I had the privilege of going on a week-long trip to Lebanon and Jordan with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) at the beginning of June. The point of the trip was for seminarians and priests to better understand what CRS is and the work they do so that in the future parishioners would better understand CRS. Here’s some of what I learned from my experience:
- Muslims aren’t monsters
I think if you show an average American a picture of a middle-eastern woman in a headscarf (hijab) the immediate thought that comes to mind is “terrorist.” Maybe it was just me, but the correlation between Muslims and Terrorists has become as close as burgers and fries thanks to the terrorist attacks starting on 9/11. I’m not saying that Islam in itself is devoid of fundamental problems, but thinking about this helped me see Muslims as people and not just Muslims: Show me a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary that doesn’t look like a Middle Eastern woman. In terms of clothing, you can’t. Mary is always covered from wrist to ankles and wearing a headscarf. In every single icon and statue and sculpture Mary is dressed exactly like your average Muslim woman. How can Catholics look at a picture of a Muslim woman and think “terrorist” while at the same time praying at bended knee before a picture of the Mother of God dressed the same way?
- Man does not live by bread alone
I think what every Christian understands is that what people need just as much as bread is love, respect, and dignity. We visited camps and shelters and orphanages in both Lebanon and Jordan and I have to say in terms of need, the situation isn’t dire. I’ve spent extensive time in the poverty in Appalachia and what I saw in Lebanon and Jordan doesn’t really match that. So when a Syrian refugee woman at a shelter asked my group “What can you do to help me, please help me,” I didn’t so much want to build her a house with running water and air conditioning (that really doesn’t seem basic to human dignity—Jesus never had running water), but I wanted to tell her that God loves her and that despite her bad situation she still has reason to rejoice. First, because her material needs are met thanks to Catholics in the United States via CRS, and second, that Jesus rose from the dead and we can be fully alive when we live in Christ. That may sound naive or fool hearted, but if you really believe the Good News then it must be a priority to share it.
- I didn’t care
CRS frequently emphasizes the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. These principles are the foundation of all their work. “Solidarity” is a key word in this area. But, at least for me, it makes it easier to just ask Catholics “Do you care?” Do you really care about people going through hardship? Do you really care about refugees that are half way around the world? Before the trip I didn’t care. Frankly, I didn’t exactly know the extent of the crisis, or that a huge number of the refugees were Christian (About half of the refugees I met were Christians from Iraq). Then, if we can say yes to that question, the question becomes “Do you care enough to do something about it?” It takes a lot of faith to believe that my fasting or praying over here really has an impact for people thousands of miles away.
- Need of human dignity work at home
All I could think about in the refugee settlements is that all the kids that lived in those makeshift tents and depended on a UNICEF tank for water nevertheless have equal human dignity to young people in America or anywhere else. You could just see it—the kids running around with their friends, just being normal kids. While we think we are so advanced, don’t we and some of our children stare at a TV screen for hours, drinking Mountain Dew and eating Cheetos? It might sound funny, but that’s true. Dignity is not a function of the wealth of a person’s come country. It is innate, and we have a duty to live in accord with it.
- Christians are better than NGOs
Something that plagued me during the trip was accepting that CRS was doing great work while recognizing that if Christians would just be good Christians, then this problem would go away in the blink of an eye. Just imagine if every Christian in the world actually did what Jesus said and loved our neighbor as Jesus loved us. One of the most shocking things to me about the whole trip was that in every case that I came across, Syrian (Muslim) refugees were just waiting for the war to be over to go back home and Iraqi (Christian) refugees had no interest in going home and wanted to move to a different country. Imagine if Christians brought other Christians into their homes. My point is this—it’s better for a Christian to encounter someone one-on-one and in so doing show the love of Christ versus a faceless NGO doing the work. What NGOs do is important and deeply good, but a Christian reaching out in love to someone one-on-one will always be the best option.
- It takes a lot of faith
In understanding the work of CRS, it’s helpful to employ the story from Exodus 17 where Moses is charged with defeating the Amalekites. In this story, when Moses raises his hands in prayer the Israelite forces gain the advantage in battle, but when his arms grow tired they need to be propped up lest Israel lose. What’s the lesson? We all have a role to play. Not all of us can go to Lebanon and Jordan and be on the front lines of the aid to refugees, but at the same time what we can do matters. I.e. giving money to CRS to do that front-line work is exactly like holding up Moses arms. If CRS doesn’t have money, they can’t give aid to refugees in the name of the Catholic Church. And it takes a lot of faith to believe that me sending money to CRS is impactfully serving the Church.
The call to be a Christian is radical, and although that is lived out in different ways, we’re all called to care, and to care enough to do something about it. Pray for the refugees, fast for Christians that need a home, and think about aiding the mission of CRS.