Saturday, September 22, was a truly refreshing and a rejuvenating day. The local ministry in Tripoli had planned to take Gary and I for a walk through the forest of the Cedars of Lebanon, in the Kadisha Valley (Wadi Kadisha in Arabic: وادي قاديشا ), also known as The Holy Valley; situated 2,500 meters above sea level. The Cedars of Lebanon have always been dear to me not just because they are also referred to as the Cedars of God, or that they are mentioned so many times in the Bible (Google tells me 75 times) – They are dear because for me they represent Protection, Perseverance, and Peace. Protection from the heat of the sun; Perseverance for their longevity (There are reports that individual trees live up to 1,000 years); and Peace for their quiet but undeniable Presence.
The distance from Tripoli to the valley is only 61 kilometers on the odometer, however with all the twists and turns of these narrow mountainous roads of Lebanon, not to mention the traffic out of the city, our journey turned into more than one and a half hours each way. Thank God for the wonderful company we were traveling with in this mini, Taiwanese van with our new Armenian friends found in Tripoli. We had met Maria at the Evangelical School the day before, at the Academic Celebration gathering (Check out my previous blog) and now we had her two daughters Graziella and Marina, and her brother, Paul, driving us along with my colleague the Rev. Rola Sleiman, who had prepared this wonderful five-day schedule for us – I was feeling fortunate to have this moment of rest and respite with such awesome people, full of laughter and joy. The only thing that was getting me worried was Gary’s car sickness with all the twists, turns and the rising altitude. By the time we arrived near the forest, we were hungry. we stopped at a home/restaurant where we had the most authentic Lebanese breakfast.
We drove through towns and villages that I had only heard of by their names in my childhood. I have never been to these places, as the civil war of 1975 made getting around Lebanon difficult. There is a vague memory in my mind and heart that says I have been to the Cedars of Lebanon before, however it is ambiguous, and almost feels like a dream in a distant past.
The Cedars of Lebanon or the Cedars of God are truly beautiful and capture your soul without any speech. A few of them look a bit drunk as some branches are sideways, a few have turned upside down, and others are hanging on the edge – maybe this is the edge of glory, which Lady Gaga sings about. Yet many others that are considered dead, have been carved with famous images, such as the crucifixion of Jesus with the two thieves. Others look like they are dancing or even clapping their hands, reminding me of the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Isaiah 55:12. Rejuvenated we continued our journey back to the city and enjoyed fresh mountain water – living water that people stop to drink from and also fill up any and all bottles and take home.
In the evening, my colleague took us to her home for us to enjoy supper with her mom, sister, niece and nephew – the kids had prepared musical pieces to perform to us during our visit. A few minutes after our arrival, the electricity cut off, and we were left in darkness. However, the second supplier, “Ishterak” should have kicked in, which is the second level of hydro supplier, as I have shared in my previous blogs, part of the many levels of corruption in Lebanon, but nothing happened. The weather was so hot and humid, that Gary and I started to feel sick. We felt very bad that they were all waiting for us to have supper, but now, I started feeling dizzy and exhausted. I asked our hostess to take us back to our hotel, as her telephone attempts to the second level hydro supplier were in vain. I hated to say this, but our hotel room was air conditioned and always had water, so this heat exhaustion’s antidote was only at the Via Mina Hotel, our home away from home. We truly needed to rest and get a good night sleep as tomorrow is Sunday. The next day we found out that the electricity shortage took much longer than they expected, there was an issue even within this second level of supply.
Speaking of the next day, Sunday September 23, we went to church, which is situated in the heart of downtown Tripoli, as mentioned in my previous blog – where parking was a bit better on Sunday, but the minister still needed someone to keep an eye on her double-parked car. The sanctuary is going under renovation so the community of faith is gathering in the downstairs hall which is filled with comfortable armchairs and love seats (I think, if we get those types of comfortable chairs and loveseats at our churches in North America everyone would come to church). I had the opportunity to share the word of Hope for that morning worship (here is the link to the video: (https://youtu.be/6VaE7ptsFuY). It was quite interesting that we had about 25 adults attending church and over 15 children – it was not normal for me to see that many children at church. Back in our rural churches in Canada, we are glad if we get to see five children on a given Sunday – this is not a competition, just an observation. (Each person received a Canadian Flag Pin – as a reminder that there are people who love them and pray for them in Canada).
