This week’s guest writer is Carolyne Epp-Fransen of Winnipeg. Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen serve as MCC Representatives for Jordan, Iraq and Iran and live in Amman, Jordan.
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Isaiah 42:6-7
It’s a privilege – a conflicted privilege, to be sure – to meet and visit with refugee and displaced Iraqi families who are so destitute and then to go back to our plenty. Our lives are not worth more than theirs and so we do need to step into their lives when we can.
In October we met Christian families displaced by the sudden and brutal advance into northern Iraq of the group that calls itself ISIS. These displaced families are still in shock. They are grateful to be alive. They are living in conditions they could never have imagined. They are realizing that homes, businesses, and livelihoods are gone. Their hopes and dreams for their lives and the lives of their children are, at best, uncertain.
It is here, among these displaced families, that I am learning about what it means to be a light to the nations.
The Chaldean and Syriac Catholics are a small minority in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. Their faith and language (neo-Aramaic) descend not from recent missionary efforts but from the time of Jesus. They have lived peaceably with their neighbours – Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Turkman – over centuries. They want to remain in Iraq among these others to be a light. Despite decades of war and the violence and hatred it breeds, the Church wants to stay.
Father Douglas Bazi is a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq. He met us in his office in the midst of tents for displaced people on the church grounds. He is charged to meet the needs of over a hundred families. He laughed as he described his unfortunate choice of shampoo for the young ladies. Our meeting was interrupted by a boy about age 8 who came in crying. Father Douglas tenderly cleaned his scraped leg and applied a bandage. Father Douglas said, “My heart is full of pain because I am taking the trauma from the people. This is the time to show who we are (the Church); in 15-20 years I do not want to be ashamed for this time.”
Together with his church, Father Douglas wants to care for the displaced people so these Christians can stay in Iraq and be a light to the nations.
The displaced people of Iraq remind us of what is important – to be alive, to have faith. As we hear their stories, we come to realize the extent of the evil they have fled. We encounter the trauma that they are experiencing. Displaced families, of necessity, must seek out shelter, food and work. The focus of a first generation is on coping, adjusting and transition. The Chaldean Catholic Christians are being encouraged, even in these difficult times, to remember their faith and heritage. They are asked to consider their important role in the greater history of Christianity and the region. The leadership of the Chaldean church sees a calling for Christians to remain in Iraq, to live with, work beside and share with their neighbours.
The displaced people of Iraq remind me of my own Anabaptist history of persecution and fleeing from evil. Only a generation or two ago, my people were frightened, homeless and hungry. Now that we are safe and warm, how are we bringing light to the nations? I fear that we have not always lived up to this part of our calling. Most of us are no longer first generation newcomers. It is time to look beyond our own needs to see how we can be a light to the nations around us.
Advent is a festival of lights. We light candles for four weeks to symbolize core elements of our faith. The lights shine in the darkness of winter. As servants of God we are called to be light to the nations.