Attention. Please do not proceed if news of suffering troubles you.
A Scriptural Background
In Acts, chapter eleven, a prophet named Agabus, and several others prophesied that a great famine would overtake the Roman world. Three famines occurred during Claudius's reign (41-54 AD). The first was in Rome in 41-42 AD. The second was in Judea in 45 AD. (This was the one that concerned Paul.) The third was in Greece in 50 AD.
Paul, concurring with their declaration, began to enlist his churches in Asia Minor and Europe to set aside funds to purchase provisions for the churches (congregations/members), specifically in Judea, as well as the unbelievers, who could be brought to Christ by their example and charity in sharing. Some churches gave more than they could afford. Others gave embarrassingly less than they were able. We find references to Paul encouraging and praising as well as rebuking and shaming the churches, depending not on the amount they gave but their giving compared to their means. You may know this, but did you know that from the time of the prophecy to the time of the Judean famine, there was a space of nearly ten years? For the nay-sayers, ten years must have seemed a long time to give for something that had not yet happened. For those convinced, ten years was a long time to lay aside funds often needed elsewhere. Still, Paul was consistent in reminding his churches that they, in a sense, owed their salvation to the believers of the region who had been instrumental in bringing them the gospel. It is interesting that immediately after the prophecy, followers of Christ in Antioch began to give "every man according to his ability." (Acts 11:29)
And so, they gave. Paul collected their funds and traveled to where the need was, along with his team, to see that the funds were appropriately disbursed by the hands of the church elders. Still today, we use Paul's method of announcement, collection, and disbursal in our ministry. Incidentally, this famine is thought to have lasted three years, so the churches began to give a decade in advance and likely continued to give until there was no longer a need. Thirteen years.
I am sometimes asked if there is no end to us having to help the brethren in the Middle East, binding their wounds, strengthening their spirits, feeding them, and caring for their widows and orphans. I am sure there is an end, but it is not in sight. That end may finally come only when the trumpet blows. Recall that the trauma and events of the last days will occur primarily in this region. That being the case, how can we ignore them? How can we forget them?
The Current Situation
The world knows that on February 6, this past Monday, two earthquakes and multiple aftershocks hit SE Turkey, about forty miles from where the Antioch church was located. You may not know that our ministry started several churches in Antioch long ago, all of which have disappeared over the years and, hopefully, dispersed to other areas, as has our Church on Straight Street in Damascus. Still, our main concentration of work is just across the border in Syria. Monday morning, we lost our primary leader. He and his wife were crushed as they slept in their tiny, third-floor apartment. One floor above, another great leader, along with his wife and three children, also perished.
Though we do not yet know the full measure of the event, here is what we do know as of Friday night:
We have thirty-three families in one town that now have no home. They escape with only the night clothes they were wearing. Seventeen other families in another location, a few miles away, are now surviving on the street as their homes were destroyed. And at least a dozen others in their general area have also perished.
Many, including an unknown number of the refugees we relocated last year and for whom many of you gave to provide food, have also been lost. As a result, we now have over 4,000 souls unaccounted for.
Scores of buildings collapsed during the quakes in a nearby seaport city. Though well-built, they have become weakened during the nearly two-decade civil war. This loss of life among our church members has resulted in 114 orphans we must now care for. Sixty-eight of them are between the ages of three and six. The others are ages seven to fourteen. (Think about that for a moment. These are the orphans of our Church Family. If we do not care for them, who will?)
Over the years, we often rented water trucks when water was unavailable. Our members had also scraped and saved to purchase four cars that could clandestinely deliver food and medicine to our members and be used to transport them to a hospital. Unfortunately, all four vehicles are gone. One was stolen, and three were crushed in the rubble of falling buildings.
