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Najla Kassab on God's Healing Grace in Beirut During COVID-19 and Beyond

In this episode, Najla Kassab, ordained minister in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, speaks with Maria Cornou about the fear and sadness that COVID-19 brought to the Lebanon and the healing power of God's grace through worship and new ways of seeing injustice and being community for Christians in the Middle East.

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Maria Cornou talks with Najla Kassab in November 2020 as part of a Zoom conversation with the staff of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

See all episodes in Season 2

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian worship. In this series of conversations, hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic, and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In this episode, Najla Kassab, ordained minister in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches speaks with Maria Cornou about the fear and sadness that COVID-19 brought to Lebanon and the healing power of God's grace through worship and new ways of seeing injustice and being community for Christians in the Middle East.

María Cornou: 

It is our privilege today to have with us, the Rev. Najla Kassab from Beirut, Lebanon. Najla is a pastor and she's also the president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. So thank you very much, Najla, for being with us today.

Najla Kasaab: 

Thank you.

María Cornou: 

We have been talking with different worship leaders about Christian responses to the virus, to this pandemic, to this world crisis. So we are very glad for having you today and bringing your knowledge, your expertise, and sharing with us a little bit of the context of your worshiping community, of the church in Beirut. You have been also through the massive accident. So you have been struggling with different situations very recently . Could you share with us a little bit about the context, the situation of your community and the role you play in the community.

Najla Kasaab: 

Thank you, María. And it's so good to see your faces, especially after to the wonderful experience I had in the last symposium. I want to tell you it's hard to remain positive in these days. And I think it's a grace, God's grace that we keep ongoing and stay positive and trust that our Lord is with us. Yes, I live in Beirut and then, now it's eight o'clock in the evening in Beirut. I work with the Presbyterian Church, which is the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. I'm director of the Christian Education Department, which focuses on working with women, with youth, with families and I'm privileged that I work with the grass-root level. You know, I think being president of the World Communion, to remain in touch with the grassroots keeps me real about how do we see the church in the future and what impact do we have today. I focused on women's work and after my graduation from Princeton in 1990, I came back to Lebanon and started my work, trying to empower women. In 1993, I was the first to receive a preaching license in our church and two years before, in 2017, for the first time women were ordained in the Middle East. Our church was pioneer in that and now we have three women who are ordained and we have one woman who will be ordained in Syria. Even in the midst of COVID and the challenges and war, (uninteligible) Ministry in the Northeast of Syria. She's doing her exams now, and we hope that she will be ordained. You know, Im in a country where around 35% are Christians. In Lebanon, we used to be 50% Christians. And I want to tell you, even the 35%, we think it's less than 35% of Christians. We live in a context where the majority are Muslims and our neighbors are Muslims. You know, we never had difficulty with moderate Muslims, what scares us today are radical Muslims. And these are new neighbors in the area where they have exclusive attitudes. And yes, we are in this context today. We hope that this will be less and less that extremist radical Muslims but yes , I live in a majority of Islam and I want to say, I grew with them and they are my friends. It's just that radical Islam that it changed the whole image of division and hatred. And I think it even gave a negative image about Islam.

María Cornou: 

Najla, what about the Christian community? Could you describe how it is comprised?

Najla Kasaab: 

You know, as the Protestant, we are the minority of the minorities. We are a small group with around 4,000 communicant members, but we are a group that focused on education. For example, this is small minority Protestant church was the first to teach women in the whole Ottoman empire. In 1835, our church was the first to teach women. At that time, it was shameful for women to go to school, now it is shameful for women not to go to school. And I think Lebanon has a big number of educated women, Lebanon and Syria also. And this goes back to the work and witness of the Protestant community. I want to say that the wives of the missionaries used to bring, having a group of studying, they taught them how to read the Bible and it impacted the whole society. The bigger number of Christians are Catholics and always the president in Lebanon is a Catholic. Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that the president is a Christian. And also we have the Orthodox Church. So we are very concerned that the number of Christians in Lebanon is getting less, especially with the last explosion, because it happened in the Christian area and many of the Christians who have double citizenship are leaving the country and this is a great concern about Christian presence in Lebanon and in the Middle East. And probably this is something we need to keep praying about because as Christians, we have an important role in the Middle East, not in the past, but today in shaping the minds of the people around us and sharing the love of Christ in this spot of the word that needs reconciliation. And I believe we are good witness of reconciliation as a church, and even as a minority. Because we are minority the sign of strength as well, because we can play a role in reconciliation.