We did not feel the time pass during worship and fellowship with coffee, cookies and a few chuckles – it was almost 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon already and we just did not want to leave this ordinary building that had become an extraordinary space of love and peace. As we were leaving the church, the bakery next door insisted to serve us whatever we wanted free of charge, but we were going for lunch and accepting his offer would have been a waste of good food, as the weather continued to be hot and humid. After our royal lunch at the Sadiki Restaurant (Sadiki meaning friend or faithful in Arabic) Gary and I opted to go to the hotel and rest for the rest of the day, as tomorrow, Monday, we were going to visit one of the refugee schools and head back to Beirut, so that early morning on Tuesday, September 25 we catch our flight to Armenia.
Sunday evening, Gary started having an upset stomach and we decided to eat French Fries with pita bread and a cup of tea. Not only was this good for Gary’s upset stomach, it also brought back childhood memories for me, where my mom used to make French fries for us, wrap them in pita bread and offer it to us with chai (Cinnamon with Cloves tea) for all of us as dinner. Our memories truly get triggered by all the senses we have, and comfort food will always be the leader of such recollections.
Monday morning, Rola came to pick us up, but it was only I who was able to join her, as Gary wanted to stay at the hotel, rest, pack and get better. We arrived at the refugee school, which is a block away from the church, at the heart of Tripoli. You hear 135 children playing and screaming “a mile away” as we enter the school grounds. This school was the older Evangelical School, which is now not in service anymore. Three years ago the new one was built and now serves over 1000 students in Ras Maska, the Evangelical School for Boys and Girls, which we visited on Friday. This refugee school has six teachers and a director/principal. Their average monthly salary is about $500.00 U.S. They serve children from 3.5 years of age to 13. While I was there, a Syrian father brought his son to register, but because of limited teachers and space, the director had to turn them away and ask them to come the following Monday, with the hopes that they will have more teachers and space available. Yes, there is space, because they are using only a small portion of the building, however, they do not have the human resources nor enough daily food boxes to feed the new children (A Lady from the church prepares these snack/lunch bags for each child to have at least one meal a day while they are at the school). A little later, another father came in with his son, but this time, it is a Lebanese family and they are turned away, as the Lebanese Government already offers free education to Lebanese Citizens at public schools. For some reason this family wanted to send their kid to a school close to their home, even if the school is being run by the Evangelical Church. This father was not happy to be turned away and he murmured some discontentment under his breath – Like many Lebanese who are complaining about this refugee invasion that is taking place – I will not say much about that here as it is a whole can of worms. Not understanding the fact that these Syrian Children do NOT have any support from the Lebanese Government. At the refugee school as well, I left behind a Canadian Flag Pin for each student – as a reminder that there are people who love them and pray for them in Canada. This small van goes around four times daily, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon to take the kids back and front to the school. it is a van that seats 7, but over 20 children are transported each time, if not 30.
Late afternoon we left for Beirut, Rola drove us to my sister’s place, without any GPS or exact address, we got lost a little bit outside the boundaries of Bourj Hammoud. But once I trusted my instincts and guided Rola to go, we made it to my sister’s place without any further wrong turns.
Beloved, what a lesson to learn in this five-day visit in Tripoli. From the visit to the Region of Akkar, to Jbail (Byblos), and Ras Maska (see previous blog: “Every Breath A Resurrection: Can These Bones Live?”) to visiting the Cedars of Lebanon, and the heart of this Evangelical Community of Faith – to the bakers around the corner who attempt to feed you without asking who you are and where are you from. Making me realize, from the old to the young, from the fragile to the strong, just like the Cedars of Lebanon, in their oldness, brokenness and fragility there is permanence, perseverance, and persistence that speaks more than words can say – maybe these trees also represent the human strength of the oppressed people of Lebanon, Syria, the World. They stand still, either intact upright, bent out of shape, or broken-down and laying on the ground – they show us all how to “BE”. Could the Psalmist have heard the “voice” of God through trees such as these when he wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God”? (NIV) Psalm 46:10. Nature truly teaches us if we intentionally open up to see, to observe and listen to the unspoken word that speaks wonders. Maybe we can learn how to live with Peace, Perseverance and Protection. Peace within our hearts, lives and with each other, Perseverance through the hardships of life, and Protection not just protecting ourselves but our neighbour, no matter who they are and where they are from.
Signing off… Monday, September 24, 11:27 p.m. – Hotel Via Mina, Tripoli, Lebanon