These are my personal reflections on MENC 2018. I start with a short historical background that shows the contrast in the membership in the last three years. Then I explore the naming of the theme. It took some work to arrive at that theme and different people joined the conversation at different stages of that journey. Finally I dive into my reflections, partially published on the Assembly website. I think the full reflections include nuances and images that the edited version missed.
A Short Historical Background
Three years ago a group of people from the Middle East came together and with the help of Rev. Apwee Ting started the Middle East National Conference, the 12th, and till now the latest, national conference in the Uniting Church. I guess we can call that ground zero. At that meeting people shared what we had heard on the news about troubles and bombs in Lebanon.
The following year we had our first conference, MENC 2016. I remember most of the conversation that year was about refugees and how we could help them get their visas to Australia. There were no refugees participating at that conference. We were a small group but very passionate about our ministry.
Fast forward to MENC 2018: about 60 people attending the conference with more than 40 people new arrivals. New arrivals is the term we have decided to use instead of refugees.
The Theme of MENC 2018
For over a year, Stuart McMillan talked about the Theology of Impact of the church in the Middle East, which he had heard from one of the Lebanese church leaders. The MENC executive decided to have that as the theme of the conference for 2018. The praxis of that theology of impact comes in our ministry, so the topic of the opening service and the sermon became Ministries of Impact. Those ministries of impact are experienced in the lived of the people we touch and it is in their stories that the impact is remembered. So, our theme became Stories of Impact. The perceived change from Theology of Impact to Ministry of Impact to Stories of Impact is not really a change of theme but a progression from conception to reception to reflection.
It was important to plot this journey for those who were confused when they heard the different words, and also important for what I am about to share from my experience at MENC 2018.
There were a few moments during the conference that transformed me and reminded me of home. Home in this case being Lebanon. The food was one of those moments where we had a mix of Lebanese foods. Another moment were the conversations about the refugee situation in Lebanon and the struggle of the people there. However, the most significant one was the Arabic choir singing.
The Bankstown Choir, composed of new arrivals from Syria, sang three songs, including a solo, of old Arabic Christian songs. After they had finished, I announced that they had taken me back to Lebanon. Although music has the power to do that, it was more than just the music; it was more than just the words; and even more than just childhood memories and experiences. It was a realisation of something that I have been saying for almost two years now. Those who have heard me do an acknowledgement of country have heard me say “I come from the land on which Jesus walked.”
The Land on which Jesus Walked
The land, and nature, are integral part of Middle Eastern culture. The land reflects who we are and we reflect the land in our lives. The pride and resilience of the people in Lebanon is a reflection of the Cedar of Lebanon. Middle Eastern hospitality is a reflection of the abundance of water in out land and mountains. Many of our churches are not built but carved into the mountains making the land a house of God.
To say that Jesus walked on this land and had his impact on it means that Jesus shaped out culture. Our faith comes from our land, the land that Jesus walked and we see out faith in our land. So for us culture and faith are intermixed. To be a Middle Easterner is to have faith. When the Psalmist asks “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” It resonates with us not because God lives in the land where we came from, but because our songs and faith are from the land itself. It is with great difficulty that we sing our songs in a foreign land yet we do it because it takes us back to our land where our faith is nurtured and strengthened.
An Armenian Story of Land
There is a story of an Armenian King who was captured by a Persian King. The Armenian King pledged loyalty to the Persian King. To test his loyalty, the Persian King skas his servants to bring soil from Armenia and scatter half the tent with soil from Armenia and the other half with soil from Persia. As the two kings walk around the tent, the Arminian King would pledge alliance to the Persian King when they were on Persian soil, but as soon as they stepped on Armenian soil the King would promise to kill the Persian King.
MENC 2018 was only one day, and for me it was filled with things to do and manage the time and everything that was happening. In that hectic and stressful day, those few minutes that the Arabic Choir sang took me to the place where my faith was nurtured and I was renewed. To the Psalmist who asked how we could sing on a strange land I would say, we sing with the hope that God’s grace will renew and transform us through our songs and our heritage.