María Cornou: 

And in these particular times, what we are seeing around the world is that Christians come together to serve communities and in this health crisis and we see more signs of unity , is it the case in Lebanon too ?

Najla Kasaab: 

Yes. I want to say when people are suffering, they become united because pain brings them together. In the last explosion, the youth on the street who were collecting the glass were Christians and Muslims and the suffering were the suffering. At that moment you don't think if it's a Christian or Muslim or poor or rich, but because, you know, all of us were affected and all of us, especially the young people were involved in lessening the pain that that was happening in Beirut. You know, many of you might know that Lebanon is going through a... besides the Corona, we had the explosion and we have a severe economic crisis, which even when I was in the U.S., It started where we have our currency is devalued 70%. We lost the value of our currency. At the same time, we cannot withdraw money from the banks so, the d ump of the people, 40% of the people even more have lost their jobs. Big number have half a salary. I know from our schools as synod, we have our schools, we have 800 workers who work with us. They all have been having half a salary since March. Imagine in the midst of crisis, the value of the Lebanese pound is devalued and people are earning half a salary. We never thought that Lebanon could reach this level of poverty and it was fast and we're worried that in the coming months it might be even more difficult where the poor are around us, in our churches. And this is why as a church, we discovered it's not enough to preach. We have to share the food with the people. We started this ministry of providing food for families. And then we have a new NGO called Compassion Protestant Society, where when the explosion, for example happened in Beirut, around 300,000 people were displaced and this is the center of the city. People were left with no homes with no food. Many of these were middle c ass, but in few seconds they have no home, no foods. So our church was involved in a project of providing food for these families. At the same time, we have a project that's going on now of helping people to rebuild their homes. Our church is involved in providing 1000 families. We give them $1,000 a family just to help them in fixing the glass and that's a very small amount of the need that is there. So yes, we are close to the pain of the people and we discovered we cannot be the church and not do that. We cannot be the church and not be on the streets with the people. In the last month it shaped us. We already are weak out of the Corona virus, but it became even weaker with the explosion happening and the crisis. As you might hear my sermon, this crisis shaped us and it gave us new strength and can you hope to be the church in a new way. We are i n different church after all the difficulties that we have faced,

María Cornou: 

Certainly! And because our main area of service and research is worship, how this pandemic, how this crisis blasts the other crisis? You mentioned how it reshaped your worship practices.

Najla Kasaab: 

Because of the COVID, we had to close since March, we started to close and open on different intervals and many of our churches could not hold face to face worship. Many of our churches started online preaching and at the beginning, people were so happy to be hearing three, four sermons a Sunday, where you end up hearing all the pastors of the synod preaching. But I want to say people got tired after a while of the virtual preaching, in that. We were able to open for a few weeks, for example, last Sunday, because we are in total lockdown, we could not have face-to-face worship. And next Sunday, we will not have face-to-face worship. So many of our pastors would be preaching online. When we were able to have face-to-face worship, we discovered that people were scared to come to church, especially the older generation, you know, COVID infused fear. You know, people don't know how to really react because there's concerns that because we have lost four hospitals in Lebanon, because of the explosion, now, we don't have beds for those who get infected, especially in the emergency units, you know, and the intensive care units. This is why in the midst of the time that we needed these big strong hospitals, out of the explosion, we lost them. And this is why people are scared to get sick, because if they get sick, they cannot have the proper care that they need to have. So people were scared to come to church and I remember a church where I usually worship, the pastor calling and encouraging people to come. We worship together with masks on; there's a hygiene kit at the entrance where people clean their hands. Even the time we drink coffee together, we are supposed to have our masks on. The interesting part is to hold a communion in this context where the pastor had to clean his hands in front of everybody so that we trust him that it's clean. Even nobody, he had to give the bread for the people, nobody's allowed to touch because we were afraid of the virus. But I was thinking, this is a time of worship and people's concern was the level of hygiene. We are disturbed with what's happening, you know, but at least people can be together, can insist that we will keep ongoing , despite the challenge of the Coronavirus. Lots of deaths that are happening, younger generations, and every Sunday we hear about somebody who got sick and died in that . So the worship context is a challenging one as well and probably our worship, we tried to help people to overcome the fear that the coronavirus has put in people's lives.

