“God is doing a beautiful thing,” says the Rev. Georges Bitar. “Miracles of love are reshaping our ministry.”
The Syrian-born Lebanese pastor came to the United States in 2008 to start Middle Eastern Presbyterian Fellowship (MEPF) with a couple of prominent families in Tucson, Arizona.
The fellowship began as a Bible study of about twenty Christian Arabic-speaking refugees and immigrants, primarily from Iraq, along with Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian families. Within a couple of months they began worshiping at Northminster Presbyterian Church.
Now they have eighty attendees from seven different countries—including Sudan and Iran— gathered in one place to worship God.
“This is the miracle—we learned to love each other” says Bitar, who graduated from Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon. “At the beginning, I witnessed hostilities among those who came from countries where they were politically enemies.”
“I told them, ‘You are not in the Middle East now. There you were Jordanian and Iraqi, but now you are all Americans, worshiping Christ in one place from different spots of the world. This is a privilege.’ ”
Bitar encouraged the refugees to forget about their past, to accept their new future, and calm down by getting to know one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Over time, the message sank in.
Recently, two Muslim families, attracted by this message of love, began coming to worship. Despite a few objections, the fellowship is learning to accept them. They share communion with the Muslims, who accept the sacrament as a witness that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord.
“When they came I said to our Christians, ‘Where in the Bible does it say you should hate Muslims?’ I asked them to take the lessons they’d learned in loving each other as political enemies, to apply to these families who had joined us.”
Now the Muslim families are providing much-needed financial support to the fellowship.
“Generally, the refugees and immigrants who join us from war-torn countries have lost everything,” says Bitar. “They have either low-profile jobs or are jobless. Yet our elders collected $11,000 a year in house-giving.”
Seeing his people give, watching over them as they rebuild their lives and learn to love, has deepened Bitar’s resolve to make this ministry sustainable.
Grateful for support from Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbytery de Cristo, and Synod of the Southwest, Bitar knows firsthand how disastrous war is to the lives of Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants who come here.
“We need prayer and support from all who believe in this ministry,” he says. “Continual war is devastating, horrible. I survived five of them. Hatred is an enemy inside people. It’s not what Jesus taught us.”
Bitar prays fervently, along with those in the fellowship, for the two-year war in Syria between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims to end as soon as possible.
“Our cry is a humanitarian cry,” he says. “How long can people bear these pressures? Seeing corpses, the blood of someone they know killed. Not being able to go out on the street.”
“I can’t describe it strongly enough. Please help those who need it, many of whom are here from previous wars. People continue to pay the price for the thuggery of the politicians.”
Through Evangelism and Church Growth ministries, Mission Program Grants provided first- and second-level New Church Grants to Middle Eastern Fellowship, totaling $50,000. The most recent was in October 2012.