The regional water supply has ruptured, leaving people with no drinking water. Nor is there any electricity, heating oil, or food. (Some food is available, but the cost is astronomical.) Our people and unbelievers have no beds, mattresses, blankets, or warm clothing. Nor is there any hope of getting any of these items to survive. What nations give to the people must flow through the ports, the government, and the military. In each step, the supply is decreased by a considerable percentage. Precious little is left for the people and is not given freely; it is sold to those with enough to purchase it. First to members of the religious sect prevalent there, then to other Muslims, and finally to anyone else. Making matters worse, the daytime temperature is in the mid-30s with continual rain; at night, the temperature drops to the low-20s. Strangers huddle together for warmth in any spot that will get them out of the rain.
Beyond all this suffering, militias, hoping to raise funding for their cause, kidnap people for their organs. As you know, these victims are brutalized and cut open with only enough anesthesia to keep them still; once the organs are removed, their bodies are dumped outside on the rubble. Sometimes, when a nearly dead person is pulled from the rubble, rather than help them, they reap them for their parts.
In safe countries, many cry out, asking and accusing, "Where is God? Why would He allow this?" My question is not where is God, but rather, where are God's people? Why would they (we) allow these trials to continue when we can, without sacrifice, alleviate them? We wouldn't allow our dogs to suffer in this way, but we turn our faces away from humans, our brothers and sisters in Christ, as if this is an ancient historical event that we heard about in school decades ago.
But as we have in the past, and with your help, we will continue to help them as God provides the supply.
Our Two-fold Plan
First, we endeavor to find our people. Then, care for their needs, and bury the dead.
We know where our members live. Those we find alive, we move into the apartments of other church members. These small apartments, barely 300 square feet in size, house up to twenty people per apartment.
To find them, we have organized teams of teenagers and young adults who go to the street where a member lives and try to identify the building amongst the rubble. When possible, we send guards with them for protection from rape, beatings, and kidnapping. Generally, half will work in the freezing rain for three hours while the other half sits in the heated car. Then they switch off. When they find a building intact and the family secure, we ascertain how many survivors they can take into their homes. If the building has collapsed, they search through the rubble, listening for the groaning of survivors and trying to dig them out. At the end of the day, names are compiled of the living and the dead.
These young people have no dogs to sniff for survivors. They have no equipment to scoop out tons of debris; they don't even have shovels or picks. So instead, they use their hands, lifting vast blocks of stone and cement, prying up the corner of a larger piece they cannot lift, and using leverage to lift it high enough to place a block beneath it, then clawing into the debris underneath. Their nails are broken, their hands bruised, and blood flows down their arms, having been scraped by rough bricks and punctured by the rebar (iron support bars encased in concrete posts and beams) as they try to find the remains of their church family. They have no water to satisfy their thirst or food to give them strength. And when they return to the assembled Church after sunset, there is no balm for their wounds to prevent infection. How many days can they continue their search before they, too, succumb to the effects of the quake?
One team reported that after a day of digging, when they finally reached one family, they found the husband and wife in bed, wrapped around their small child. They said it was evident that the family did not die immediately, as they had cradled their child between them while embracing each other. The child perished with his hands clasped together under his chin, as a child would do while praying.
Second, while searching, they help others they find, in the name of our Savior, the Lord of the Cross, Jesus.
It was written that the early church "turned the world upside down." This was not just by their witness alone but by the strength of their witness enforced with their works. They were known to be Christians, followers of Christ, not by church attendance, their songs, their preaching, or their righteous living, but by their love. As God had manifested (demonstrated) His love by sending his Son, they also demonstrated His love (and theirs) by caring for the needy – the widows, orphans, and prisoners; the weak, hungry, and homeless.
Let me take you there by sharing this one story with you.
Several years ago, a family whom our national missionaries (church planters) had evangelized determined to flee their area of persecution and travel to our home base, hundreds of miles away and across the desert. They sold their wedding bands, extra clothes, and furniture, and all they had to buy food and water on the journey. Mahmoud, his wife Mona, and their three children, one of whom was a newborn, made the trek by resting during the day and traveling at night, hoping to avoid militias and military checkpoints. They finally arrived, and the Church cared for them, helped them get into an apartment, and find work. So why had they risked all for this journey? Mahmoud said, "We wanted to be near the Church." (Meaning the congregation, the people, not a building.)
