Many churches in Lebanon are providing assistance including food, blankets, clothing or education to refugees, most of whom are from Syria.
They also engage refugees in a variety of other social and religious activities within the everyday life of the church.
Churches are doing this as an expression of Christ’s love for all people and out of an understanding of what it means to be the “church” in the world today.
I was sharing recently with a friend at my church in London about my research with churches in Lebanon.
I commented that one of the most interesting things about how churches are assisting refugees is that they are doing more than just providing life-saving material aid. There is a deeper element to what they are doing.
For example, even though most Syrian refugees are Muslim, new friendships are being built between them and Lebanese Christian church members.
For many, this is the first time they become friends with someone of a different religious tradition.
In addition, refugees are learning new skills and having the opportunity to engage in different types of activities than they ever did back home. These might include literacy, artisan crafts or the Bible.
In all these ways and more, churches are seeking to meet the most urgent and deeply felt needs of the refugees they serve.
My friend commented, “So in other words, the churches are doing good work, but they aren’t having any kind of spiritual impact?”
To which I responded in protest, “No! This is spiritual impact!”
I sensed a degree of hope and joy when refugees described the assistance they were receiving from churches, and surely there is something inherently spiritual about hope and joy.
But I find I lack a vocabulary for explaining how Christians can have a spiritual impact in the lives of others, without any pretence of forcing them to become Christians.
We might say that the love of Christ can touch all hearts, but such a statement feels somehow abstract.
So, as I seek a vocabulary to capture how churches in Lebanon can be engaging spiritually in the lives of refugees in a sensitive and needs-responsive way, I want to describe a few ways in which I see churches touching people’s hearts on a spiritual level, crossing religious divides as they do so.
- Most churches have volunteers, usually Lebanese Christians who are members of the church, visiting refugees in their homes on a regular basis.
This is considered good practice in humanitarian aid provision because the volunteers can verify that the families really are struggling and need assistance, and that they actually use the assistance they receive. But it is also a means of building relationships and trust.
Many refugees are scared to be honest with fellow refugees because war is still raging in their home country and they aren’t sure whom they can trust.
They may have seen or experienced intense suffering or violence and continue to carry this weight in their heart; after all, telling our stories is therapeutic.
Having a new friend, someone who is not connected to their family or to their problems back home, often means having one person with whom they can share, cry and laugh freely.
One Lebanese Christian woman, for example, told me that she had become close friends with a young Syrian bride, who was separated from her own parents and didn’t feel very comfortable around her in-laws.
This young woman was always excited when her new Lebanese friend came to visit and quickly opened up about her struggle and hopes.
- Many refugees told me that they love going to church.
They feel it is a peaceful building, and when they step through the doors, they begin to relax.
It provides a space of refuge in a life otherwise marked by myriad stresses including trauma, poverty, discrimination and worry for the well-being of family members.
A pastor told me that he knows of Syrian Muslims who walk half an hour every week to come to church, just in order to touch the wall and have a few moments of rest.
- Some Lebanese church members find themselves praying regularly with refugees.
Many volunteers on home visits have a moment of prayer at the end of their visits. Others sit down with refugees in the church building and, after talking about their material needs and their concerns regarding details such as their children’s education or their husband’s unemployment, they take a few minutes to pray about those needs with the refugees.
There is something deeply spiritual about together beseeching God in our moments of deepest need.
- Life as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon is often quite boring and listless.
Many refugees live in cramped quarters, a one-room shelter for a family of five or more. The children are likely to be out of school. The parents are unlikely to have found employment.
They all might be scared to venture out too often due to fear of harassment on the streets.
Their extended family and friends from back home are all far away, so they have no social network. Church activities help break that monotony. They give people somewhere to go and something to do.
One Syrian woman told me that every Sunday she gives her children a bath and gets them all dressed up to attend a meeting at church; it is the main social event on their calendar.
Many refugees have made new friends at church, and some refugees attend several meetings a week at church.
This new routine gives their lives a sliver of meaning, something much appreciated when everything else feels so empty and monotonous.
There may be other activities that refugees could engage in, rather than church, but many find a community at church and enjoy participating in church-sponsored activities.
When talking about humanitarian crises, such as the fallout of war in Syria in which millions of people have lost their homes and now struggle to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, it is important to meet people’s urgent material and physical needs.
Churches are to be commended for helping refugees find food, shelter and other basic needs. But it is not enough.
Their spirits also need care, something that people of faith understand well.
As the body of Christ transmits hope and love in a world where so many people are suffering so deeply, they are meeting the felt needs of the people they are serving.
Kathryn Kraft is lecturer in international development at the University of East London and an associate faculty member at the Institute of Middle East Studies in Beirut, Lebanon. Previously, she worked as a technical advisor and program manager for development and aid agencies in a variety of regions of the world and is the author of “Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Middle East.” A version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @katiworonka.