A Beacon of Hope in a Broken Beirut

Image: P. Clarkson / The pastor of National Evangelical Church surveys the damage from the Beirut explosion.
Image: P. Clarkson / The pastor of National Evangelical Church surveys the damage from the Beirut explosion.

Sitting at his desk in the second-floor office adjacent to the historic National Evangelical Church of Beirut, Habib Badr calmly filled out the wedding registry. It was a ritual the almost 70-year-old had performed countless times over the course of his 35-year ministry.

The next day, there would be a funeral. A stalwart member of his congregation, the former head of reconstructive surgery at the American University of Beirut hospital during the years of civil war, had passed away of natural causes.

It seemed there were more funerals than weddings these days, Badr thought. But the nostalgic church would always draw young people ready to exchange their vows, even from the scattered Lebanese diaspora, in imitation of their parents a generation before.

There was something special about the lighting. On a clear day, parishioners could see the distant snow-covered peak of Mt. Sannine, towering over the capital below. Three years ago, the church replaced its eight ordinary windows. Bracketing the sanctuary pews with translucent glass depicting the three crosses of Calvary above colored stones, they aimed to remind worshipers of the ever-present Rock of Ages, upon whom the church is built.

Lebanese evangelicals don’t prefer stained glass windows with human imagery, Badr said. This serves to distinguish them from original Catholic and Orthodox heritages.

“To the missionaries, we say, ‘Go home,’” a Lebanese Greek Orthodox bishop had publicly proclaimed a generation earlier. “And to the Protestants we say, ‘Come back home.’”

But for Badr and his congregants, they were already home. The National Evangelical Church, the oldest Arabic-speaking Protestant congregation in the Middle East, was formed in 1848. Badr’s grandfather Yusuf was the first native pastor, installed in 1890.

And as if to emphasize, the circular window high above the pulpit—installed in 1998—pictured a cross above Mt. Sannine, with an image of the church in the foothills below. Originally constructed in 1869, the architecture was a blend of Scottish and Lebanese styles.

Every Sunday, the symbolism would resonate: A Reformed church, nestled like any other Lebanese home into the rugged mountainous terrain.

Badr’s wedding thoughts were abruptly shaken by a small tremor. Small earthquakes periodically rattle the small Mediterranean nation two-thirds the size of Connecticut, so the pastor stood and prepared to momentarily take refuge underneath his office doorframe.

It was not a moment too soon. The Beirut explosion, triggered by 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port, sent shattered glass spewing across his desk. His sixth-floor apartment suffered similar damage, as did the National Conservatory, which rents the rest of the building.

And in his church, across a now debris-strewn flower garden, seven of the eight windows were blown out, crashing onto the pews below. Badr estimates the total damage throughout the complex as not less than $200,000.

But this salvage operation will be far less costly than the last.

Damage at National Evangelical Church of Beirut

Last year on March 31, the National Evangelical Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of its building. But for roughly two decades, all that remained standing was the church tower.

The civil war turned Beirut into a battlefield. Built right next to the Grand Serail, the headquarters of the prime minister, shells exchanged between opposing Christian, Muslim, and Palestinian militias reduced the historic church to rubble. After being displaced to the relatively safe chapel at the Near East School of Theology in the Hamra district of Beirut, it took two years after the 1990 Ta’ef Accord brought peace between the various factions before the congregation could even contemplate a rebuild.

With the church completed in 1998 in almost the exact same style, at a cost of $2.8 million, Badr installed the circular window as a symbol of hope. But he also faced a rapidly declining membership. At the start of the civil war, the National Evangelical Church and its eight affiliated Lebanese congregations boasted 900 families. After the 15-year conflict, they were reduced to 300.

Post-war reconstruction took off in 1993, restoring some of the original glory of Beirut. But it also transformed the local area, replacing many of the residential quarters with high-rise apartments and glitzy commercial districts. Christian families moved out to the suburbs, where other evangelical churches were close by.

Today there are 250 member families on the books. But many of these are in name only, having long effectively relocated to the diaspora. Weekly attendance averages 150 people, though it can swell to 500 on the Christmas and Easter holidays.

It is a far cry from the heyday of Protestant missions. Though its early years saw even fewer. In 1823, Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionaries settled outside the city walls of the small seaside town of Beirut on the then-Syrian coastline. Prevented by the Ottoman Empire from taking residence in Jerusalem, the American Mission Compound adopted a strategy to engage the existing churches and spark a reformation from within. The Levant already numbered 17 religious sects. Why create another?

The Maronite patriarch received them kindly, but did not support their efforts.

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Source: Christianity Today