(Mahmoud was now forty-one, and his wife thirty-one. Their three children included two girls, Seham, age nine, and Manal, age six, and one boy, Nadar, three years of age. Two days before the quake, while at Church, the members joked with them that since they always have a new baby every three years, it was time for another.)
On Tuesday at 6 AM, we sent a team of three young men to look for our survivors. Mustafa (a strong, robust seventeen-year-old boy) and two average-sized nineteen-year-olds, Khalid and Monzir. We have seven families living in the area where they were assigned, including Mahmoud and his family. When they arrived, they found the entire block was devastated. They thought for a moment, trying to find a landmark to recognize the building where Mahmoud lives. Finally, they reasoned which building to search, and fortunately, though crumbling, it still had portions of the floors rising to the sky like a skeleton with no flesh.
They began their search on the second floor. (There is no "first" floor, it is called the "ground" floor, and so you go from the ground floor to the second floor. On each level, they would pause to listen for the moaning and groaning of any survivors. Still, they were eager to get to the fourth floor where Mahmoud lived. Climbing over the rubble in the stairwell made for a difficult journey, but when they finally reached the floor, they began calling out the names of the family, pausing a moment between names. Then they heard whimpering and, like madmen, began to cast aside chunks of bricks and cement to find the survivor. Dust was flying everywhere, and in their hurry, they were pelting each other with fragments of the walls. Despite the sub-freezing temperature, the sweat mixed with blood from their heads, hands, and arms. And then they saw him, the little boy, and as the heavy chunks fell away, he struggled to reach out his hands to familiar faces. He was alive.
Now, with a strength they did not know they had, their efforts increased until they found the bodies of the entire family. All were dead. So, one by one, they freed the bodies and prepared them for the next team to retrieve so we could bury them in a Christian manner, rather than their bodies being dumped on a pile of other rotting corpses and bulldozed into an unmarked grave. Finally, one of the team members picked up the little boy, and they prepared to descend and begin looking for the next church member's home. Sunset was upon them, but they still had the energy to search for another hour or so. As they turned their backs on the lifeless bodies of their friends, the little boy stretched his arms toward them as if he was trying to reach them and began to scream out, Abood (father), Baba (my father), and Mama (my mother). Perhaps they could hear him calling them from the walls of Heaven, but if so, they knew that they could not go to him but that he would someday come to them. Their little boy Nader is among the sixty-eight orphans in our care, ages three to six.
If we don't care for these children, all of whom are from parents that converted from Islam to Christ, their families will take them from us and raise them as Muslims. We cannot allow the parents, now in Heaven, to see their children raised to despise Jesus and lose them for eternity.
We need your help to care for the orphans and families still whole. We must immediately provide food, water, blankets, mattresses, clothing, medicine, shoes, heaters, heating oil, and many other things. And not for one boy, or sixty-eight newly orphaned children, but for nearly 4,000 people -- our people, our Family in Christ.
It is a great blessing to be the channel of His provision. And this is why I must now appeal to you for help. Please understand that we have no idea how much will be needed. We have not yet found nor counted all the dead. We have not yet found our people who may be wandering the streets looking for us and too weak to walk the distance to our churches. They have not eaten for five days. They shiver in the cold, and some, if not many, have already died in the sub-freezing temperatures at night. Still, based on the data available, we need resources to carry them through at least the next six months. The Judean believers had a three-year famine. I pray ours will not be that long. However, if it is, we will be faithful to them until their need is vanquished.
I realize this is not personal to you. You have not been there; you do not know them. But our man, our director, knows them all. He won most of them to Christ; he discipled the pastors and knows them all by name. I even know some. The first pastor I spoke of was my friend. We have often talked, and it has been my honor to raise help for him. The second pastor was still a young boy, about eight years old, when we met. He grew up in an underground, illegal church and had given his entire life to serving God by serving his people. So, please understand that it is personal to me. I know many needs pull at your attention. Please consider this great need among them and donate whatever you can to help us save them.
