By Aaron Weaver
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the crowd: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
For all Christians, loving one’s enemy is no easy task. Jesus’ command seems impossible to fulfill. For Chaouki Boulos, being able to love his enemy forever changed his life. Living out this revolutionary command took transformation — it took a relationship with Jesus.
Chaouki has spent the past 30-plus years celebrating Jesus with anyone willing to listen. Today, the Lebanon native and his wife, Maha, who serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, find themselves sharing Jesus and feeding the hungry in the middle of the world’s biggest humanitarian emergency — the Syrian refugee crisis.
“They were the real enemy to me.”
It was 1977. Chaouki was an 18-year-old teen in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. One afternoon his father made a routine trip to a nearby store to pick up some medicine. Chaouki and his mother waited for
Mr. Boulos to return. They waited and waited. He never returned.
Chaouki’s father had been murdered on his way to the store by a Syrian soldier. It was a massacre — a brutal slaughter of everyone in sight. His father was left to die in the street for hours with the other victims, slowly bleeding to death.
“When that happened, I was extremely sad,” Chaouki shared. “If you asked me, ‘who is your enemy?’, I would tell you Syrians are my enemy. They were the real enemy to me.”
Prior to the murder of Chaouki’s father, sectarian fighting in Lebanon had erupted into a full-fledged war. The Lebanese Civil War witnessed the Maronite Catholics, who held the presidency and other key government positions, pitted against a coalition of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, including the forces of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The complex war would last 15 years and leave more than 150,000 dead and nearly a million displaced.
The murder of his father had transformed the soft-spoken Chaouki into a hardened person trying to survive in the midst of chaos. Several years later, Chaouki found Jesus at a revival. He became a Baptist believer and enrolled at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. Chaouki also fell in love with Maha, the daughter of a successful Lebanese businessman. Maha was a graduate of Beirut’s American University, where she majored in English and discovered her talent as a translator. The couple soon married.
In 1989, Chaouki and Maha left war-torn Lebanon for the United States. For almost a decade, Chaouki worked to establish Arabic-speaking congregations in North Carolina and South Carolina. During that decade, Chaouki never once returned to his homeland. But, he never stopped praying for a great revival to sweep across the Middle East. Then, in 1999, as the world was planning to celebrate the new millennium, Chaouki sensed a call to return to Lebanon. He had a dream — to celebrate Jesus.
“I called one of my best friends and told him that I had a dream,” Chaouki explained. “I wanted to come to Lebanon and gather all the Christians, invite all the Muslims, the Druze and everyone to celebrate 2,000 years since the birth of our Lord.”
His friend questioned how Chaouki could pull this off. Chaouki didn’t know. He did know, however, that Lebanon’s embrace of religious freedom might offer “the open door to reach the peoples of the Middle East.”
Since the Taif Accord that marked a beginning to the end of the Lebanese Civil War — forming a government
jointly-controlled by Christians and Muslims, Lebanon has been regarded as one of the most democratic nations in the Middle East. Religious groups exist side-by-side with mostly amicable relationships, where Muslims account for an estimated 60 percent of the population and Christians make up 39 percent.
Chaouki and Maha returned to Lebanon and connected with Operation Antioch, a non-denominational ministry, to organize a high-powered evangelistic service in July 2000 in downtown Beirut. Around 500 people showed up for the first night of lively music and preaching. Attendance doubled the second night. By the fourth night, the crowd had topped 2,300, surpassing the event’s seating capacity. More than 200 professions of faith were made that night, according to Maha, inspiring the Bouloses to continue organizing “Celebrate Jesus” rallies.
In the 14 years since that July 2000 event, the Bouloses have helped coordinate close to 30 different celebrations in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. They have celebrated Jesus with thousands in Egypt and Jordan. The couple even crossed Lebanon’s northern border into Syria to hold three separate celebrations.
“No one can believe you can do a celebration there,” Maha said. “But we did, and we were welcomed.”
Their love for Jesus is what drives the Bouloses, who were commissioned as CBF field personnel in 2002, especially Chaouki, who preaches a simple message of Jesus’ radical love to the rallies’ diverse crowds — crowds that have included Chaouki’s former enemy.
“I tell them that Jesus came for everyone,” Chaouki said. “I don’t say this is a Christian celebration. I say this is a Jesus celebration. Jesus loves all of us.”
For the Bouloses, evangelism isn’t only about bringing others to a transformative relationship with Jesus. Evangelism is also a means to affect much-needed social change in the Middle East.
“Our task is to reach the unreached, the poorest of the poor. This is our goal,” Chaouki emphasized. “But, sometimes we have to think about the rich. We have to think about the president of the country. We have to think of the key leaders in every place. Because, if you win them to the Lord, big changes happen for everyone.”
“The biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”
In March 2011, peaceful protestors took the streets of Syria to call for the release of political prisoners and demonstrate against human rights abuses. The situation in Syria soon spiraled out of control, exploding into a full-blown civil war as many civilians armed themselves and organized into rebel groups. Three years later, there have been more than 200,000 deaths. And, at least 6.5 million people have been internally displaced, according to United Nations estimates.