María Cornou: 

Is there any particular passage from the scripture that has been important for your worshiping community in these times or any particular song?

Najla Kasaab: 

You know, for sure the songs that speak about healing are songs that speak to people in that. The songs have been an important cry, Psalm 13, you know. So, psalms did speak to people at this time. It affects this cry of sometimes feeling left alone, you know, and asking God to be there with us in that. For sure, every time we go to church, there's encouragement and when we hear that we cannot worship like this Sunday , people feel down and I think one of the main difficulty of this virus is going up and down with all the changes that we have no predictions about tomorrow. So yes, people, those who could come probably the first time they were scared, but then they started to come and feel like, yes, we can remain this community worshiping together, despite all that (unintelligible).

Host: 

You are listening to public worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

María Cornou: 

Yeah and what you say is very important because one of the main challenges of all congregations these times is to continue nurturing the spirit of being a community, of being part of a community. And for some people, technology helps, but some, many others really miss to be face-to-face with siblings in Christ worshiping together. So, at least you have had this time of worship services were open, now closed again. In some other places, the period of isolation continues so many different challenges around the world. I'd like to invite our colleagues at the Worship Institute to ask you questions. I'm sure they have very good questions in mind.

John Witvliet: 

Najla, could you reflect a little on your work with World Communion of Reformed Churches and just, what are some of the common themes that you're hearing there? And I'm particularly thinking of maybe new ways that a communion like this actually is especially needed during this time to foster awareness learning during the pandemic. So I'd love for your reflections on that global work.

Najla Kasaab: 

Yes! For sure as a communion, we were affected in not being able to visit our churches around the communion, but I want to say this is a shaping time for us as a communion. We discovered our strategic plan was baptized in this new context about what creates impact on lives. The value of worship has become a central part in what we do because, you know, worship gives strength at this moment. We shifted our resources to help the people who are affected by the COVID 19. Our partnership punt , for example, was shifted to help places where, who cannot have basic hygiene and basic, you know, to help them in that. We discovered this is a time to deepen the communion because you know, it is how we relate to each other as churches, how to check on the churches in the communion. We discovered also how to use our resources in a better way. We just found out how much we put money on traveling and we discovered that we can do things in a different way and use these resources to something more impactful in the life of the churches. As a communion, we could not have our meeting executive committee meeting last year. We don't know if we'll be able to have our executive committee meeting this year, but we have a new program about after COVID where we are discussing how can this also help us to think in new ways. I think the pandemic opened our eyes on injustices, even in a different way. For the people, yes, the whole workplace, the pandemic, but there are people who struggled more because of lack of medical care, lack of good hospitalization, good resources. One thing that we are challenged with at the communion, you know, when people are in their pain, they tend to withdraw to themselves. And if I want to say there is distancing people feel it's not easy to come to connect in these days. This is a challenge for us as a communion, because people are taken by their pain and how to give them, encouraged them to get up and get to have a stronger relation as a communion will be our challenge in the future. I think the same challenge will be in our worship after the COVID is finished, because people don't feel like going to church as much. They have went into this, you know, lonely cocoon where there's dealing with their pain and this distancing how to overcome this distancing, I think will be our challenge for all of us as a communion and as congregations. You know, one of the questions that María asked me, what's special about t he Middle East? We live in a context of hospitality, I mean, one of the values that we have is hospitality and distancing we lost that hospitality. We have separations happening. The same thing is happening with our churches, you know, in the community, we feel not connected well at this time and how to connect again would it be our challenge and how to connect in a new way? I don't think the world will go back to the way we were before COVID-19 and as a communion, we will not go back to the same way. We are challenged to move into a new way of deepening the communion, even of dealing with issues of injustice.

