It was the summer of 2004. I was in Beirut, Lebanon where the constant mood was gloomy, tired, and sticky hot. It wasn’t what I signed up for — door-to-door Bible distribution in crowded Muslim neighborhoods — when I had read about the call the serve Christ in the gateway city of the Middle East. Slamming doors, lots of words screamed at us in Arabic, and discouragement in every building was what we got. Things were even more complicated with the team already on the field that we came to work alongside, and Wes and I, newly engaged, just wanted to leave. It wasn’t easy, and we spent a good portion of the beginning of the summer feeling lost.
Literally lost, actually. Beirut was big, and the crude maps we had sometimes missed huge buildings and included buildings that weren’t even there. We’d get lost — totally and completely lost — in neighborhoods that we didn’t even recognize. On one such occasion, I had to use the restroom, and we walked until we found a hotel, The Phoenician, that allowed me inside. On my way in, I passed television crews, reporters, and a line of limos. Once inside the lobby, I brushed elbows with a few men in full-on traditional white galabayas and head coverings. I stopped to see them exit to a flurry of flash bulbs and thrusting microphones. That’s weird, I thought. Later on that evening, I saw the same men on the news. They were members of OPEC, in Beirut from Saudi for a meeting. And, yes, there I was on televisions all over the Middle East, just trying to find a restroom. (Oh, the humiliation.)
We were having one of the most discouraging days of the summer when we came upon a corner of the Dar al Fatwa neighborhood that was charted out incorrectly. I remember standing in the hot sun, pointing to a five-story building as the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque started up, assigning the whole block a random number since there was no such group of buildings on our map. As Wes and I discussed whether or not to even go in, an armed guard came out and mimed that we were to follow him. Since he was the one with the automatic weapon, we opted not to argue in a language we didn’t speak and just went. He led us to a small waiting room that gave no indication of what kind of building we were in and made us wait. Lots of things went through my mind as I was sitting there. Mainly, I should be planning my wedding right now. Instead, I’m going to die in the middle of Dar al Fatwa Beirut, and they won’t ever find my body because this building isn’t on any map.
Before we could continue on with this discouraging thinking, the strains of the call to prayer died down, and a receptionist led us into an office, past the armed guard at the door, where an elderly gentleman sat behind a conference table. He stood and welcomed us, in perfect English, and offered us a seat and Turkish coffee. We accepted, as we had been taught to do, and settled in for…. we had no idea. Our host asked us why we were in Beirut. We told him we were there to give “Injils” to the people of Beirut. (“Injil” is the Arabic word for the New Testament.) Our host smiled at this and told us that this building, the building we were trying to pass out Injils in, was the headquarters for all of the Muslim elementary schools in Lebanon. Oh. Wes, in a totally Spirit-led moment, pointed out that even the Quran says that “blessed is the man who reads the Injil.” This made our host smile even more, as he affirmed that it does indeed say that.
And so began a rather strange friendship that last throughout the summer. We spent many hours discussing religion, politics, and our common goal for peace. Earthly peace for him; eternal peace for us. Our new friend was still a mystery to us in many ways, but as he introduced us to very influential men and women of Beirut over the next several weeks, we began to get a clearer picture of who he was. We visited schools with him where Lebanese children chatted with us excitedly, the youngest of them using all three languages — English, Arabic, and French — interchangeably while giggling at our lack of comprehension. We watched our friend interact with all of the students and teachers, wondering who he was and why they stared at him with such adoration. I remember passing by a prominent statue in the city and being told that the man commemorated was the father of Beirut, the great-grandfather (or great, great?) of our friend. We also learned that he was over not only the elementary schools in Lebanon but the secondary schools as well, that he didn’t answer to anyone in the department of education, and that we… well, who knows how we even earned an audience with this man. We were just lost in Dar al Fatwa!
He clued us in one afternoon on why he was being so generous with his time and the resources of his position. Many years ago, he had gone to the US to begin a doctoral program at the University of Southern Mississippi. This was to be just one of many PhDs, but this one was a lifechanging study program, as it gave him the opportunity to live in a truly foreign culture with his young family. (I think most of us would agree that Mississippi is foreign. Even to mainstream Americans, right?) He told us how they had gone shopping one day fairly early in their life in the US and came back to their car to find that the battery was dead. Having no cables in the car, no one to call for help, and no idea what to do in such a different culture, they were slightly alarmed when a loud, old, pickup truck pulled up close beside them as they peered under the hood. A man in a dirty T-shirt, holey blue jeans, and work boots jumped out and came over to see what the problem was. He told our friend that it was a battery problem, and that he could take care of it. Our friend watched as the man hooked up his own truck to the car in an effort to bring the battery back to life, and when it proved futile, he told our friend to wait and that he’d be right back. Minutes later, the American arrived with a brand new car battery and installed it. With the car running again and his small children once again happy in the air conditioned comfort, our friend tried to pay the man for his trouble, but he wouldn’t have it. Just grunted in response to the gratitude, got in his truck, and drove away.
Little did he know, of course, that his simple act of kindness forever impacted a man of high esteem and influence in the gateway city to the Muslim world. Little did he know that his simple act would forever be associated with “Christian” in our friend’s mind. Little did he know that our friend would strive to communicate tolerance for Christianity to young Muslim students in one of the most literate and educated countries on the planet. He was just a regular old Bubba on his way home from work who took the time to notice a young family in need and ran down to Wal Mart to get them a car battery. Our friend retold us the story, commenting that for the rest of his time in the US, he remembered this man’s kindness as he met other followers of Isa of the Injil (Jesus of the New Testament). This is why he smiled when he heard about the Injils we were carrying and about the Isa they proclaimed.
Before we left Beirut, we visited our friend one last time. We gave him an Injil, written in modern Arabic, and he said he would read it. We left Beirut at the end of the summer. Less than a year later, the US news made small mention of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the face of democracy in Beirut. Tumult ensued as the Lebanese forced the Syrian army out of their occupation, and shortly after, skirmishes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army resulted in conflict that leveled most of the homes in the south and destroyed parts of the city that had been rebuilt after the Lebanese civil war twenty years earlier. We remembered our friend, his hope for peace, and the way he spoke of Isa of the Injil. Isa, eternal peace where earthly peace is not possible. How we pray that he will truly know this!
I don’t know why I’m thinking of this today. I just wonder what opportunities we have, living our lives every day, to impact the world through kindness in the name of Christ, not knowing whose life our witness may be ministering to or how small that window of time is that we can reach them. I doubt Bubba even knew where Beirut was, the conflict there, or how far-reaching his simple act went to open a man’s heart to the Gospel message. Do we have similar opportunities where God has placed us? How far are we willing to go as we give testimony to how the eternal Prince of Peace has changed us?
Who knows what we might doing for Christ in a global, massive, lifechanging way as we simply live for His glory?