More than 3 million Syrians have fled to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, creating a serious refugee crisis that is creating a crippling economic impact on the region. Lebanon has received more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees —
38 percent of all refugees, far surpassing the totals of any other country. The refugee count in Lebanon is expected to rise to at least 1.5 million (3.59 million in the region) by the end of 2014. Syrian refugees now make up one-fifth of Lebanon’s population, and more than 50 percent of these refugees are children.
“The Syrian crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” said António Guterres, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, in a statement in late August marking the milestone of
3 million refugees.
Feeding the hungry
While the world may be failing, the Bouloses are working to meet the needs of their new neighbors in any way they can. The Syrian refugee crisis took their ministry in a different direction. In October 2012, Maha started a group for women, which included Syrian refugees, to pray and study the Bible together. With food in short supply, the women began preparing food packages for refugee families. Every four-to-six weeks, the women distribute more than 350 packages, comprised of rice, sugar, lentils, beans, oil and milk.
“You see what is going on. You cannot just sit and watch. Jesus told us to love everybody, to help everybody in any way we can, regardless of where a person comes from,” Maha said. “We have to respond to the needs of people.”
What started as a small gathering of 15-20 women in the apartment of a refugee has become a group of more than 350 women. The group now has a leadership team responsible for ensuring childcare for infants and toddlers and Sunday school-like activities for kids ages 4 to 12. The group’s response to the refugee crisis that surrounds them has not been limited to passing out food. They have also distributed blankets to the Syrian refugees — and medicine, when they have the resources to do so.
The Bouloses helped organize a medical and dental clinic in November 2013, and again in February and September of 2014, to give much-needed check-ups to refugee families, many of whom suffer from poor health due to a lack of safe drinking water and proper medical care, as well as unsanitary and overcrowded housing conditions.
“When we help refugees, they are seeing Christ doing it. Because any time we do it, we tell them this is from the hands of Jesus,” Chaouki said. “It’s not from the hands of Chaouki Boulos or anyone else. It is from the hands of Jesus.”
Feeding the hungry is about bringing the Kingdom of God to Lebanon. It’s about following Jesus, Maha said.
“The Kingdom of God on earth would be a peaceful world with no people trying to kill and hurt others. It would be a world that has no hunger and no hungry people on it,” Maha explained. “Since Jesus taught us to feed the hungry and take care of people, I think the church is the first place where people should care for others.”
This is what the Bouloses have devoted their lives to doing — feeding the hungry and caring for others, caring for refugees like Claudia from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. Three years ago, Claudia migrated to Lebanon with her husband and children, but the war has kept Claudia separated from the rest of her family.
“We have been here for several years, and I haven’t seen my family,” Claudia said. “Every once and a while I talk to them on the phone, but I hear the sounds of bombs and shells. I hear them say there is no gas, no water, no electricity, no food.”
Now, Claudia serves as a volunteer at the center where the women’s group meets. She helps Maha and the other women pack and distribute food to families like her own, who have escaped the violence and bloodshed in Syria and now struggle to find adequate food and medical care.
Ibtisam, another volunteer, identifies with the Syrian refugees. Twenty years ago, her family was displaced from their home in south Lebanon.
“We feel the pain the Syrians are feeling, because we were refugees in our own country before them. We suffered and lacked everything. We came here homeless with…no shelter, nothing. We come to [these meetings] with Sister Maha to help our Syrian brothers and sisters.”
Since 2013, the Bouloses have helped an Armenian congregation to provide food packages to Bedouin and other refugee families in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where more than 400,000 refugees reside. They also partner with an Armenian church planter in Damascus, who teaches discipleship classes in Syria’s capital. Maha and Chaouki provide their trusted friend with food packages each month to distribute to Christians in Syria suffering from hunger.
The Bouloses have provided assistance to the Syrian refugees since 2011 in partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which funds their ministry in Lebanon. In February 2014, CBF allocated $25,000 to provide emergency food support to Syrian refugees through the work of the Bouloses.
Offering for Global Missions
The CBF Offering for Global Missions makes possible the work of Chaouki and Maha Boulos.
“The Offering for Global Missions affects our work 100 percent,” Chaouki said. “We live in a globe. We are related to each other in one way or another. We always need to join hands together to be able to do what our Lord has called all of us to do.”
“The Offering for Global Missions is very important,” Maha added. “It allows us to have the support we need.”
As the Bouloses continue to feed the hungry refugees in Lebanon, they seek to remain faithful to Jesus’ revolutionary command in the Gospel of Matthew. And, they do so remembering Chaouki’s dream that led them back to their homeland almost 15 years ago to celebrate Jesus — more convinced than ever that a great revival will sweep across the Middle East.
“I believe this is the Arab Spring, regardless of what people believe,” Chaouki said. “I believe this is the Arab Spring.
I believe it’s our visitation time here in the Middle East. Our Lord is visiting our area.”
Aaron Weaver is Communications Manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.