As I pattered at my laptop earlier this week, a friend interrupted with an alarmed text: “What is going on in Lebanon?!”
Immersed in emails, I hadn’t checked the headlines for a few hours, but along with the rest of the world, I quickly learned of the devastating Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut that has so far killed at least 154 while injuring some 5,000. The port was largely destroyed, along with entire sections of a city that has existed, in some form, for 4,000 years.
As the disaster unfolded, sorrow quickly merged with outrage: the blast had been caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer and mining explosive, that had been improperly stored at a port warehouse after officials had impounded a shipment. A full investigation is pending, but by most accounts, it appears that the tragedy was the result of negligence, bureaucracy and corruption — an unholy trinity that has for too long ravaged the historic land of Lebanon, leaving its people impoverished and disheartened, and all the more so in the wake of COVID-19.
The day after the explosion, I called one of the local Lebanese Catholic parishes, St. Maron in South Philadelphia. After asking if the pastor would be available for comment, I was quickly invited to that evening’s liturgy, which was to be offered for the victims and for the nation of Lebanon.
Driving down I-95 to St. Maron’s, though, I started to hesitate.
Would the parishioners find me intrusive — another media person with a camera, probing wounds for the public eye?
Then too, this liturgy would be Maronite Catholic, a rite with which this Roman reporter wasn’t familiar. I didn’t know the Syriac language, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Christ, that was used for the rite’s prayers and hymns. Perhaps I might make a liturgical misstep that would distract and annoy.
And wouldn’t my expressions of sympathy, coming from one who had no direct connection to Lebanon, sounds as hollow as the “thoughts and prayers” wishes of social media?
By my fourth attempt to find parking near the church, I’d almost given up, but when a spot opened just two blocks away, I tucked in my truck, grabbed my gear and hastened down the street with less than five minutes to spare.
Arriving at the church, I slipped quietly next to a television cameraman, who had set up his tripod to the side of the congregation. The reporter he accompanied had taken a seat at the back, microphone in hand, scanning the sanctuary. I remained standing, my eyes taking in the bowed heads of the two dozen parishioners who had gathered, several of them wiping away tears.
The liturgy began, and mysteriously, my tension began to fade as I lost myself in its beauty. The sorrow of those around me was palpable, but so too was their faith as they sang and responded in English and Syriac. Hands cupped, they received holy Communion from a pastor who had poured his broken heart, and his love for Lebanon, into every word of an impassioned homily in which he called for justice, honesty and above all the mercy of God.
Afterwards, I sought out a few parishioners for comment, including a young woman who had moved from Lebanon to Philadelphia only months earlier. She listened patiently as I introduced myself and asked for her thoughts, smiling wanly behind her face mask and brushing back a strand of her long hair.
She hadn’t lost any immediate family members, she said with a sigh of relief. But several of her friends were indeed among the injured; suddenly, her eyes filled with tears as her voice trailed off.
It was the very moment I’d dreaded, one in which my zeal to share an important perspective had caused more pain than it would alleviate.
Yet that in the evening’s Eucharist, a feast of eternal joy shared even amid incomprehensible anguish, we were united beyond the bonds of our common humanity. Here stood my sister, though we had only just met. Her pain, and the pain of all those in that church and those some 6,000 miles away in Lebanon, was my pain.
With a few gentle murmurs, we ended the interview, and she stepped outside, walking past the television cameraman and the reporter, who were speaking with other parishioners. A thirty-second segment on the 11 o’clock news, an article in a local paper — both would soon be lost in the torrent of information in which our world is drowning.
But for the people of Lebanon, and for us, the real work of healing and restoration will take years. May God give us the grace to remain steadfast in the task, to which — through our oneness in the Lord — we are all called.
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