We have the means to get the funds to them and bypass the corruption. We have been doing this for nearly two decades, and our supply chain is firm and reliable. Our problem is not the supply chain but the lack of supply. For that, we pray to God and appeal to you to be the channel of His blessing. We intend to care for the needs of our people first, then to share with unbelievers. We plan to open a feeding center in each of our house churches as a "soup kitchen," providing hot soup with vegetables, some meat, and pita bread. We will do this as long as the supply lasts, giving to anyone hungry, offering to fill their stomach for a few hours and to fill their spirit forever with the Bread of Life.
Our immediate goal is to raise $130,000. This amount should allow us to provide for their survival needs and give them warm places to live, food, medicine, and clothing; enough for our 4,000 surviving to be re-establish. That is $32.50 per person. Later we will investigate the possibility of starting an orphanage.
I know this is a lot. The disciples said that as 5,000 men plus women and children sat before them (about one hundred miles south of our locations). How can we feed this crowd; we don't have enough money. Then, how can we feed this crowd if we only have one basket of food (which for us is $32.50 per person)? Still, a few moments later, the limit of their resources was overcome by the limitlessness of His power. Everyone was fed with an abundance left over.
I would rather distribute His abundance than doubt His ability. Now, will you please help us pass out these baskets? The people are hungry.
Two of our pastors’ families for whom I asked your prayers yesterday have evidently perished. The building they lived in totally collapsed. One, a great leader, whom we thought would take over the ministry there, perished with his wife. His daughter fled to Europe several years back after continued persecution, including multiple episodes of rape, beatings, and being shot. She will not see her mom or dad here again. Her brother, a young man, was away that night, so his life was spared.
The day before the quake, we discussed his needs. He has been so severely and so often persecuted that he cannot stand to preach for more than fifteen minutes at a time. He told us that he wanted to go on to Heaven and didn’t know how much more suffering he could endure. Twelve hours later, he and his wife were walking on golden streets.
The other was a family whom I had never met. They came to Christ and have grown in their faith after my visit there. He was pastoring several house churches as well. Unfortunately, he, his wife, and their two children were crushed during the quake.
I am slowly writing a compilation of persecution stories containing chapters on these men and their families.
As aftershocks of 4.0 continue, more buildings fall due to their weakened conditions resulting from shelling in their eleven-year civil war.
In addition to the refugees we were already caring for, we have an additional 285 people who have lost their dwellings.
God is so good.
We asked you to give to our Christian refugees a week ago ($16,000), and you immediately gave $35,000 more than we asked for. I wondered why our Lord led you to do so. Now I know. He provided through you for a need that He knew we would soon have. Those extra funds are already on their way. How much worse would the story be if we were only starting to raise funds now?
We will let you know more as we receive more data. But please understand that it is time for us to begin earnestly raising funds for their relief. They have only the clothes they were wearing, primarily night clothes. They are cold, the temperatures during the day hover just above freezing – and it is raining – and the water freezes at night. They have no diesel to heat with, no propane, fuel, or electricity. Our people are suffering.
The question I expect most frequently at this time is, do we have preachers and church members in the area of the earthquake? My answer is Yes, many.
While we are working on getting reports and updates, let me tell you what I know at this moment. By seven this morning, we had ascertained that many of our families are now homeless. This includes families that we relocated and for whom you have so generously given funding for food, clothing, heating oil, etc. (If you see news reports, you will see there is deep snow on the ground. It is cold there.)
Building buildings are still collapsing in our base city, about one hundred miles from the epicenter. The government has forbidden entry into the streets that are among the worst damaged. Unfortunately, two of our primary leaders live in one of the pancaked buildings. We have not yet heard from them or their families. And worse, we cannot get in to search for them.
Please pray fervently for these two leaders, their families, and all our other families in the area. Pray for their safety and their ability to witness to those who are now in such great danger.
You know that as we learn more, we will inform you and ask for your help to care for our Family there and those who do not yet know our Saviour, whom they call, The Lord of the Cross. If you want to get a head start with a donation, you can give online here, or mail in a check and designate it to "Syrian Earthquake Damage".