At the Crossroads
by Nick Armstrong
For the first three weeks in April, my wife Laura and I had the privilege of leading a team of 10 people from Cole Community Church in Boise to Mafraq, Jordan, a small city located 9 miles from the Syrian border. Mafraq literally means “crossroads” in Arabic, appropriately named as the Roman and Byzantium ruins tell the tale of a city at the crossroads of ancient trade and culture. Syria joined the "Arab Spring" in the city of Dara’a in 2011. That same year, 40 Syrian families fled to Mafraq for refuge as a result of the government crackdown. Just one year later, 3000 Syrian families came to Mafraq. Now, in the middle of this existential crisis and prompted by the Spirit of Christ, a pastor of a local church in Mafraq found himself concluding that they were “a church at the crossroads.” Just how would they respond to an influx of Syrian refugees that swelled the population of Mafraq from 90,000 to 210,000 people in the four years since the crisis began?
In a word, this local church is responding in ‘love.’ The church registers Syrian refugees who look to them for help, and it does a thorough needs assessment of the families before distributing relief goods that include mattresses, pillows, basic food supplies, and toys for the kids. Others from Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and other Arab-speaking countries visit these same Syrian families on a regular basis and provide opportunities for the families to express hospitality, to share the stories of their lives, and for those visiting to share their own stories. They do so with volunteers from all over the world, including our team of ten people, at their side. They translate for the Syrian families and the volunteers, facilitating an exchange of sharing life experiences and stories.
It was an amazing experience and somehow, through a process of Spirit-led chaos, we (the volunteers from various corners of the globe) were grafted into this local church’s efforts to love on these Syrian families by taking part in the registration process, distributions, visits, working with a school started just for Syrian kids, soccer games, and a variety of women’s creativity groups. This was the body of Christ coming from all different corners of the world and worshipping Christ through service, through gathering, and definitely through song! Both in Arabic and English. It was just a small glimpse of the church gathering together to worship God pictured Revelation 7. There were people from Palestine, Israel, South Africa, China, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Norway, Denmark, and Idaho! Did I mention, Idaho? Yes, Idaho! We were so incredibly blessed by the whole experience!
The greatest achievement of the ‘Mafraq Project’ had nothing to do with what our team did, but what God did in each of us. We gained a new vision that helped us to look beyond the labels ‘Syrian Refugee’ and ‘Muslim’ and see real people with real names, real struggles, and a real glimmer of hope, albeit faint, for the future of their children. I can still see the faces and hear the voices of Amir, Noor, Said, Fatimah, Abdullah, Amsi, Ali and Khaled. There were times of anger and thankfulness, there were tears and laughter, there were times of silence and intense listening, there were handshakes and air-kisses, and there were definitely times of enjoying Turkish coffee and very sweet tea – all these little expressions of humanity to remind us that we were beginning a journey beyond the abstract statistics of a refugee crisis into the lives of real people. People like you and me. These were people who each had a story but who also shared a common story of persecution, escape, survival, loss, and trauma.
Now that we are back in the comfort and safety of our homes, I have come to realize that our team and our church here in Boise, Idaho are also at the ‘crossroads.’ Because of the work God did in our own hearts, we now stand at the ‘crossroads’ of opportunity to welcome ‘the stranger’ right here on the doorstep of Boise and to love our Muslim neighbor and encourage others to do the same. It is our hope and prayer that we will do just that!