Tom Becka: Greetings from the Heartland, Omaha Nebraska with another edition of TomBecka.com, where everybody has a great story to tell.
This is Podcast page, if you’re new to it, what we do, is every week we introduce you to another person in the community with something to add. An interesting story perhaps. A lifestyle, an experience or something they’re trying to accomplish. To show the total human picture.
I’ve been fortunate in my life. I’ve been able to travel a lot. I’ve been able to go to a bunch of places all over the world, all over the Country, and meet a lot of different people.
One thing I’ve found out, is we’re a lot more a like then we want to admit. Sometimes the media and news stories, you only hear the bad stuff.
You only hear things you wouldn’t care for too much, because you never get a chance to go to some of these places.
Julia is an [indecipherable 0:59] liberal. She is also a person of strong faith. She wants to go out and try to make the world a better place. As such, she has gone out into the world.
If all you saw about Syria, and all you knew about Lebanon is what you saw in the news, you wouldn’t get a full picture. It’s like, if all you knew about the town where you lived is what you saw in the news, you wouldn’t get a full picture there either.
When I had the chance to talk to Julia about it’s like in Lebanon, what it’s like in Syria. I couldn’t let that chance pass me by.
Julia Burgess: I have been to Syria twice, to Lebanon three times, to Iraq three times. Those all came about through very interesting circumstances, I thought.
Never thought I was going to be traveling to the Middle East. But it’s one of those things that was a touch point to me from the time I was fairly young, when my Dad remarried when I was in High School, I gained a step-brother who was a Journalist out of College and got a job with NBC as a cameraman.
That was in the later ’70s early ’80s. Charlie spent a lot of his early time with NBC, covering the Civil War in Lebanon. So every night, we would group around the television, like the good ole days a family did.
We would watch the nightly news. Waiting for the credits to see L. Charles Zechariah, cameraman, photographer on some of those stories.
It was a pretty exciting thing to know how had a step-brother in the Middle East covering the news at the same time, growing up in the midst of the Vietnam War, I said, this is my Church life, I prayed every night that the war would end, because I didn’t want my older Brother George being drafted.
I had the connection with being an anti-war activist, at the same time the excitement of my step brother being over there covering that. Years later, many years later, in church in a Women’s Bible Study we were having, one of our participants, not a member of our church but she’d been invited, was a woman from Lebanon.
She and her husband are both doctors here in Omaha now and her name was Maya. In 2006, she decided to go back and visit her folks who still lived there, and take her kids with her and I think an aunt, someone else was travelling with her.
While Maya was there, another war broke out in Lebanon, Israel invaded. All that was going on right before The Green Revolution there and Maya was stuck in Lebanon. Her family was wealthy enough that they had a place up in the mountain so they could get out of Beirut, where all the action was.
When Maya finally was able to come home, which was quite a journey. It was on the news here, it was on the papers, Channel 7 covered it because it was quite a story that someone from Omaha is stuck in a place like that.
She came back and she told us the story at Bible Study a couple of weeks later. Maya was this bright Physician, well-educated and she came back a broken woman. She was very terrified and had a hard time telling us about that story.
Tom: Why was she broken, what do you mean?
Julia: This is what she came back to tell us is “Why do they hate us so much?” She was looking at it as…
Tom: Israel hating her…
Julia: Israel hating the people in Lebanon. Why are they attacking us, why do they hate us? Lebanon is an interesting place. It’s not predominantly Muslim, it’s not predominantly Christian, it’s a balanced place.
That old civil war which was a 15 year war, from 75 to 90, it was Muslim on Muslim, it was Christian on Christian. It was every faction against everybody else. Everyone trying to gain an upper hand.
Tom: I got to spend some time in Israel and we spent some time in the Northern border there, right by Lebanon.
Tom: I could look over the border, we were like in a look-out post. I could look over the border and I saw a half built Casino. They were going to build this Casino right at the end of the boarder. Then the wars broke out, and everything and it was big empty shell of a building.
It was very peaceful, everybody in town where I was, so felt safe. At the same time, if I were to cross the border, they couldn’t have guaranteed my safety. You know, if I’d walked across this line, there might have been somebody hide in the bushes and they said they couldn’t have guaranteed my safety.
Julia: Exactly, and it’s still like that. I mean Southern Lebanon, that’s where Hezbollah is located and of course Hezbollah stays and it’s almost a state within a state in Lebanon.
In my reading what I’ve, and I’m not an expert on this, but there’s a tiny little piece of ground there called the Shebaa Farms which is real, still claims as part of their land, even though it’s fully in Lebanon and Hezbollah has said as long as there are these invaders in this land, meaning Israel, they will not leave.
They use that as a reason for staying and they’ve grown. They have great power in Lebanon, they have great voice in the Parliament and that’s where they are.
Tom: Was your interest based in religion or was your interest based in you know current events or, what was the interest based in?
Julia: Those two things are stuck in my mind, Charlie being there and then hearing the story from Mia and in 2010 I met a woman who works, it’s a place called “The Outreach Foundation” which is affiliated with my church which is the Presbyterian Church. She was telling us about the Church in hard places.
There’s a Presbyterian Church in Iran, there’s a Presbyterian Church in North Korea, there’s a Presbyterian Church in Cuba and they’ve been there for a long time based on the missionary movements from the late 19th century.
