LIMASSOL, Cyprus (BP)–Three groups of exhausted and relieved Southern Baptists disembarked American ships onto Cypriot ports the fourth weekend in July as they sought refuge from Lebanon’s expanding war zone.
“By far the evacuation was the most grueling and difficult thing in this whole process,” said Rebecca*, a Southern Baptist who worked as an educator in Lebanon.
Southern Baptists who were in Lebanon joined tens of thousands of other foreigners in a massive evacuation to board ships and planes to take them away from the violence and destruction.
The first group of Southern Baptists boarded the USS Nashville July 20 and traveled for about eight hours from Beirut to the port of Larnaca, Cyprus. The second group was transported to Limassol July 21 on the USS Trenton and the final group arrived later that day in Limassol on the next journey of the Nashville.
All Southern Baptists are safe and accounted for, said John Brady, regional leader for work in northern Africa and the Middle East.
“As difficult as these days were, our confidence in God has grown because He carried us on when we had no more strength to move forward,” Brady said.
By early July 24, nearly 12,000 American citizens had been transported out of Lebanon, according to the U.S. State Department. Some have been flown out on military helicopters, but most have been aboard the USS Nashville, USS Trenton, Orient Queen cruise ship and other private ships participating in the evacuation operation.
“[H]earing bombs going off every night is … difficult, but the evacuation itself was such an intense 36-hour period,” Rebecca said.
“Such horrible conditions,” she said. People were getting sick, there were no bathroom facilities, tempers were flaring. “It was madness in the crowd, and anything could have swayed it to the wrong direction. I never felt so on the edge of my reason and ability to handle a situation as I did in those 36 hours.”
The sudden start of the war took the world and many Southern Baptists in the region by surprise.
“I don’t think any of us, in our wildest dreams, imagined that it would escalate out of control as quickly as it did,” said another Southern Baptist evacuee who declined to give her name because of security concerns.
The blur of the last week shifts into sharp focus at specific moments, recalled a young Southern Baptist man, who also declined to publish his name.
“It was one of the longest days of our lives,” he said. “Waiting in those lines was so exhausting — and line is a very generous term. It was more like a wall of humanity. A hundred people across were pressing in to get through an opening that was no wider than an average door.”
Other memories are packed with tension, yet rich, added a Southern Baptist woman.
“One night we were with other believers … we were together in a room, sitting on the floor with our children. We began to pray and sing songs of worship and praise, and a bomb hit within a mile of us. The sound of it was incredible.
“Our building and, I think I can say, our bodies shook,” she said. “Our children immediately jumped up into our arms and we huddled together and we continued to pray and worship for a solid hour.
“I will remember that night as one of the sweetest times of worship that I ever had. As we were singing, and I can’t remember what song we were singing when the bomb went off, but we began to sing it louder.
“We said, ‘God, You are on Your throne, whether we live or we die, we belong to You. We are so glad that we are Your people for such a time as this,’” she said.
* Name changed for security reasons.
For photos and a voice-over report of the Lebanon evacuation, click here .