When a Place is So Much More: CBF field personnel assimilates in a new place amid instability and pandemic

By Melody Harrell   

“The Danger of a Single Story” is a must-see TED Talk, captivatingly presented by Chimamande Ngozi Adichie of Nigeria. In her talk, she describes the trap we all fall into of making assumptions about people we haven’t met and places we haven’t been—limited thinking that shrinks our own world rather than nurturing an aptitude for curiosity, open-heartedness and real relationship.  

Christine was appointed to serve as CBF field personnel at the 2020 General Assembly as part of the Africa/Middle East Team. She was appointed to social work ministry, trauma therapy and capacity building with refugee and migrant populations in Lebanon.

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel all around the world are well-schooled in not making judgments too soon. They recognize they are guests in any given country and that serving others in the name of Christ requires complex cultural understanding, humble admissions when they get things wrong, and a deep commitment to the time it takes to find acceptance among those they serve. 

When Christine moved to Lebanon in June 2021 to begin her service as CBF field personnel, she already knew some things about it. She had previously lived in Lebanon during an assignment with CBF’s student missions program, Student.Go, but now was coming to serve permanently. She has learned along the way the value of receptivity and, with her first task being language acquisition, took on a posture of learner right from the start. 

“Learning Arabic is like being back in preschool,” Christine told me. “It’s all such a big overwhelm. You start out by learning the dialect phonetically, word by word. The teacher uses materials specifically created for teaching foreigners how to speak. The alphabet is a non-Latin-based alphabet with some sounds not found in other languages. It’s a little humiliating but then, before you know it, you’re speaking some Arabic!” 

With differences in dialect from Syria to Lebanon to Palestine to Jordan, the challenge of proficiency is real and it is unlikely one would master all the variations. A local acquaintance of Christine’s recently went around the table at a meal, citing where each person had learned their Arabic and even identifying the ethnicity of the teachers each had learned from. They all shared a laugh that their accents were such dead giveaways.  

“It was challenging arriving as new field personnel to a new assignment in the middle of a pandemic. Things were shut down for a while as they were everywhere and moving around was restricted,” she said.

In addition to all the limitations from a global pandemic, Christine has had to assimilate in a new place fraught with political and economic instability. “The government is in a constant state of stalemate and the lack of functioning plays out in the day-to-day lives of local people.  Protests occur regularly. When I arrived six months ago, the Lebanese lira was 13,000 to the dollar. Today it is almost 27,000 to one. It has basically doubled in the last six months. When you’re paid in dollars, you can manage. But for the local person, basic commodities are so exorbitant, many are constrained to go without. And this has been going on a very long time.”

Critical fuel shortages this summer forced car owners to wait in line for hours at petrol stations, hoping that once they reached the head of the queue, they wouldn’t be turned away with the end of the supply. That shortage has since abated for those who can afford the fuel. Electricity is currently rationed by the government, available often for only two to four hours a day. Those who can manage by using private generators. But many constantly navigate irregular supplies and schedules, mastering the nimble dance of doing what can be done when the electricity is on, and giving in to the realities of darkness when it’s not.  

“I have become skilled at cooking on my gas stove with a flashlight and even showering in the dark,” laughed Christine. “And just when I start to let the small inconveniences get to me, I learn of a housekeeper who has been going without food at lunch so that her children can eat. Or I hear about doctors riding their bicycles to work at the hospital because that’s the only way to get there. I gain proper perspective of where I am in the scheme of things. It’s hard to imagine what each person is dealing with in their daily lives. And in this context, the trauma people have endured from the fallout of years of conflict is deeply embedded in people’s psyche.”  

Still people are brave, creative and resilient. This past summer, as the humid evening fell into darkness with yet another electricity blackout, those living around Christine gathered at the top of the hill in the neighborhood to catch the breeze, talk and share dessert under the stars.  

When Christine considers her future ministry, she sees herself participating in work that focuses on bringing about healing and wholeness in the lives of people. She believes everyone deserves support in recovery from the wounds of war and trauma and, with her training in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), she can be a part of helping people who are stuck in traumatic patterns they can’t let go of.  

“I want to be a place where people tell their stories and I want to be in the position of responding with hope and healing,” she said. “I want to be a co-creator in the kingdom of God on earth where peace and justice reign and where people realize their dignity and worth.”

As Christine sat around a Thanksgiving table last year, joined by Lebanese, Syrians, British and American friends, she felt the gift of a full heart. Some had never experienced an American-type Thanksgiving and were delighted by this practice of gratitude celebrated with delicious food and meaningful fellowship. 
“My life here is always so much more than just one thing,” she said. “There is hardship and heartbreak, but also breathtaking beauty and resilience. There is local culture and tradition, but also outside influence and diversity. When I draw near to people, open my heart to the whole of their story, and pay attention to what is mine to do, God’s love flows through me, and I see more clearly the way the world as it’s meant to be.”

Learn more about Christine and her work at http://www.cbf.net/christine. The CBF Offering for Global Missions makes possible the long-term presence of CBF field personnel like Christine. Visit http://www.cbf.net/ogm to find resources and make a financial gift. 

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