It peeked my mind the people that were there and it was a staff retreat and we were hearing these stories and they were saying the same things that you hear all the time in this country about they’re all terrorists, Muslims hate Christians, all that stuff and in my mind they’re going to look at everybody this way.
Everyone is a human being first and foremost, before they declare a faith, before they have a gender identity, before they’re single, married, Russian, African, Asian, American, they’re a human being. I tend to look at everybody like that. I even look at Conservative Republicans as human beings first.
Which is true. So Marilyn, her name was Marilyn Bourst…
Tom: Not all Liberals feel that way.
Julia: I know that well, and being on the opposite end I feel that as well, bleeding heart, whatever you can call me and I will claim it all. First and foremost we’re all humans. That’s basic to my faith as we’re all made in the image of God right, I do believe that and God said we were very good.
I try to look at people as being very good and I don’t know why we tend to look at each other as an enemy first instead of a human being. Some things were said at bible study that day and I came down hard on them, you can imagine, I was devastated when we bombed Afghanistan, I was devastated when we invaded Iraq.
All of those kinds of things and when we start grouping people in these , with these big labels and we don’t know them, we don’t look in their eyes and see them as human beings, it makes me mad.
Tom: There’s a….
Julia: It makes me sad.
Tom: There’s a comment, had a bit that I love and I’ve quoted it many times, he says “I never understood anybody for hating somebody because of their religion, because of their skin color, because of their race, their ethnicity, because of their sexual orientation. Once you get to know somebody on an individual one on one basis there are so many perfectly good reasons to hate them”.
Tom: You know?
Julia: There you go.
Tom: You know and that’s…
Julia: Exactly OK, well that’s another story for another day.
Tom: It does prove a point though. I mean you’re right, we find this. Having spent 10 days in Israel which nowhere near what you’ve spent over there, but I spent 10 days in Israel. I was surprised that how many different religions are in Israel itself.
Tom: You know and quite honestly there are an awful lot of Muslims and Jews that live together and work together and play together and that. The leadership, and because of the terrorists and because of the politics and everything, they’re fighting and they don’t even. Even they don’t understand why.
Julia: I can give you a great book to read about that called “Tea with Hezbollah” by Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis. They go over and they visit all these places looking for the story of the Good Samaritan. That’s what they find is, people are neighbors, they live together. In the Jewish Christian relations in the Middle East they’ve lived together side by side for 1,400 years.
That’s their existence, they don’t co-habit the land, they are neighbors they live together. Marilyn gave me this great opportunity, she says “I have a trip I think you should go on, it’s women, we’re going to the Middle East, we’re going to Lebanon and Syria and you should come” and so I went.
Interestingly enough, and there was no war in Syria then, this was August of 2010. The war broke out in Syria about seven months later in March. We went as a group of Presbyterian women to be with Presbyterian women in Lebanon and Syria.
We had a blast of a time. The trip culminated in a Women’s Conference up in the Mountains above Beirut. It was Lebanese. It was Syrian.
There were lots of Iraqi refugees in Syria at the time being cared for by the Church. Refugees from our war, that we started. Our war of choice, as people call it.
We got the chance to meet them. Meet them as Americans in a land that wasn’t their own and hear their devastating stories of what had happened to them.
Everything they had lost. Well to do families that had lost everything. Here they were living in these tiny little apartments. To get beyond a refugee status, they had to register with United Nations to be placed in another Country far from home. Very far from home.
You look across the table from them. If you experience that hospitality in the Middle East, you don’t go anywhere, but they don’t offer you coffee or tea or sweets.
It’s part of the ritual of life there. Whether they have $1 billion or whether they have $1, they will pour that hospitality out on you, because that’s who they are.
As Middle Eastern’s, whether they’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whoever they are, and that’s what we experienced there. But to be in the room with those Iraqi women.
When we were in Aleppo, Syria on that trip, we were invited into the homes of some of these refugees, and were poured out with that hospitality. Beautiful meals, and they would give us these little gifts to take home and remember.
Tom: What do they think about the Americans? You’re over there as an American, what do they think about you?
Julia: They’re very angry. Very angry at our Government. As American Citizens, that we were willing to come and sit there and talk with them.
They were very respectful and we left as friends. We got a lot of harsh words directed to us.
Tom: Why are they angry at the Government?
Julia: Because of the war.
Tom: The invasion of Iraq?
Julia: The invasion of Iraq, and it goes back even farther beyond the invasion. Through all the sanctions. All the sanctions were the worst thing we did to them.
It didn’t hurt Saddam. It didn’t hurt Saddam’s sons. It didn’t hurt the Government. It hurt the people directly. He was such a strong armed tyrant with the whole military at his disposal, they couldn’t rise up against that.
When they did, you saw what happened, and how he quashed the curds of North, and even retreating from Kuwait. The waste he laid to the land. We weren’t willing to go in, and I don’t believe we should have gone in.
But, we had supported that Government when it was good for us, and then when it was not good for us, we turned on them and the people are devastated.
In the midst of all that, the minority populations of Christians specifically and Jews, there was still Jews in Iraq at the time. And the Sunni were empowered, but they were a minority group.
