Altadena Baptist Church is blessed to include people from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds. One example is our living connection with the Middle East through Jean and Rene Bouchebel. Jean grew up in Lebanon, and Rene spent her childhood in Egypt, though her roots are also Lebanese. Together with their son Patrick, Jean has created Witness As Ministry, an organization that delivers food, supplies and services to families who are in refugee camps, having been displaced by war from their homelands in Iraq and Syria. Before his retirement Jean had been the Middle East Director for World Vision, Inc., overseeing their humanitarian relief services. In this role, he became personally acquainted with the leaders of many religious denominations and organizations, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. Frequent trips to the region have kept all these relationships alive over the years.
During a recent trip, Jean met with Archbishop Issam Darwich, head of the Melkite Catholic Church in Bekaa Province, Lebanon. The Melkite Catholic Church has roots that go back to the church founded by the apostles in Antioch, where, according to the Book of Acts, the believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:24). This gives them the claim to be “the oldest continuous Christian community in the world.” There are 1.6 million Melkite Catholics worldwide.
Jean’s Archbishop friend introduced him to Suzanne Wakim, a nun who is the Principal of the school run by her religious order. Suzanne has a desire to improve her conversational English by spending some time in American homes where no other language is spoken. Out of this came a vision that Jean might be able to facilitate a forty-five-day learning experience for Suzanne during July and August. He shared this with me asking if ABC would be willing to be a partner in hosting her. He and I have made some initial efforts to look for hospitality with just the right host families.
In an attempt to find out how comfortable it would be for a family to take Suzanne in, I asked Jean whether she wears a nun’s habit, how well she would relate to our customs and lifestyles, etc. He said she’s only thirty-years-old, uses modern technology and is active on social media. On a hunch, I put her name into a Facebook search, and there she was. In a few minutes I felt like I knew her, through the faces and places on her page, as she attends a wedding, celebrates the birth of a new baby and congratulates some of her students at their First Holy Communion.
Suddenly, I found myself thinking bigger. This can be a wonderful opportunity for our whole church. Having a person in our midst from a totally different culture and religious tradition and interacting with her over a few weeks might be mind-expanding for all of us. Two other factors make this even more intriguing. One is that Jean actually asked the Archbishop whether having Suzanne be with an Evangelical church would be acceptable, rather than her being in a more familiar Catholic setting. The answer was that they would prefer the Evangelical environment as a growth experience.
The other piece of serendipity (or Holy Spirit pre-arrangement?) is that Suzanne’s time with us would include our Vacation Bible School week. Who knows what our kids might learn from interacting with her? And who knows what she might learn about how we share the gospel with our children?
We would love to hear from any prospective hosts. She doesn’t have to stay in the same place the entire time; several families may take a week apiece. We would also like to hear any creative ideas about how we can make this the best possible experience for everyone involved.
— Pastor George Van Alstine