intended. Still, by God’s grace, we are being restored into the image of what God created us to be.

The tongue of a teacher

16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 50:4-9; Ps. 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

The new MCC SALT volunteers finished their Arabic language study in Amman this week.  Cindy helped them settle into their new settings.  William Stell will be living in Salt and working at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf. Kristy Guertin will be a teacher assistant at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid.

Kristy and Willy at the Holy Land Institute, along with another volunteer, Raphael

Muslims across the region have reacted angrily to an anti-Islam movie allegedly produced by a Coptic Christian in the United States.  The low-budget movie portrays the prophet Mohammad in a compromising way.  The offensive movie tapped into growing anti-American sentiment and demonstrators protested at U.S. embassies across the region, including Amman and Cairo.

Protesters near the U.S. embassy in Amman (Reuters photo by Muhammad Hamed)

In Libya, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed when the embassy was stormed.  It is not yet clear whether the action was part of the demonstrations sweeping the region or if the perpetrators simply took advantage of the chaotic conditions.

Stevens was the former Iran desk officer at the U.S. State Department and then served as a staffer to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) before his international assignment in Libya.  He was a strong supporter of MCC’s people-to-people exchanges between the U.S. and Iran.

There are now more than 200,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, with more than 30,000 at the Za’atari refugee camp outside Mafraq.  The first wedding was held in the camp this week, with a couple from the southern Syrian town of Daraa marrying in a non-traditional ceremony.

Huthaifa Hariri from Daara is the first to wed in the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan (Photo by Muath Freij for Jordan Times)

While political tensions with Iran continue to grow, MCC — through the Iranian Red Crescent Society — is providing assistance to families affected by the recent earthquakes in northwestern Iran’s Azerbaijan province.  In addition to cash for local purchase of tents and sleeping bags, a shipment of blankets will be sent this coming week.

The Common Lectionary readings focus on the power of teachers to influence others for good or for bad.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” writes Isaiah, “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (Is. 50:4a) Isaiah says the secret to being a good teacher is “to listen as those who are taught.” (v.4b) Isaiah’s ears are daily opened to God’s call; he is not rebellious (v.5). He endures ridicule because he trusts God to vindicate him (vv. 6-9).

Likewise the psalmist walks “before the Lord” (Ps. 116:9), trusting God to protect and deliver him even when he suffers “distress and anguish” (vv. 1-8).

“Not many of you should become teachers,” warns the Apostle James, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1). James describes how difficult it is to control the tongue.  While the tongue can be used to bless God (v.10), James says it also “boasts of great exploits” (v.5), is “a world of iniquity” (v.6), a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (v.8) and is used to curse others (v.10).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples a difficult truth that they are not ready to hear.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders . . . and be killed” (Mark 8:31). Furthermore, Jesus tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (v.34)

It’s back-to-school time.  Here students gather before classes in the school courtyard in Bethlehem

This week we have witnessed the power of words.  A movie with a message denigrating an esteemed religious leader has incited crowds across the Middle East.

Not many should become teachers.  Teachers are judged with greater strictness as their words and examples shape the behaviors of their students, for good or ill.  When teachers spout hate-filled words, denigrate other faiths, belittle other cultures or articulate bad theology they help shape that attitudes that can lead to violence.

But teaching can also be an honorable calling.  It offers great opportunities – to encourage the weary, to speak difficult words about divine truths, to bless others and to model a trusting relationship with God.

Faith at the fringes

15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 9, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 35:4-7; Ps. 146; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

We spent a delightful week with our friends Dale and Wilma Kanagy, visiting Mt. Nebo, Petra, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.  It has been more than 20 years since we were neighbors with the Kanagy’s in Meridian, Mississippi — so there was a lot of catching up to do!

Bedouin boys market their goods to Dale and Wilma in Petra

Ali, our taxi driver in Bethlehem, went above and beyond the call of duty, touring us around Beit Sahour, the Herodian and Hebron, then inviting us to lunch at his family’s home in Tekoa – birthplace of the prophet Amos.

In the region this week, Syrian refugees continue to spill into Jordan, prompting Jordanian officials to say that there is a limit to how many more refugees they can host.  The actress Angelina Jolie visited the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan and made an impassioned appeal for politicians to end the violence. Meanwhile, the U.N. human rights head charged that both the Syrian government and rebel groups may be guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Across the region there is a growing sense that Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites are no longer a question of “if” but of “when.” In a sign of the increasing tension, Canada closed its embassy in Tehran and ordered Iranian diplomats in Ottawa to leave.

The Treasury, carved into the stones of Petra, offers a striking visual image

The Common Lectionary readings for this week are about faith at the fringes and God’s special concern for the “little people” – those who are often at the margins of society.

In the Old Testament reading, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, offering courage to the fearful of heart (Is. 35:4) and promising healing and hope to those with special needs.  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;” writes Isaiah, “then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (vv. 5-6)

The British artist Banksy has painted a number of murals in Bethlehem. Here, a protester throwing flowers

Likewise the psalmist affirms that God:

  • executes justice for the oppressed (Ps. 146:7a);
  • gives food to the hungry (v.7b);
  • sets the prisoners free (v.7c);
  • opens the eyes of the blind (v.8a);
  • lifts up those who are bowed down (v.8b);
  • watches over the strangers (v.9a); and
  • upholds the orphan and the widow (v.9b).

In the Epistle reading, James chides those who show favoritism to rich while dishonoring the poor (James 2:1-7). “Has not god chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” James asks. He challenges his readers to express their faith through their works, responding to the needs of those who are vulnerable (vv. 14-17).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus responds to the faith of a persistent Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin, healing her demon-possessed daughter (Mark 7:24-30). Then he heals a man who is deaf and mute (vv.31-37).

Wilma gathers small stones at the Dead Sea — the lowest place on earth

Those at society’s margins often demonstrate faith the most clearly and compellingly. We have much to learn from their example.

At the same time, God demonstrates a special concern for those at the fringes. While suffering may last for a season, God promises relief to the most vulnerable.

This is good news in a world where political leaders too often resort to domineering behaviors and violence, with little thought about the impact of their actions on the world’s “little people.”

The heart of religion

14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 2, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deut. 4:1-9; Ps. 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23

Linda Espenshade and Silas Crews, a writer-photographer team from the MCC U.S. communications office, visited Jordan this week to document stories of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and the MCC Jordan partners who work with these uprooted communities.

An Iraqi student from the “Higher Education at the Margins” program visits with Linda Espenshade

On Monday, we visited an education center operated by Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Amman.  Originally opened to offer services to Iraqi refugees in Jordan, the center now also serves Palestinian, Somali, Sudanese and Syrian refugees.  We were present for the first day of a new online Liberal Studies Diploma program, “Higher Education at the Margins,” designed for urban refugees in Amman, Jordan.

Colin Gilbert, JRS Jordan director, talks with Linda Espenshade outside the JRS center in Ashrafiyeh

JRS is increasingly seeking to address the Syrian refugee crisis.  Some 15 Syrian women from Homs showed up for the first day of fall activities at the Ashrafiyeh center, and described the kinds of training they hope to receive from JRS.

Silas Crews photographs two Syrian boys at the Caritas center in Mafraq

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we accompanied Caritas Jordan on visits with Syrian refugee families in Mafraq and Zarqa.  With support from MCC and other agencies, Caritas Jordan has mounted a major response to Syrian refugees, offering food items and other material resources such as relief kits, blankets and health kits. The majority of refugees we visited blamed the Assad government for the violence in Syria, but one family placed the blame on the rebel groups, who they described as “terrorists.”

Entrance to the Za’atari refugee camp near Mafraq

We were able to drive by (but not enter) the Za’atari refugee camp, now home to some 25,000 refugees — and site of several riots during the past week.  The camp is in the middle of the desert where temperatures rise above 100 degrees and dust storms are frequent.

A Syrian woman at Za’atari camp carries her baby while doing the laundry (AP photo)

Officials are struggling to create infrastructure to serve an average of 1,500 refugees arriving daily. This two-minute UNHCR video offers a view of the enormous challenges faced by the refugees and the agencies seeking to work with them. Jordan is now hosting 177,000 Syrian refugees, at an expected cost of $150 million by the end of 2012.

Dust storms are only one challenge for Za’atari camp residents (photo by Linda Espenshade)

On Thursday, we accompanied MCC partner YWCA Jordan on a visit to the Baqa’a refugee camp where YWCA offers a human rights training program for Palestinian women in Jordan.

MCC Jordan program coordinator Nada Zabaneh engages a Syrian boy at Caritas Jordan’s center in Mafraq

We also hosted Mark Brown, Jerusalem director for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), who was in Amman to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, outlining LWF response to the escalating Syrian refugee crisis.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on the heart of religion – genuine religion vs. phony religion.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses warns God’s people to give heed to (Deut. 4:1), keep (v.2), hold fast to (v.4) and observe (vv.5, 6) God’s commands. In so doing, the people will model to the surrounding nations God’s nearness and justice (vv.7, 8).

Taking a break from a hard week of work, Linda rides a camel at the Dead Sea

The psalmist says that true religion is expressed by dwelling with God and treating others justly and with respect.  Practicing true religion is to: walk blamelessly (Ps. 15:2a), do what is right (v.2b), speak the truth (v.2c), not harm neighbors through word or deed (v.3), hate evil and honor those who fear God (v.4a), keep promises even when it’s difficult (v.4b), and not charge interest or take bribes (v.5)

In the Epistle reading James writes,  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God  . . . is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27). It means to be doers of God’s word, not simply hearers (vv. 22-25).

Silas exchanges his camera for a chance to float in the Dead Sea

In the Gospel reading, the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for failing to observe religious rituals such as properly washing their hands and eating utensils (Mark 7:1-5).  Jesus condemns the Pharisees for rejecting God’s commandments in order to keep their human traditions aimed at keeping up appearances.  Jesus says that true religion is not about outward rituals but is a matter of the heart. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (v.22)

Sunset over Amman, as viewed from the JRS center in Ashrafiyeh

Sadly, religion too often earns a bad name.  It is used as badge to advance claims of being superior to others.  Or as a sword to strike down those who are different.  Indeed, inter-religious conflict has been a prominent component of wars across the centuries.  Other times religion has been used as a club to impose strict rules.

The Common Lectionary readings helpfully remind us that true religion is concerned with justice, with right relationships and with matters of the heart.  Such religion is not about badges and swords and clubs.  Rather, it is winsome to the nations, reminding others that God is near and God is just.

Our granddaughter Sydney is crawling and does her best to talk to us on Skype (photo by Holden Byler)