KHIAM, Lebanon (BP)–Bright sunlight filters through the refrigerator-sized hole in the roof of Yacoub’s* modest single-story house. Near the end of a hard day’s work, he looks to the tattered remains of his living room sofa to rest his lean 70-year-old frame; as he sits, a cloud of thick gray dust erupts into the air.
Reaching for the floor, Yacoub brushes aside chunks of concrete and picks up a clock that once hung on the wall, its hands now frozen at 1:14 a.m. -– the moment a bomb shattered the only home he has ever known.
“This house is precious to me,” he explained. “I was born in this house, grew up in this house and I’d like to die in this house.”
Yacoub’s residence is one of thousands in Lebanon damaged or destroyed during the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, but Yacoub won’t be picking up the pieces alone. Since a U.N.-brokered ceasefire took effect Aug. 14, Southern Baptists have poured more than $650,000 in aid into the war-torn region. Now, more help is on the way thanks to a pioneering team of volunteers led by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
Comprised of experienced disaster relief workers, the four-man team completed their 10-day assessment in Lebanon on Sept. 29, concentrating their efforts in and around the southern city of Khiam. Andrew Sanders*, Southern Baptist disaster relief coordinator and operations manager in Lebanon, explained the need for aid is greater in the south because most relief organizations are focused on Beirut, leaving many of Lebanon’s smaller cities to fend for themselves.
“The devastation is tremendous,” Sanders said. “It’s on every level. In some villages, more than 70 percent of the homes are flattened.”
Sixteen-year-old Dima’s* neighborhood is among Khiam’s hardest-hit areas. Though shrapnel holes riddle her home’s cinderblock walls, Dima and her mother are lucky; the damage can be repaired. Little more than 100 yards away, however, sits an indistinguishable mound of broken concrete and twisted rebar. It’s all that remains of a building that housed Dima’s neighbors, seven families in all.
“‘That’s not my neighborhood,’” she remembered telling her uncle when she first saw the destruction. “‘That’s not it. And that’s not my home. Take me back.’ It was destroyed. It was really, really horrible to see it like this.”
Despite the severity of the damage, only limited rebuilding efforts have begun in Khiam. So far, the majority of the work is focused on removing debris; homeowners are able to do little else because they have neither the money nor the manpower required.
Jim Richardson, director of disaster relief for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said this is why Southern Baptist volunteers are so desperately needed in Lebanon. He said the purpose of his recent visit to the area was to pave the way for future teams by learning where and how volunteers can make the biggest impact.
“We’re trying to find ways we can minister to the people of Lebanon,” Richardson said. “We have an opportunity here to share the hope of Jesus Christ in a way like we’ve never had before, to show people that we love them in the name of Jesus and help get their lives back to some type of normalcy.”
But Richardson’s team didn’t travel halfway around the world just to survey damage; they came ready to get their hands dirty, learning local construction techniques and tackling rebuilding projects firsthand. From patching holes to replacing windows, the team explored a handful of project possibilities, including demolition and cleanup.
During the assessment, the team also discovered an obstacle that will limit volunteers’ activity: Because Lebanese homes are made entirely of reinforced concrete, heavy construction equipment is required for major repair and rebuilding work -– equipment not accessible to volunteers.
“It’s a different situation than we’re used to with disaster relief in the States -– no wood, a lot of rock, a lot of concrete,” explained Larry Shine, task force director for cleanup and recovery for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
While they can’t move 1,200-pound slabs of concrete, the team did find a project that’s perfect for volunteers and sharing the Gospel: installing roof-top water tanks. Lebanese homes rely on these large, gravity-fed, plastic tanks for running water, but many were ruined by shrapnel and flying debris from exploding bombs and rockets.
“You can have a roof over your head, but if you don’t have water, what’s the point?” Shine said. “That’s something we can do. And it’s not real technical. The materials are readily available here, and we can teach a volunteer how to do it in just a few minutes. Plus, they can spend more time building relationships.”