María Cornou: 

Najla, this has been not only a the time of difficulties, but also a time of learning. I am asking the same question to global leaders: what wisdom, which wisdom has been especially important during this time of crisis and what can we learn from you, from the church in Lebanon, if you can tell us yes.

Najla Kasaab: 

Yes. You know, I like that question that you shared, you mentioned. And I was thinking, you know, with your question about what's after COVID, how would our congregations be after COVID? And I was thinking, you know, we have the challenge of breaking down the walls or distancing, even in the way we worship. We are challenged to, in our congregations to build the trust again, because there is fear, people are scared from each other in worship, and how does the church blends worship in a way to break these walls of distancing that COVID has created? You know, as a culture, when we focused on hospitality, how do we live hospitality again, in our congregations. You know, in the Middle East, if you are not hospitable people, don't trust that you love them. Hospitality is to have it in the church and I want to say this was the most difficult for us during this COVID because we have built walls with our neighbors. We could not see our neighbors, we could not spend time with them and to how to break these walls again and bring trust among the people of God would be our concern in after the COVID in that. I was thinking that as Protestants, usually... my professor used to say: we many times end up worshiping from here till up. I think our body is , this is very forming worship. We probably, we need to break this through this journey of breaking distancing, you know, of having the challenge of connecting with others. I wanted to read with you a prayer that I learned from the Lutheran Bishop in Germany describing, he says, "our souls are confused, all the physicals signs of connectedness, hands reaching out to each other, speaking closely, face-to-face, unmasked, embracing each other, giving each other hugs, all these physical science , which so far has been as expressions of love have now become the enemy of love, have become a danger to the other, have become a potential source of suffering. I think COVID planted in us a new way of this sensing, and we have to rebuild all this again after COVID. We have to use our bodies in worship to cross this distancing that we have. Your question made me reflect about what's next and acting as reformed , you know, we need to remain proper and sound, but I think we need to see how we can break this distancing, help to even with our bodies in worship. Another thing that I was thinking of... there is lots of sadness in the air. People are not happy and you know, even in, in, on zooms in the church, there is some kind of place that we are sad and I thought our worship should be a place of joy worship. How to reform our worship in a joyful way to heal the sadness that we are. That shaking, we were shaken. It's so unusual what's happened. How to rebuild a worship that can bring joy and happiness into the lives of the people. And probably COVID taught us not to take each other for granted. We never thought , you know, even the people that we saw in church, I remember for a few weeks, we could not see each other and I could see in the supermarket, the people talking from one rack to another, just because they missed each other, they wanted to see each other. I think not to take that relation to human beings for granted. Probably one good thing that's happened in the school, but it taught us the value of this other person in the congregation, where at some time we just saw them as one person but now we recognized how valuable they are to our lives and to the body of Christ. It's a challenging time and to be able to infuse this joy is our challenge. To make our churches a place of joy and seeing Lord I'm not giving up. I want to tell you I've been to this struggle through this time. I mean, usually I'm a joyful person, but there were moments I felt like Najla, COVID got you. I felt down, confused and to be able to go back into this, we need the seating and we need the seating together where we able to stand again, trust the future. And you know , to us where I live, it's not a COVID, it's a crisis, it's an explosion and we reached a time we said, it's too much. And then we discovered in this too much what is there. He's the one who was able to, it took us time to be able to laugh, to speak. I could meet people, hey were silent because they were shocked with what's happened. I believe healing should be in our worship. Our worship should be the source of we are together and we are healed together in that. We've had to work a lot to encourage people to come to church after COVID because some of them, you know, that used to be at home. You know, I have a sofa in my sitting room, I never sat on it. I'm traveling all the time and then I found myself every morning with my coffee sitting on that sofa. And they said, here you go, I have become that woman sitting on my sofa every day. Then I learned that get up, continue, because this COVID push us like that. And it's time to revive, be revived and our churches, now I think churches should be a joyful place, a place of healing, and probably we might need professional healing.

María Cornou: 

Thank you very much Najla for these words of hope, but also for your honesty and for sharing with us this time and we will continue praying for your church for the church in Lebanon , as we do for the church all over the world. Thank you very much.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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