The executive committee of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) met in South Africa during May 2023. Rev Najla Kassab, president of the WCRC, agreed to write this article for publication in Die Hervormer. An Afrikaans version of the text is published in the August 2023 edition. This is the original English version.
Visiting South Africa to attend the executive committee of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) from 20 to 24 May 2023, upon the invitation of the local member churches, has been a valued time that added to my insight regarding how similar economic injustices are among different countries around the world. This is not my first visit to South Africa, but this time there is a new reality and a challenge that is impacting South Africa regarding the electricity crisis, changing the whole dynamic in the country and affecting the dignity of life of all, but as always, the poor are the ones who pay the highest price.
The situation looked more like my home country, Lebanon. I come from a country that has been in the same struggle for years and just a few months ago, Lebanon was receiving two hours a day of electricity, which cripples life and turns all the organizational efforts that people achieved for years, upside down. Also, the problem in Lebanon with the electricity crisis is not merely related to the shortage of fuel or the war in Ukraine, or cost of fuel, but rather corruption on the level of the leaders and all those whom they support and who benefit from the situation and make financial profits; starting from companies that import fuel, or people who sell electric generators, or those who have opened businesses to sell electricity to the houses and companies and made fortunes out of the crisis. At a time that this issue can be solved by going green and installing solar panels that could solve most of the crisis. But because of corruption, such strategies are not encouraged. Lebanon now is under severe financial crisis and great debts. The electricity issue contributes greatly to such a situation.
Staying at The Mannah Executive Guest Lodge, Kempton Park, the manager of the place continually apologized for the situation they are facing due to load-shedding of electricity, where the internet services were affected besides heating the rooms and several other matters that they are recognizing in facing the new situation. Not forgetting the cost of fuel to keep the place running normally.
In Lebanon, the crisis impacted the life of the church and pushed her to a new imagination to serve the community. Electricity forced many families to stay at night on candles and to stop their fridges and cook mainly for a day because they cannot provide electricity for the refrigerators. The most difficult part was the struggle of patients who needed the supply of oxygen at night, and the cut in electricity could cost them their life. The hospitals could not function with efficiency because of the new reality. Also, every organization in the country had to raise its prices, whether schools, shops, restaurants, or hospitals, mainly to cover the cost of electricity.
Rev Najla Kassab (Photo: Nathan Roles)
On 4 August 2020 a large amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate which had been stored in the Beirut port exploded, leading to extensive damage and loss of life. The water-filled crater in the foreground was once a warehouse (Photo: AFP)
A major earthquake in Turkey and Syria on 6 February 2023 caused devastation in the Syrian city of Aleppo which had already been reeling from the effects of years of civil war (Photo: Reuters)
As a reformed church in Lebanon and Syria, we discovered that protecting the dignity of the people on earth is at the heart of the gospel. This is a time of action; of sharing; of hospitality; of charging another person’s telephone. Inviting the person who needs oxygen to our homes at night, is the gospel. One pastor mentioned to me that he used to spend fifteen hours to prepare his sermon. He learned that most of his time today is spent helping people to live in dignity. He said no one taught him at seminary how to face such situations, but the crisis opened his eyes to new needs and new ways of reaching out where God could be glorified.
The crisis taught us that faith is challenged to be lived, not merely preached. Words are not enough, but a ministry that reflects the love of Christ and helps people to face injustices is what people expect. The situation that the people are facing in Lebanon and Syria, whether after the explosion in the Beirut port, or the earthquake in Syria, or the war in Syria, or the economic crisis in Lebanon, has deepened the ministry of the church and pushed the church to serve beyond its walls; to strive towards fulfilling abundant life for all.
In line with the Accra confession, the church in Lebanon and Syria perceived justice as a matter of faith; matters of the economy are not only social, political, and moral issues: They are integral to faith in Jesus Christ and affect the integrity of the church. Being faithful to God’s covenant requires that individual Christians and the churches take a stand against economic and environmental injustices. The crisis called the churches to work together, and the unity of the church became critical and inevitable in facing the new reality. Unity is related to togetherness, where the people of God are called to join hands in sharing their resources and securing respected life for all. The crisis opened the eyes of all believers to the identity of the church, where the church is called to stand in solidarity with persons who are suffering and struggling. Looking through the eyes of the powerless and suffering people, shaped the mission of the church as it learned to hear the cries of the people who suffer and are undervalued by the current situation, and to serve accordingly.
Looking back at the electricity crisis, besides other struggles the church is facing today in the Middle East, one recognizes how a crisis could turn into kairos. Despite the pain that a crisis brings, still it is a space where we recognize God’s work and blessings. It is a time of shaping; it is a space where God manifests new blessings. In the midst of the crisis, the church recognized new imagination and new hope. As the Wittenberg witness puts it:
Together we long for renewed imagination of what being the church in communion could mean – for our world, in our time. We need new imagination to live together in ways that would embrace our unity not only as a gift but also as a calling. We need new imagination to dream of a different world, a world where justice, peace and reconciliation prevail. We need new imagination to practise spiritualities of resistance and prophetic vision, spiritualities in service of life, spiritualities formed by the mission of God.
In facing a crisis, one of the challenges is whether, as a church, we are ready to take new steps in a mission, whether we are ready to strive to acquire new imagination for living our ministry. One could be stuck with the pain faced and feel helpless, or find new energy and strength that God bestows on us. Keeping hope is key to whether a crisis could turn into kairos and could be a time of new imagination.
Just after the last earthquake that struck Aleppo, the pastor in our church there wrote on his Facebook page the words: No Comment. That church did overcome Covid, war, destruction of the church building, poverty, and many other challenges of survival. Just as they were breathing again, the earthquake hit them. But this is not the end of the story. In the midst of all the pain and just a few hours after the earthquake, the community of believers launched a new ministry, opening their facilities to receive the homeless who lost their homes, and feeding them and discovering new ways of reaching out to the suffering around them. They became a church with hope and strength; revived with new imagination for sharing the love of Christ. Today the church in Aleppo is a stronger church than before, inspired by the work of the Holy spirit. Serving the community has helped the church to be renewed and to live with hope.
Just after the explosion in the Beirut port, the youth in our church started a ministry of cleaning the homes that were destroyed. They spent their days helping the injured, providing food, comforting those who were shocked by the loss of their loved ones. Their ministry moved to the streets, to new spaces that they never imagined could bring hope to them. They discovered new ways of living their faith and enjoying how God was using them as instruments for healing.
Today, whether in Lebanon or South Africa, the level of corruption and the challenge that we are facing regarding the electricity crisis, could discourage us. Many would think that the crisis is too big for the church to handle. Still, as a church, we have a great role to play. Getting fully involved might not change the reality much, but it changes us as a church. It helps us to be a light and hope for others. It shapes our faith and teaches us to live our faith at the level of hospitality. It also invites the younger generations to trigger their imagination in ways that preserve the dignity of all; to encourage them to live their faith with their neighbours. Also, in the midst of all the pain, we are encouraged to be the voice of the voiceless and to speak against corruption, even if that could sound like a voice in the wilderness. In a crisis, we learn to spell our faith in practical terms, on all days of the week, sharing the struggle of all to survive, and to live with the hope for that which Jesus promised, for life here on earth, as in heaven.
(Authors are responsible for the factual content of and perspectives in their articles.)