Because they were a minority, they were protected by Saddam. Then the backlash against all that came about when the war, and we were helping.
We were bringing down the tyrant and what we were doing was unloosing a whole can of worms.
Tom: We found that our afterwards.
Anyways, we met those families, and in particular I met an interesting character. His name was Edward [Indecipherable 13:44] . He and his family were from the Baghdad area.
They had made their way to Syria. I met them in Damascus. Edward was one of these angry people, and we were on an evening. A hot evening in August 2010. It was about 115 degrees every day while we were there.
We were staying in a Monastery in Damascus. Edward came over, and we were all sharing drinks. The local beverage there is called [indecipherable 14:15] , which is a flavored, high potent liquor if I might say so.
We were drinking it straight over ice because it was hot. We had an interesting conversation. He was angry. He was angry at the President. He was angry at George Bush. He was angry at Barack Obama.
He was angry at the Senators. He was angry at McCain. Anyone you could have named. And this is Julie, a Peace Activist, Antiwar Activist trying to tell Edward that there were many people in our Country that who were opposed to all that.
Not from a faith based perspective, but from the perspective that we’re all humans and we don’t have the right to take from you what’s not ours, and certainly destroy your Country and destroy your home.
Edward was not registered with the United Nations. He had no desire to go anywhere but home. So I kept Edward in mind, specifically when I came back from that trip.
I never had the thought of going to Iraq, but had every desire to go back to Lebanon and Syria with these wonderful people we had met in the Church and seeing what they were doing.
The Presbyterian Church is a very small Church in the Middle East. It’s mostly the ancient Churches are there. The Churches that were founded by the Apostles.
Jesus died and was resurrected, sent the 12 out, and those twelve were busy guys. They founded Churches everywhere. So there’s Greek Orthodox. There is Syrian Orthodox. There’s Armenian Orthodox. Melkite Catholic.
Every Orthodox and Catholic Church from the beginning. The faith that came to us, came from them. Certainly my curiosity was peaked about finding out more about my own…the history of my faith.
And to walk with those people. Some of the interesting people we met on that trip, who are with me even today, Syrian Arch Bishop that we met in Aleppo, named Yohanna Ibrahim.
It’s been a year this month. He was kidnapped in Aleppo, and they haven’t heard anything from him. No ransom demands. They have no idea who took him.
They took another Arch Bishop with him at the same time. That was a man, I met in his office with him. Shared coffee, shared tea, shared sweets on a hot day in August in Aleppo Syria, which is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the depth of historical artifacts, and historical places that are there that are being completely wiped out because of this war.
I take him to bed with me every night in my prayers. Let him go. Those kinds of things, I knew I wanted to go back. That I didn’t know anything about what would happen to him later, but meeting him, this is one of my favorite stories from that trip.
We were traveling with this wonderful young Presbyterian Pastor named [indecipherable 17:16] who is still in Aleppo. He will not leave, his Church is there, it’s been destroyed, but they still meet in homes.
He’s there and he’s a very activist Priest, Pastor. And to see him, and this is the Church part that might be weird, this reformed Church Pastor, having a conversation with his counterpart, this Syrian Orthodox Priest, whose name was also Ibrahim.
I looked at him and I thought, this is a weird picture for someone who grew up in the Catholic Church understand the ancient history of the Church, who’s now in the reformed Church with a bunch of people who don’t get where they came from.
Talking about the nuances of why they’re different. It’s weird.
Tom: It is weird. We’re a lot more like that when we want to admit. We try to find these reasons to divide each other. I remember a couple of things when I was in Israel, I was at the Church of the Holy Supper. Have you ever been to Israel?
Tom: The Church of the Holy Supper, it’s a beautiful place. It’s where they say Jesus was crucified. You go to the shrine and they have, where the Roman Catholics say it happened, and like three feet to the left or where the Greek Orthodox say it happened, and they argue about this stuff.
Do [indecipherable 18:34] of the cross. I’m sorry, it’s a Wednesday. You can’t do it now. It’s our turn. That stuff.
You wonder, why are you fighting over this stuff? It’s frustrating. I remember having a conversation at breakfast with a Jewish friend.
I was raised Catholic too, and having a discussion, talking about the birth control, the Catholic Church’s birth control. He was starting to tell me, how stupid he thought the church’s position on birth control was.
I looked at him and said, “With all due respect, you’re a man who won’t put cheese on you hamburger because of religion.”
If that’s what your belief is, great. But why would you criticize somebody else’s belief if it was a little bit different?
Julia: Exactly. In my opinion it’s all a language issue. We don’t have words to describe the indescribable. We come up with our own, then we fight over it.
I get in trouble at Church all the time for saying stuff like that. It was an amazing thing. Those people are still there. They’re still there living.
Some of them will not leave. It’s their home. Why should they leave?
Tom: Did you find, since you’ve been to all these Countries. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq…Have you found that maybe they are a lot more alike than they want to admit to.
In other words, are there real difference between the different Countries? Let’s face it. There are differences between us and somebody from even Mexico.
Because of culture and everything else. But that area there, A, it’s a lot more compact, or a lot closer together. B, a lot more of a shared history.
Were they a lot more alike, than different, for the various Countries?
