28 March 2017
The sun sets over Beirut. (photo: Philip Eubanks)
At dusk, the tired sun slips behind the Mediterranean seeking rest, and as she goes, she leaves her imprint on the beige buildings of Beirut due East. The orange hues she paints are a way of welcoming in the night: the coming darkness isn't so ominous if, at day’s end, it’s ushered in with such ease.
Flying in to this ‘Paris of the Middle East,’ you can make out from the air already what’s below: a world of achingly beautiful, painful contradiction. The way the sun-kissed buildings are etched into the high hills above sea level make you feel as though the concrete structures grew up from the ground like trees. Though planned, there’s a seeming randomness to their presence. Imagine San Francisco with streets too narrow for a trolley. And there is, of course, a sharp shift from the flat blue of the Mediterranean to the sudden, green incline leading to Mount Lebanon.
The faster we descend toward the tarmac, the more those square buildings look like steps for a giant to make his way up and over the mountains all the way to Syria.
Before landing, you already feel welcome to Lebanon. The country’s Special Olympics team is also on our flight and these students chatter in excited Arabic, their medals clanking. An elderly gentleman wearing a blue cardigan sits next to me and offers his blueberry cake. We don’t share a common language, but that doesn’t prevent us from breaking bread together with a nod and a smile. The pushing and shoving to get off the plane doesn’t carry with it any animosity: it’s just what you do to get off the plane here. And as soon as you step off, you are greeted by the warm Mediterranean breeze.
On the ground, we drive through the city center, which is a collection of quiet, pristine apartments and government buildings — a post-war ghost town of sorts. There is one, clear road in Lebanon; it runs south to north and back again, and we’re on it all the way to Jal El Dib, where we settle into our hotel with a busy week ahead.
St. Elie Church was built as a labor of love in the late 1800’s. (photo: Philip Eubanks)
The first day on the ground, in many ways, depicts the diversity of this land. We celebrate Mass in the morning at St. Elie Church. The stone structure was cut by monks who built this sanctuary out of a labor of love in the late 1800’s. The inside of this Maronite parish is inviting in a powerful way, and as the pews gradually fill with Filipinos, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and a few Lebanese, this is the making of an unexpected family. They are nearly all migrant workers.
I am struck even now that when we tend to talk about our work in Lebanon and talk about accompanying the poor of the Eastern churches, the nature of the trending news means we generally think first of those displaced by the violence of war-torn regions, of refugees fleeing harm’s way. With so many refugees having done so, however, there are many migrants who have been pushed even further to the margins of society: they are, perhaps, the forgotten family, and to be with them is a sacred experience for me.
As the parish family sings loudly a Taize song that echoes off the stone walls and reverberates through your skin, I am moved by their faithfulness, their resilience. “Sing glory, honor, and praise,” the chorus goes, and something about it feels genuine and warm. These are a people who know precisely what these words mean, what it is to cherish the fragility of life and be grateful for what you have.
At the end of Mass, crowds rush to greet CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar, to hug him with gratitude, and we are met with smiles. I can think of no better way to have been welcomed to this beautiful country.
In the coming week, I can only hope to show and share that same spirit, a spirit of prayerful gratitude for everyone I encounter.