And those relationships, Richardson emphasized, are the team’s top priority.
A CHANCE TO VISIT
“It’s not about brick and mortar, it’s about making relationships with people,” he said. “Water tanks give you the opportunity to be involved with the maximum number of people -– to interact with families, not only to install a tank, but to take an hour or so to sit down and visit with the family.
“I want the volunteers to remember that the reason we’re here is to share the love of Jesus. We go with a shovel. We do it with mortar and glass. But we’re here to spread the hope of Jesus Christ.”
Richardson said his team had the opportunity to do just that on many occasions, adding that the majority of the families with whom volunteers shared were receptive to the Gospel message.
Sanders believes this type of disaster relief ministry is particularly effective in the Muslim world because it demonstrates Christ’s love in an uncontrived setting.
“When we come and we show Christ, and we mean what we say, it’s more effective in touching people’s lives,” he said. “They will remember it always as the Spirit of God works in their lives; the Christian came and showed love to you, the Christian came and stood by you, the Christian came and comforted you.”
Sanders added that Lebanon’s harsh winter will soon provide volunteer teams with yet another opportunity to offer comfort -– distributing portable heaters and blankets to help families endure the cold.
Though hostilities have ceased, disaster relief in Lebanon is not for the faint of heart, with Richardson noting that working in a war zone involves real danger. Unexploded ordinance -– especially cluster bombs -– is just one of the safety concerns. According to U.N. estimates, as many as 1 million of the soda-can sized bomblets remain undetonated in southern Lebanon; to date, the devices have killed more than a dozen people and injured more than 90.
That’s why Richardson emphasizes the need for volunteers to prepare spiritually before considering such a trip.
“Ask God, ‘Are You calling me to be a part of this type of ministry?’” he said. “It’s not for everybody, but I believe God does call people to be involved and to go to places like Lebanon to share the hope of Jesus. I want you to remember that God made an investment in us with His Son Jesus, and He calls us by His Holy Spirit to share the hope wherever the opportunity may be.
“How does your safety compare? I believe it’s worth it. I believe it’s worth the investment to have the opportunity to go to places like this, to share the Gospel of Jesus.”
Bob Guinn, a volunteer with the Georgia Baptist Convention’s disaster relief ministry, believes potential volunteers should commit themselves to prayer and fasting before making the decision to go.
“You’ve got to have faith that if the Lord wants you to come, the Lord is going to take care of you while you are here,” Guinn said.
Volunteers also must avoid a danger that could cripple their witness or blind them from the Lord’s calling altogether -– Western stigmas associated with Muslims and Middle-Eastern nations like Lebanon.
“By getting an understanding of the culture here and what their needs and expectations are, we have already diffused an awful lot of the ideas that there’s a terrorist behind every bush,” Shine said.
“It’s going to change those who come here when they realize that the images created in our mind from the media aren’t reality. Reality is being here, walking the dusty streets, shaking the hands of the people and seeing their smiles.”
Southern Baptists interested in volunteering for a disaster relief trip to Lebanon can learn more by e-mailing Jim Richardson at [email protected]. So far, a total of five 10-day trips are planned from October through mid-December, though more may be added in 2007. Construction experience isn’t required.
“We need volunteers to come here and look into the faces of people, eyeball to eyeball, hear their story and be able to inject the hope of Jesus Christ into their situation,” Richardson said. “God opens doors during these times, during disasters, where we as followers of Christ have an opportunity to openly share the hope of Jesus.
“I remember the words of [the Apostle] Paul. Paul was asked, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ And Paul said, ‘We are compelled by the love of Jesus Christ.’ It’s that love that brings us to places like this. It’s because of that love that we talk to people and tell them, ‘Yes, it hurts. Yes, it’s bad. But God loves you, and He loves you so much that He gave His Son Jesus to die for your sin that you could know Him.’”
*Names changes for security reasons.