Julia: I think they’re very different, and I think that’s part of what we don’t get in this Country. We have American History, we do a little over view of World History when we’re in High School unless you go on and study it further.
There are great Empires that occupied that area. The Meeds, the Persians, the Ottomans. In all of those people had different cultures, those people groups. Then someone came in and took them over.
When you’re in Iraq, you are an Iraqi. This was interesting. At the Church in Iraq in [indecipherable 20:41] where I was visiting, they have a gate keeper, who lets you in and lets you out. That’s the only security they have arms or anything. He’s of African heritage. We found that interesting. If he an African Iraqi, and the Pastor told us no, he’s not an African.
He’s an Iraqi. He will tell you he’s an Iraqi. His ancestors were brought there in the time of slave trading. So that’s something they experienced too.
But to him, he’s not an African Iraqi. He’s an Iraqi. They hold that close to themselves. In Lebanon, it’s very important to say you are a Phoenician. That’s the culture that gave birth to that land.
They proudly say they’re Phoenicians. That whole part of the world was Syria. So what is Lebanon, what is Israel, what is Syria, what is part of Iraq and all that whole area was called Syria.
There is this lengthy attachment that they have to where they are, and they are very proud. They will tell you where their roots go, and they can take you back two or three thousand years if that’s how long their family has been there.
They’re very proud of that. It’s interesting, and they are very different from Country to Country. This is my favorite thing about the first time I got there.
The greeting is the kiss on the cheek. We met people in Lebanon, and it was kiss, kiss, kiss. Three kisses. We got to Syria, and it was kiss, kiss. It was two kisses.
Then when we were with the Iraqi families it was four kisses. That’s how I started tracking where they were from, was how many kisses you got on the cheek.
Tom: But that’s my point, they actually are very much alike. It’s like, maybe two brothers that are too much alike so they can’t get along. That thing.
Julia: They all probably came, if you go back in the Biblical tree, they’re all semi [indecipherable 22:45] , they all came from the branch of [indecipherable 22:49], which was one of Noah’s sons. I’m not that literate on that.
That’s interesting, they all come from the same thing, but they’ve spread out. They’ve been concurred, they’ve been subjected to someone else’s line.
Now, those boarders mean something to them. Of course, those boarders were set by Colonial powers, which is interesting. So they fight over the land, and of course the split between Sunni and Shia, that is over laid over that whole area, which goes back early in the history of Islam.
Very early in the history of Islam, that, that schism happened. Then put on that, the creation of the State of Israel. Palestinians are real people.
They’ve lived there for centuries. We have people in this Country who claim there have never been anything that was called Palestine. But there was.
That’s part of the problem.
Tom: What I found interesting when I was over in Israel, is that there’s so much history. They all think that God wants them to be there.
I know [indecipherable 23:56] Israel, Is it the same way in Syria? Let me tell my story and I will ask about Syria.
When I was in Israel, I traveled all over the Country. I spent some time on one of the settlements. I’m talking to the woman who was in charge of the settlement there in the West Bank.
I asked her…
Julia: It was a Jewish Settlement on the West Bank?
Tom: Jewish Settlement on the West Bank. I asked her, “Look, I was raised Catholic. I pay my taxes, I mow my lawn, could I live here?”
She got very angry at me. You could tell by her voice, “nope. You can’t live here. God wants us to be here. Not you. God wants us to be here.”
I was like OK. There was no way to rationalize with that. In these other countries, whether it be Syria, Lebanon or whatever. Is there that, say whether it be the Muslims or the Jews or the Christians, or whatever, is there still that religious war going on in those Countries too, or is that something that is more of an Israeli, Palestinian thing?
Julia: It doesn’t go on like that. That I think is the heartbreak for making these trips, is coming back. Having heard from a number of people, like I said, the Arch Bishop Melkite Catholic Bishop of Baalbeck.
Baalbeck is another very historic place in Northern Lebanon, up in the [indecipherable 25:16] Valley. Christians have been there since the first century.
This Church celebrated their 1,900th Anniversary. Can you imagine that? He was one of the speakers at the conference we were at in January.
Talking about, he was one of those who has a very strong voice, he was part of a panel with a Sunni Muslim Professor, wanting us to know we are neighbors.
“We have lived here together for 1,400 years. We don’t fight. We get a long, we go to each services. Our kids are friends with each other.”
What’s being imposed on them now, is this very fundamentalist political Islam. It’s a very small minority of people. That’s what causes the problem.
They’ve been coexisting there. Living there. Sharing the land, sharing the town. Sharing life together for all these years, with no problem.
That is not what’s happening. I hear it from the Pastors. We heard it from the Muslim Clerics who talked to us. It blows my mind.
They all with one voice. It’s this very small minority, very tiny minority. They’re loud, and they have weapons. They’re funded by people who have other agendas.
They would tell you that right now, what they think is happening in Syria is a proxy war between the Sunnis and Saudi Arabia. The Shiite in Iran, and this is the new battle ground in Syria.
They are breaking it apart. It’s why we don’t want to be involved in it.
Tom: Yeah, then you have Russia and The United States playing the game here.
Julia: There you go again. Whose side do you take? We’ve taken all those sides. We’ve taken all those sides. We took the side of those same people in Afghanistan, when it moved us to support them against the Russians, right?
