Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Lebanon

The Visible and Invisible Poor

I believe we in North America have a problem in the way we see the poor. We are acutely aware of the poor people in Africa and Asia and believe it is up to us to do something to relieve their poverty. We are blind to the existence of poverty in our own countries, because our countries are rich and there is no excuse for anyone to be poor.

Isn’t pride the principal motivator in both cases? We think ourselves better people than those who are poor; as if it was our superior wisdom that caused us to be born in prosperous countries and stable homes.

We send enormous amounts of used clothing, mosquito nets and other goodies to Africa and pat ourselves on the back for our kindness. It is not kindness – these are poisoned gifts that take jobs away from those in Africa who would be fully capable of manufacturing them.

Some years ago there was a surplus of rice in the USA. The government decided that they could help US farmers and the poor people of Haiti by donating the rice to Haiti. It did help US farmers, but before the free rice came there were farmers in Haiti growing rice and plants to process the rice. Those people all lost their livelihoods.

Our supposed generosity is a display of contempt for people in those countries; we are telling them that you are inferior people, incapable of providing for your own needs. Does that sound harsh? Aren’t we just trying to help? We may think we are helping, but we need to step back and look at the gap between our supposedly noble intentions and the damage our gifts are causing. There are voices in Africa telling us, “For God’s sake stop helping us!” We should listen to them.

Contempt is a harsh word, but isn’t that what is really behind our thinking about poor people in North America? Have they truly had the same opportunities as those who are most prosperous? The same respect, the same educational and employment opportunities?

There are many factors that can’t simply be brushed aside. There are the lingering effects of slavery in the USA, the white race riots in the Red Summer of 1919 when white mobs in two dozen US cities rampaged through black neighbourhoods, vandalizing and looting businesses and homes owned by black people, the Detroit riot of 1943 when several black people were offered supervisory jobs in the Packard plant and many other incidents. My father and his brothers grew up in the USA. Anything they ever said about black people indicated that in their minds the inferiority of black people was an unquestioned fact.

In Canada, the residential schools for indigenous people, with supposedly benevolent intentions, undermined the family structures of those people. That brings me to the principal cause of poverty in North America – the lack of fathers. Most young people who get into trouble, most members of street gangs, most petty criminals, most prostitutes, most of the poor people, have not had a father who loved and cared for them, who gave them a sense of security at home.

A friend of ours in Montreal 25 years ago, grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese cic=vil war that lasted from 1975 to 1992. Almost all the buildings in Beirut showed some damage fro the bombs and shooting. Her father, a retired military officer, told his sons that if they enlisted in the army he would not allow them into the house. He did not want to bring the turmoil outside into his home. His sons obeyed their father’s wishes. Our friend told us that whatever the strife around them, she always felt safe and secure at home.

If all men could give their families that level of security, that would go a long way to eliminate the disorders and dysfunctions of our time,.including poverty. If you have grown up with a father like that, thank God for him. And don’t despise those who live in poverty because they have not had the same opportunity.

Peace in time of war

There are four main religious groups in Lebanon: Maronite Christians, descended from the old Syriac church and united with the Roman Catholic Church, yet maintaining some of the old ways, including a married priesthood; Shiite Muslims; Sunni Muslims and Greek Orthodox. A power sharing agreement was worked out after the Second World War that worked well for a number of years. Lebanon prospered, became a major tourist destination and Beirut became the banking and financial centre of the Middle East.

That changed in 1975 with attacks by radical Muslims, PLO and Hezbollah, and a civil war ensued that lasted until 1990. Peace has never been fully restored.

Our friend Helen, from a Maronite family, was attending university in Beirut in the 1980’s. She told us that practically every building in the city had suffered some damage from the war. She rode the bus to the university every morning, carrying with her a bag with extra clothes and supplies in case she wouldn’t be able to get home that night.

Her parents home was a peaceful haven amid the strife and turmoil of the war. Her father’s presence in the home gave her a feeling of security and peace. He told his sons that they were never to think of enlisting in the army, or of getting involved in the conflict in any other way. The war was to remain outside, thee should be no strife in their home.

When she finished university the economy of Lebanon was in ruins. There seemed to be no hope of finding work, no future at all in this war torn country. She applied to immigrate to Canada and was accepted. She obtained a passport, but could not seem to obtain the document needed to leave the country. By this time the Beirut Airport was controlled by a Muslim militia. She left for the airport with her documents and ticket, praying that somehow she would be able to get on the plane.

