By Ellen Nimmo
Ammonium Nitrate is a paradox. A fertilizer used to enhance gardening and farming and an extremely explosive, volatile compound. It’s a both/and that can leave one asking: What’s up with that?
Last week, on Tuesday August 4th of a year that, for many, has been one seismic issue after another, Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, experienced a destructive blast that shook the city. Literally and figuratively. The explosion was the latest in a series of harsh trials for Lebanon. It extinguished homes, took lives, injured thousands, destroyed the country’s grain supply, disfigured a beautiful city and compounds an already taxing and tough economic year. The stories are real. The hardships overwhelming. The cost immeasurable (try as we might to measure).
But, I want to share a different story about Lebanon.
Last year I had the opportunity to travel to Lebanon with an organization called Global Orphan. Their mission is to work alongside a global family, with a shared vision, to care for the most vulnerable populations by means of preventive care, long term care and transitional programming. That may sound vague, but that’s because GO takes a culture by culture, situation by situation, person by person approach to their work. After traveling with GO to Haiti twice and hearing their CEO, Joe Knittig, speak about their broader mission and new partner located in Lebanon I was able, through some extraordinary generosity in the company I work for, to join GO’s pilot trip to Lebanon. We were a ragtag bunch. Folks from Kansas City, North Carolina, Columbia, Missouri and Colorado, some were in full-time ministry, some were students, parents, and teachers, there was a mortgage company culture specialist (whatever that is), and one was a finance guru. We were all excited and unaware of just what we would experience.
A lengthy layover in Paris on our way to Lebanon allowed us to travel posthaste to see the Eiffel Tower between flights. It was a nice way to spend a couple hours and a more than a couple euros, Uber rides are economical, but they ain’t cheap, am I right? Landing in Beirut some hours later, one could tell, by the look of the buildings and the people, Lebanon has a rich history. I won’t get into it much here, but their shores, borders and leadership have been, at times, a center of peace and prosperity (even known as the “Switzerland of the East” during the 1950’s and 60’s) as well as a place of war and mayhem. Wars of all manner and purpose including: revolutionary, civil and ongoing. Kind of like the United States, except way older.
Off the airplane and settled into a crowded van we trekked through Beirut on our way south, to Tyre. Taking in the throng of sand-colored buildings, flecked with the occasional sleek-glass walls of banks, shopping centers, and government buildings, Beirut felt like a paradox all its own. A city straddling old and new. Miles of impoverished shantytown neighborhoods, a bustling Starbucks with a most amazing ocean view, street vendors selling nuts and fruit, men smoking hookahs and drinking coffee or tea, women in their cultural head coverings and those who went liberally without. All the while we were warmly welcomed as Americans, which was unexpected, uncovering my ignorance. Moving outside the city and continuing en route to Tyre we sat speechless, tired from travel, stunned with novelty.
Tyre Church, the new partner to GO, spends much of its time with refugees. Lebanon is home to over 1.5 million Syrian refugees, which makes up about one third of their population. Can you imagine?
Helping to meet their physical needs and praying to encounter their spiritual ones, the church in Tyre is run mostly by a family who divides up responsibilities and goes forth, each day, to care for this vulnerable population.
During the time I was there the Tyre Church was hosting what we might refer to as “VBS”, Vacation Bible School. They provided meals, games, and some loose structure for the week. Each morning, we rolled out of our bunk-beds early and traveled to a nearby “park” – a place in the woods with a few humble cabins to host the camp leaders (interns from Russia mostly) – just in time to welcome hundreds of kids who were bused in from the surrounding area, most of whom lived in nearby Syrian camps. I learned these “camps” might simply be an ordinary, usually old and rundown, apartment building in which many families (or remnants of families) would live.
Camp days were long and difficult. Although many Lebanese and Syrian adults spoke some English, many of the kids were too young to speak or understand much aside from their native Arabic. So, we talked mostly in gestures and expressions, though I did learn a few key words: “Yalla” which means come on, hurry up, come here, that sort of thing and “Habibi” which is used by lovers, spouses, between family members, close friends, and often used with children is translated as varietals of “my love” or “my darling.” Despite the disorder of working with kids who don’t have the foundation of school procedures and a language barrier, we still managed to played games, slide down slides, jump in bounce houses, kick soccer balls, shoot baskets, sing songs and generally got hot, sweaty, and smiling – together.
When we weren’t at camp we’d pile into the van and cram in some touring around Lebanon. We visited the ancient ruins of once mighty and powerful empires, ate fantastic sprawling meals, put our feet in the blue-green Mediterranean, and drove through quaint towns whose French influences were still seen in widows and on rooftops. We hiked through majestic cedar forests which claim some of the oldest trees in the world (one I stood under boasts over 4,000 years of mountainside life), looked over ledges onto lush green valleys and enjoyed a sip of Lebanese wine amidst a rose-landscaped lot. We stepped into some of the oldest Christian churches on the planet and watched fireworks go off each night – a wedding taking place underneath each cluster of whimsical blasts.
At the end of the camp, the church gave away a few Bibles. Two per group. We were asked, as guest leaders, to nominate two kids from our group to receive the Bibles during the closing session. It was a grueling decision. There were older kids, siblings, petitioning on behalf of their family members. Begging for the scales to tip in their favor. Pleading for the gift, a Bible. Something most Americans take as a given, in the US Bibles are often found in hotel rooms, on street corners and given as gifts by many a religious, concerned auntie. One boy in my group was such a recipient. He was what one might call a trouble-maker, a rascal, a wild one. But, even now, thinking of how he clutched his new Action Bible, fighting for it as other kids tried to snatch it from his small hands on the crowded bus while I stood outside and waved goodbye, I struggle to explain what I felt, what I feel now, I only know that it was a moment I’ll not soon forget. A moment mixed with sorrow, gratitude, frustration and hope.
It was an extraordinary week. Extraordinary sights with extraordinary people, thoughts, feelings and experiences.
Even still, that’s everywhere, all the time, right? The extraordinary I mean. And the ordinary. Paradox. I believe that’s the way it is. Some days, though, I forget. On the best days, I remember and live accordingly.
As I think about Beirut, about Lebanon now, amidst this pain and loss and chaos, amidst the pandemic, the political bedlam and economic hardships, I remember the paradox. When Ammonium Nitrate, a stimulant for growth, becomes Ammonium Nitrate, a fiery explosion, we want to (and should!) ask: What’s up with that?
The answer, in short: it was always both. Like Lebanon itself. A place of refuge, growth, peace and prosperity. And, a place of war, confusion and calamity. What can be a source of growth and fertility, a precious gift, can turn fiery and destructive if mishandled or put to ill use.
My prayer for Lebanon is the same prayer I have for myself, the same prayer I have for the United States and for all the hibibis in my life, yalla:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. -Romans 15:13