That’s Al Qaeda. Who we were then fighting against, for how many years have we been in Afghanistan? We’re still in Afghanistan 12 years later.
Al Qaeda was who we probably would have been supporting in Syria, if we had sent arms or if we had bombed them like everybody wanted to do last fall.
The people who bombed the World Trade Center, we would have been helping them, and that is the weirdness.
Tom: The enemy by enemy is my friend.
Julia: Exactly. We’ve got to learn how to stay out of it. They would ask us to a person, to stay out of it.
Tom: This is all some big dysfunctional thing, we think we can solve the problems. I’m an American. All I knew about what was happening in the Middle East was what I read in the paper, and what I saw on TV and all that.
If I got over there and spent 10 days there, and talk to people, I’d be able to find a solution. I was so sure I would be able to find a solution.
My solution was, I’m out of here. It’s so convoluted and so messed up, there is no real solution. Is there?
Julia: I would say, here I am, only God knows. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t take ratching up voices. It takes quieting down. To me, I mean they have this great history of hospitality to each other.
That is they could find a common ground to sit down and figure it out. The voice of Political Islam, I think is what they all fear. That’s why you saw what happened in Egypt.
We supported a [indecipherable 28:47] in Egypt to oust the President. The Elected President of Egypt, Mr. Morsi. His voice became more fundamentalist the longer he led.
He’s the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s part of this fanatic group. Here we are, The United States of America, helped oust the Democratically Elected President of Egypt. It’s the weirdness of it all gets to me sometimes.
I try not to go into the Politics too much, because I’m not an expert and I don’t have the answer.
What I’ve discovered on those trips is, the same people that people told me to be afraid of my whole life, that are very genuine. What I have discovered is, they want the same things for themselves and their families that we want.
When we decide that our lives are more important, so we have to be safe, that we destroy their lives and their livelihood. That is not a good thing. That’s what I’ve seen a lot of what we’ve done. Especially in Iraq.
Tom: Going back to my experience in Israel. I was fascinated that I was talking to a Muslim who was working with the Jews trying to find solutions to stop the wars and stop the violence of the bombings and all that.
This woman said to me, she said, “You know, if there is a suicide bomber that blows up a coffee shop, the Mother will be on TV, yelling, all praise the Allah, all praise the Allah. Then when the TV camera are off, she cries the tears of a Mother that’s lost her son.”
You realize again, how stupid this whole thing is. There is no reason for this thing. It doesn’t seem to escalate that.
We’ve established some of what the problem is, and some of the back ground. Now you’re going over there as a Presbyterian woman, I joked about how I could solve the problem in Israel, what are a bunch of Presbyterian woman from Omaha Nebraska doing to help solve this?
Julia: I was the only one from Omaha. I’ve never been able to convince anyone from my Church to go with me, other than my Husband. He went with me in January to Lebanon and Syria, and he went to Iraq with me in November of 2012.
I’ve gotten Steve to go with me. First I had to make sure it was safe. That’s a joke. Please don’t put that in there. There’s nothing we can do except the sole function of our going is to be with the church.
That’s the weird thing that most people, I don’t think can understand. All of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, he talks about I long to be with you.
We pray for you. We be with you. So, our whole function is to go and be a living letter to the Church.
Tom: That’s not part of the problem? I think about if we had Muslims coming over here from Iraq or Syria, trying to convert our people; that would be a problem.
Julia: That’s why I would like to correct you. I’m the worst Evangelist that has ever walked the planet. I’m not someone who is interested in converting anybody.
That is one of the things I think Christians in The United States and in the West go to those places thinking they’re going to do. It’s against the law for someone in Lebanon or Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan or any of those places to switch from one faith to another, unless they’re becoming a Muslim. Of course you can do that.
It’s a death penalty offence. In many cases to claim that you are a Christian when you were born a Muslim.
What it says on your ID card is who you are. It’s not what you profess. You can’t switch. That’s never been our intentions going there.
There are many Christians who used the war for instance to go over secretly, “I’m going to go over and help build water projects. I’m going to go over and teach English.”
And all the time in the back of their mind they’re going, “I’m going to bring the good news to a bunch of Muslims who need to know who Jesus is.”
That’s not why we go. We go to be with the Church. The indigenous Church of those places, which is not operating in secret, it’s been there from the beginning.
Tom: They are left alone?
Julia: They are mostly left alone. They get in the cross fire. I will tell you, today, I come today with my heart broken. There was news today that this lovely man, I never met him, I will never get to meet him now.
A Jesuit Priest who’s been living in Syria for most of the last 50 years, learned how to speak Arabic, came to Syria and started…I think he was trained as a psychologist.
He was working with disabled people. He lived in the Jesuit Monastery in Homs, Syria. Which has been in the news a lot lately.
Homs used to have a Christian population of about 60 thousand people. It’s been one of the hot places in this war. A siege there for the last two years.
The Christians were driven out. This was mostly by extremist. Of course, there is so much action in that part of Syria, that all the different factions are there.
The Government’s fighting the Rebels. The Rebels are fighting the Government. This little group of Christians that remained which was less than 100, the last I heard, wasn’t going anywhere, because it’s their home.