As soon as she walked though the doors of the airport a man approached her and asked for her documents. She handed them over, then panicked as she realized how foolish that was. The man asked her to come with him and she followed in an almost dream-like state. He led her through every step of the way, ticket counter, baggage check, security and so on, always going directly to the head of the line and getting her passed through with hardly a glance at the papers. Finally she was to the boarding ramp of her airplane; he handed her papers back to her, wished her well and was gone.

It wasn’t until her plane was airborne and she was safely on her way to Montreal that it sunk in how wondrously her prayer had been answered. She has no idea who the man was, or why he helped her. Her family has no idea either.

Foreign to Familiar

flags-69190_1280

The Delta flight was leaving on time. Three of us were strapped in, one next to the other, each finding it easy to make small talk. As the plane lifted off, so did our burdens of office work. We were off to Glorietta, New Mexico, for a week-long conference, and our minds were filled with thoughts of mountains and crisp air and a break from the Atlanta downtown routine.

“So, Sarah,” my aisle-seat colleague said in that chatty manner of a tourist on vacation, “tell me what it was like growing up in Israel.”

Of all conversation openers, this was my least favourite. I’d been hearing it ever since moving to the States to begin my university studies. But, being in the middle seat, I couldn’t escape.

My desire was to respond, “No, you first. Tell me what it was like growing up in a ranch-style house in suburbia.” What was there to say? And who cares anyway?

But I did answer . . . well, sort of. “It was great,” was the extent of my glib answer.

“No, I mean it, really,” she insisted. “What is the culture like over there?”

By the window sat Aida from Lebanon. She’d been in the States eight years and was much more of an expert on Middle Eastern culture than I was. But at the moment Aida seemed to be fascinated by the window. So I took up the challenge.

“Well, I grew up in a variety of cultures. The Jewish and Arab cultures are vastly different.”

“How so?” she asked.

“In the Jewish culture you say what you think. It’s direct, and you know where you stand with people.”

I glanced at her to see if she was still with me. She was, so I continued.

“The Arab culture, on the other hand, is much more indirect. It’s all about friendliness and politeness. If offered a cup of coffee, I say ‘No, thank you.’

“The host offers it again, and I decline again, with something like: ‘No, no, don’t bother yourself.’ He might offer a third time, and I’d reply, ‘No, I really don’t want any coffee, believe me.’

“Then my host serves the coffee, and I drink it.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said, incredulously.

“No, really,” I assured her. “You’re supposed to refuse the first few times. It’s the polite thing to do.”

“Then what if you really don’t want the coffee?” she asked.

“Well, there are idioms that you can use to say that you wouldn’t for any reason refuse their kind hospitality, and at some point in the future you’ll gladly join them in coffee, but at the moment you really can’t drink it.”

Now Aida got into the conversation. “Incredible! I didn’t know that!” she said, as our heads turned her way.

“Aida,” I replied, “what do you mean that you didn’t know that? You’re Lebanese, for heaven’s sake.”

“Yes,” she said, “but I mean that I didn’t know this was not normal. I’ve been in the United States eight years already, and did not know it was done differently here. That explains so much.

“I’ve been lonely since moving here, and now I know why. When people in the office would ask me if I wanted to go to lunch, I would say ‘no’ to be polite, fully expecting them to ask me again. When they didn’t and left without me, I thought they didn’t want me along and had asked only out of politeness. In my culture, it would have been too forward to say ‘yes’ the first time.

“For this reason, I’ve had few American friends. After all these years, now I know why.”

I sat there stunned. Pondering the sadness of her story, I said to myself, “No one should have to suffer like that simply because they don’t understand the culture of another.”

For the Aidas around the world, I have written this book.

Sarah A Lanier


This is the preface to Foreign to Familiar, which I referred to in a previous post. © 2000 by Sarah A Lanier. Used with permission.

The English book is published by McDougal Publishing of Hagerstown, Maryland. ISBN 1-58158-022-3

Editions in Arabic, French, German, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish are available from the writer at the following address:

Sarah A Lanier
P.O. Box 874Clarkesville GA  30523
USA

%d bloggers like this: