Visiting the ‘Living Stones’ in Lebanon

CNEWA donor Dan Searby had a chance to visit Lebanon this spring and see some of CNEWA’s work in the region.

Editor’s note: CNEWA donor Dan Searby had a chance to visit Lebanon this spring and see some of CNEWA’s work in the region. He sent us his impressions from the trip, below.

After a spring 2011 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I found myself especially drawn to the faith keeping Christians in the region, the “living stones” who are often overlooked as one tours the holy sites and historical landmarks. Msgr. Peter Vaccari, now rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, subsequently introduced me to CNEWA and its work supporting the church and Christians in the Middle East.

Today CNEWA’s work is more vital than ever and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East has created what Pope Francis recently called “ecumenism of blood.” I wonder if there is a not a silver lining or even a divine design in what is taking place in the region, and that this can all become a force for Christian unity. I believe that CNEWA is uniquely positioned to play a leading role toward this great end.

The intervening years have deepened my relationship with CNEWA and last summer I returned to Israel and Palestine for a “Year of Mercy” pilgrimage led by Msgr. Vaccari. Beyond the rich spiritual experience, the journey included a fascinating briefing by CNEWA’s regional director in Jerusalem, Sami El-Yousef.

Before traveling to Israel, we had spent three days in Rome and on our first stop, at “St. Paul’s Outside the Walls,” we encountered a large group of Lebanese pilgrims. I was struck by their faith journey, and could not imagine the trials they had been through in their native land. I had always dreamed of visiting Lebanon, which is celebrated in the Bible for its beauty, snow-capped mountains, wine and especially Lebanon’s legendary cedars.

Largely through a CNEWA-facilitated correspondence with the Beirut regional director, Michel Constantin, this year I was able to plan out a trip to Lebanon in April, and a visit to Mar Doumit , a convent-run school on Mount Lebanon, outside of Beirut. With Michel out of town, I was met at the airport by his deputy, Kamal Abdel Nour. After navigating Beirut’s notoriously chaotic traffic, we snaked our way up Mount Lebanon and arrived at Mar Doumit.

I was familiar with the school. Last year, right around Christmas, a group of us had supported a call to raise funds for Mar Doumit, to help equip the school with special needs educational materials. When we arrived for our visit, we were met at the school by its headmistress, Sister Juliette. Sister Juliette gathered about half a dozen of her teachers and we sat down and enjoyed coffee, tea and a most generous spread of Lebanese sweets. A group of students took us to the school, which we toured as they demonstrated the new educational materials, including electronic tablets that had just arrived.

The dedication of the teachers and the youthful zeal of the students were most stirring. The visit also helped us see in a very personal way the impact of CNEWA’s work.

Finally, while we often hear the phrase “boots on the ground,” I saw the CNEWA equivalent of “sandals on the ground” in Sister Juliette — one of many heroic sisters in the region who teach, heal, comfort and serve as good shepherds and keepers of the faith.

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