I mean it’s there home! Father Van Der Lugt was there caring for them in the monastery if they could get there. Caring for Muslims who are also…I mean 150,000 people have been killed there, most of them Muslim. Many of them Christian, and here’s Father Van Der Lugt today was pulled out of his house and shot in the head twice dead, 75 years old.
It breaks my heart. Targeted, who knows why? My friend, one of my Pastor friends in Syria, I asked him what happened, he said it was insurgents, fundamentalist insurgents.
News reports indicated bullet could have been Government activists. It could have been anti-Government activists. He was being protected by people there, whoever they were for, because he was caring for people without regard to what God they professed. He was helping feed people, care for them and they refused to leave.
He refused to leave.
Tom: We use terms here in the media, and the Politicians use it, Muslim Fundamentalist and the Shias the Sunnis. What a way for us to understand it here in America, would be almost be like, I don’t mean any offense to any religion here, but like gangs.
In other words the Crips and the Bloods, they fight. In certain neighborhoods, they fight if you’re from a different gang, you shouldn’t be in this neighborhood, because this is our turf.
Is it a similar, or maybe because of religion and thousands of years of history is behind it, it’s different. But is it a similar mindset do you think?
Julia: I don’t know. That’s a hard question. One of the people we heard from in January was a Muslim Scholar from one of the large Universities in Beirut. Either the American University at Beirut or a Lebanese American University.
Very well-known and well respected in these Institutions, trying to give us a very brief history of what he called political Islam. This man was a Muslim.
What we would call a moderate Muslim, which is the majority of them, like the majority of Christians are. Moderates, lukewarm in the faith, not activist. Political Islam is something very different.
It’s been developing probably back to 1930s or 1940s. His words would tell me, it’s not even religious.
It’s about the letter of the law. This is what I try to say to my friends in the Church back here, is you wouldn’t let Westboro Baptist Church speak for you as a Christian, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the Christian Identity Movement.
That’s how they’re getting painted by these groups. These relief fundamentalist, hard lined groups that have misconstrued the word and the Koran would tell them.
It’s not even a matter of a gang. It’s a matter of political fundamentalism. Sometimes it can be a little bit like the Tea Party. I don’t mean to cast [indecipherable 37:37] about that.
Tom: You did though. As a liberal and loving everybody, you even made a comment earlier about, I even love conservatives. Are you talking out of both sides of your mouth?
Julia: I’m trying not to. I’m trying to use a metaphor, an analogy…
Tom: …No weapons involved here. We’re having a [indecipherable 38:06] debate. But, is that to some ways, in a verbal way, much different then what they’re doing, and a more violent way over in these countries?
Julia: I see it creeping here in that way. I don’t want any more of the…I get in trouble with a good friend of mine at Church. We’ve agreed to disagree on most issues, but it’s the difference between, I will try to use what I know, I think Rachel [indecipherable 38:37] was a pretty well respected and well read.
She does her research. She’s a very different voice for the liberal movement, then say, Ed Schultz. So Ed Schultz can paint Liberals in a bad light.
I’m trying to think of some of the Tea Party people who’ve been so vocal. There’s a woman who would not give up on President Obama’s lack of a birth certificate. I can’t think of her name. Those people…
Tom: The Congress Woman from Minnesota?
Julia: No, not Michelle Bachman. She wasn’t even an elected official.
Tom: Michelle [indecipherable 39:22] ?
Julia: No. I would have to Google it. Those voices make the entire Tea Party look ridiculous?
If that’s what you believe, you wouldn’t want that person to be your spokesperson. I don’t want Ed Schultz to be who speaks for me.
Tom: You know who speaks for me? Me!
Julia: There you go.
Tom: I may disagree with you politically, doesn’t mean I think you’re a bad person. I think sometimes, politicians do it, the Media does it in general, I think sometimes because somebody has a different view then you, we automatically assume they’re bad people.
I love talking about going to a football stadium. You go to a football stadium, and I don’t know who there is Republican, Democrat, Catholic, Atheist, Jew, Muslim, I don’t know any of that stuff.
Because they’re all there wearing the team colors, rooting for the home team. Or even if they are from the opposing team. You don’t go punching maybe a little good natured [indecipherable 40:25] and you don’t punch them out.
You can have different points of view, without having to think of the other person being the enemy. Right?
Tom: I mean are we not all Americans first? I think sometimes that we look at ourselves more like, I’m a Liberal, I’m this. I’m special, or I’m a conservative, I’m special.
Opposed to looking at it like we’re all Americans here that’s trying to find the common ground here and work towards a better solution.
Julia: I don’t want to get in trouble with anybody in your pot, because I try not to even look at myself as an American first. I try to seriously look at myself as a human being. A great quote from a book I read, when I was the mission coordinator at Church, as a Christian, first and foremost, I’m a citizen of the Kingdom. I’m a resident of the Empire.
I try to put that above everything I do. I’m lucky to be in a country like this, where I can use this microphone to say my opinion. I’m not put down for the way I vote or the way I dress.
I’m a woman and I can drive a car. I can control bank accounts. I have all of that. I’m very lucky. When I hear people say, by the grace of God, that’s who I am and what I have. I have a hard time going with that.
God’s grace is available for everybody, wherever they are. Because I have money, and because I live in a nice house, because I live in the United States, doesn’t mean I have an extra measure in grace of God.
What I want to go back to, about political Islam is, they have hijacked that from the majority of people who followed that book, who followed that way.
The vast majority of Muslims are painted with a broad brush by what those people do. I don’t look at it as gangs. There are certainly gangs of people who are following one leader or another.
Here’s the interesting thing, they all look at each other and say, “You don’t have it right. If you don’t believe my way, you’re out of here.”
A lot of the violence is being committed one group against another. Not, Sunni Shiite, and not Muslim, Christian. It’s fundamentalist versus fundamentalist.
You don’t read it the way I do. You don’t get it, you’re wrong. There’s no middle ground for them. That’s where Christians are in trouble, is when they’re in the middle of that, and when some of those groups take control of an area, they’re trying to drive out those who don’t believe like them.
Many Christians have suffered horribly in that.
Tom: How big are these groups? In other words, are they small groups with bombs and weapons, so you notice them a lot more?
Is it the guy who speaks the loudest, gets noticed, although they’re the minority? Is it that a thing going on out there?
Julia: I couldn’t even give you a number on that. When we were there, we were being told that there are hundreds of these groups. There are literally hundreds.
You’ve heard of the All [indecipherable 43:29] Front, or the ISIS, you know what the acronym stands for. Is Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria? Those are some of the bigger ones. I guess a lot of smaller ones, and if you go in any of those websites…
Every once in a while in the “New York Times,” you can find lots of videos uploaded from places like that, in Al Jazeera, [indecipherable 43:54] , you can follow those things.
The numbers may not be great. Syria has a pretty big army. President Assad has kept gaining back control on a lot of those places.
The arms come in and it’s funded by kidnapping people, probably like those archbishops, except no one has asked for a reward for him.
Many of the people in the churches in Iraq and Syria have had family members kidnapped, for ransom and when they pay the ransom those monies are going to buy weapons, and arms to drive out people.
There doesn’t seem to be any end of those kinds of resources pouring into that place at all different ways.
Tom: I always thought when I traveled overseas, especially to a place like Israel, I also thought it was interesting, if somebody were to know The United States from what they saw on TV, or what they read in the paper, or in Omaha for what they saw on TV or read in the paper, it would have such a slanted idea of what that area was.
Julia: “Baywatch.” That’s how they know.
Tom: It was Baywatch?
Julia: We met a number of young people who had learned English from watching American television, and I’m like “oh my gosh.” What a horror, what a nightmare.
When we go, we go as American Christians. Brothers and sisters in the church to be with them and to hear their stories, sit with them, and by the fact that we show up, means a lot to them.
When we leave it’s like, that little church in Basra. It’s 45 people, most of them all related to each other. Almost all of them I know by name. Almost I’m friends with on Facebook.
It’s like my second Church home. If I wasn’t belonging to my church here in Omaha, if I was going to be anywhere in the world, I would be with them in that church.
For what they do, how they care for their neighborhood. Their neighborhood is almost entirely Muslim. They have a kindergarten of almost 200 kids. 198 of them are Muslim.
They cannot teach them about Jesus, but they teach them how to be nice to each other. How to love each other, how to love their neighbors and those kids take it home.
Their parents get change in them. And they say, why can’t you have a grade one, grade two, grade three? This is what we want our kids to learn.
That’s the effect they are having on their neighborhood. Are they in serious trouble? They could be. Last July, they’re right across the street from a hotel.
We stay in that hotel when we’re in Basra. Walk across the street every day to the church. Last July car bombs went off on either side of the hotel.
Not because they were after the church, but because it’s a place in the Sunni South, where oil magnets meet at the hotel, and the Sunnis were attacking the hotel trying to kill people in the hotel, so they blew up a bomb on one side, hoping people would rush out the other side where the next bomb waited.
That was right in front of the church building. It blew out all the windows in the church. Brand new pastor. He’d been there a few months from Egypt.
Came out after he heard the first explosion to see what was going on. Saw the car blow up in the air, and fortunately they have a blast wall in front of the church or he would have been toast.
That’s what they live in. But what do they do? They get up the next day. They repair the windows. They open up the preschool.
They have church on Sunday. The elder there is a reconstructive surgeon that works in the hospital taking care of people who have been injured by bomb blasts.
That’s their life in that part of the world. They’ve been living it for generations.
Tom: One of the podcast’s we have on the page here, is from a soldier who spent time in Iraq and now dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. After three tours over there, here he has post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said something in the podcast that struck me. He says, “Only in America is post-traumatic stress a disorder.” He said, “If you live over there, that’s a way of life.”
The idea of there could be a bomb at any time. The idea that there might be some violence, or you could be kidnapped or anything like that.
We don’t think about it here in America. Over there it’s a reality. So they’re always living with what we call a disorder, for them it’s post-traumatic stress day of life.
Julia: It’s life. They do live like that. The first time we were in Basra, every time I’ve gone I take it with a grain of salt, everyone says be sure to duck.
“Are you afraid to go? Are you afraid you’re going to get blown up? Are you afraid you’re going to get kidnapped?”
“Well no, you don’t go in fear.” If fear is in front of you, you’re not going to go. What Marilyn always tells us, is you’re waiting for things to be safe in the Middle East, you will never go.
So we go, first time we were in Basra. It was November 2011, and we were in that same hotel. The last night of our trip, which was a fabulous trip, and we blogged it every day.
I started writing poetry about all these trips. That was the only way I could journal my experience. I’m writing the entry that night, and the rest of them are playing cards by the window in the hotel, which overlooks the church.
All of a sudden, can you imagine, we were leaving on the plane the next morning. Gun fire erupted outside our hotel room and went on and on a long, long time.
There were four pastors in our group, the four others of us. Mark, I love this guy. He’s from Huntsville, Alabama. One of my best friends now.
He says, “I think we should move away from the windows.” I’m over there typing away listening, and I go wow, interesting that would happen on our last night in Basra, Iraq.
Happened to be while the American draw-down was going on. We saw columns of American troops heading back to the South to Kuwait to leave the country.
2011 I meant to say. We’re all like, what’s going on? So someone goes down and checks with the hotel desk. What else do you do when you’re staying in a Hotel and gunfire erupts?
It turns out, that the Iraqi Soccer team had defeated the Jordanian Soccer team, and they were out celebrating. That’s how they celebrated.
It went on for about an hour, gun fire; shot after shot after shot. It sounded like a war, but for them, it was normal life. We were not in any danger.
Tom: And then a bullet drops and kills somebody, hey it happens.
Julia: Exactly. This Hotel, there were a lot of wedding receptions that happened. So we were used to their being activities there all the time, but that was an interesting thing.
Mark came back and he preached a great sermon about Iraq without a flak jacket. That’s how it went. The people in that church, have no armed protection.
In October 2010, in Baghdad, there was, I want to get my denominations right. A Syrian Orthodox church that was holding services.
They were invaded by a group of fundamentalist insurgents who shot the place up. The priest came and said, “I’m the one you want, take me.”
Of course they killed him out right as well.50 to 60 people were killed that day in services, before the government reacted and stepped in to stop it.
So that was happening in Basra. Down in Basra, in the south when that was going on, when word of that came down to them, the Muslim neighbors of that little Presbyterian church gathered around that church to protect them.
They said, “Not in our neighborhood will this happen. We will watch out for you.” And that’s the way they live, and that’s been our experience when we were there.
Tom: What is the one thing – maybe two – that we here in America that see the news and see it on TV without even paying attention?
You know, remember to pay attention to what’s happening over there, but “Dancing with the Stars” is on or whatever, you know. What is the one thing that people that are paying attention to the news and see it from a media perspective, what’s going on over there, the story that we’re not getting?
Julia: We had this great opportunity to meet with President Assad when we were in Damascus in January, which was unexpected.
I took that opportunity. What would you tell me to tell the people back in America, as we watched this on the news? As they make judgments about you and your Country, and what’s going on here.
What we think you should do to fix the problem. Like, get rid of you, you’re an Eye Doctor. What’s your prescription for American eyes?
He said, “Take the long view. We are so short sided here about everything. Read more. Learn more.” There are vast resources. I am not that educated on the subject. I can find books to read on the History of Lebanon.
The history of Syria. The history of Iraq. Why is it like it is there? It’s not what’s happened in the last 10 years, the last 30 years. The last 50 years.
It’s what happened in the last two Millennia. That’s a long view backwards. That you take to get a long view forwards. Great books. Great Authors. There are lots of learning people out there. Find some people form those places.
Here in Omaha, we’re a crossroads of places.
We have people from all over here. They’re your neighbors. We have an Arabic speaking fellowship at our Church now. People from the Sudan. People from Egypt. People from Lebanon.
They live here. You can use them as resources and talk to them. I saw, get to know real people. That’s why I make people laugh at me for as much time as I spend on Facebook.
Half my friends are on Facebook, which is one of the few good ways I can communicate with people in real time are in Lebanon, they’re in Iraq, they’re in Syria, they’re in Europe. There’re places outside of this little bubble you live in, which is a big expensive country.
We have our own walls up here and we try not to cross over them. We don’t want our lives affected by what’s going on somewhere else, but my life has been affected by that and I can’t go back.
You can’t go back, I can’t be Julie in Omaha Nebraska, thinking about what eight teams are coming to the College World Series in June. We laugh about it, about all the people running for Governor, and that’s an important thing. It’s an important thing to elect a good strong leader for our state that’s going to take us forward.
But my heart, most of the time these days, is spent 7,000 miles to the East, where the sun comes up nine hours earlier. I don’t ever want that to change, I want that to be what’s on my headstone when I die, whether it’s over there or over here.
I wish other people would, again I go back to the beginning, to see people as human beings first. They all have a story, they all have a name.
Every one of their lives is as valuable as yours or mine.
Tom: Thank Julia Burgess for joining us today and telling a story of her experience, of her beliefs, of what she’s trying to accomplish.
A very nice woman who’s had the opportunity to meet with many of the people there in Lebanon, many people in Syria and give a deeper perspective that may be you wouldn’t get in the news.
Join us every week here. Every Sunday, we’ve a new interesting person to talk to.
It’s a big community of people and if you’ve somebody that you think I ought to interview or maybe a person you’d like me to hear from, or something like that, don’t be afraid to send me an email. Send me a note and say “Tom, why don’t you do something like this?”
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