“By sharing our resources to help people achieve their own better lives, we are showing them how much we love them.” During her visit to Hungary, Rev. Najla Kassab, President of the WCRC, shared her thoughts and experiences on the life of the Hungarian Reformed community, the current situation in Syria, and the cooperation within the Communion, especially between RCH and NESSL.
Is this your first visit to Hungary? What is the reason for your visit?
Yes, this is my first visit to Hungary. I came here to attend the WCRC Europe Area Council meeting. This is my first meeting with the council, but I have a special relationship with them as they had nominated me for President. But I came here not only to be a part of this meeting, but also, to be in communion. For me, being in communion is to visit the local congregations. This is why visiting the Reformed community in Hungary was very important to me, especially as President of the WCRC. I came to understand the church in context: to hear of the challenges, the struggles, and the joys. So I came for the WCRC meeting, but as the President of a communion, I am very much interested in meeting the Church.
What are your experiences of the life and mission of the Reformed Church in Hungary?
My concepts towards Hungary have changed because I can see the strength that the Reformed Church has in Hungary. Strength, first in the way that the Reformed Church in Hungary (RCH) thinks to support minorities, and I think that is very powerful. I have always believed that “minority” is not a negative word, it is a strong word. There is strength in a minority that is focused on a vision, number is not important – what is important is that there is a vision and a body to do what God wants you to do. I could see that strength in the RCH. As a minority, sometimes you can only think of yourself, but the RCH is thinking of the world. I think that because you understand the struggles of being a minority, you are able to reach out to other minority groups. I believe that this is a very important trait of the RCH.
Another thing that was surprising to me and also very powerful is ministering through education. This is something our churches share. We help the people in our nations through education, and through schools and other educational institutes, bring reconciliation to people. I was impressed at the outreach through education and other institutions in Hungary. In the Middle East, school is a place where Muslims and Christians can sit together and learn to respect one another. I think education is a wonderful gospel–like mission.. As a minority group, we were the first to teach women in the Ottoman Empire. Education for women began with a small group of missionary pastors’ wives receiving girls in their visiting homes and teaching them. Small lessons developed and the number of women learning grew until they eventually started a school. These women never dreamed that the short lessons would lead to the changing of minds in the Middle East.
I am happy to say that my time here in Hungary was a fruitful time. I am delighted to see that the RCH has a vision for the future.
Four months ago, an RCH delegation visited Syria. Now we read about the chaos and the war again. What do you think of this?
Yesterday, we heard that Syria was struck, hit by missiles, and obviously we are very upset. Earlier this morning, I read a statement released by NESSL pastors in Syria speaking against the violence. With what is happening today, violence will not bring solutions. I am a Lebanese citizen, and we lived in violence from 1975 to 1990. Violence only brings more violence. We need to teach people how to engage in dialogue. In order to do so, we cannot practice violence with them and then try to teach them to use their words. We must converse with them; talk with them about their joys and concerns. In this way, we are teaching people to engage in dialogue. What happened yesterday upsets us because this puts us in a situation to turn to violence again. We hear two messages from the rest of the world: to resolve this conflict through conversation, or to resort to violence.
Continuing in violence will not lead to any solutions – it will only lead to more people dying, and more people leaving the Middle East, scared for their lives and those of their families. This will lead to more problems, not only for the Syrians, but also for the rest of the world.
What can the Church do in this situation?
The Church can do what the WCRC did yesterday – speak up against violence. NESSL pastors in Syria published a statement condemning violence, and promoting peace. The only solution here is peace. Even the solution for the issue of migration is peace.
On Friday, at the WCRC meeting, you spoke about growing up in the civil war in Lebanon. You stated a powerful statement about standing up to fear. How can we make this possible?
We call ourselves, as the Church, the people of hope. Hope in the Christian understanding is God interfering beyond our own context. This is where, I believe, our pulpits are very important places to speak of hope, and our lifestyles are an important illustration of that. For example, during the Lebanese war, people were discouraged to build homes, businesses, etc., because of the uncertainty that they may have to move again. But the Church continued to build. We continued in our plans of development despite our situation. If we had no hope, we would have stopped.
This is why the Church is to be the light for the people. If we as Christians say that God is in control, then we must believe that God will support us during the difficult times. I was a student during the Lebanese war. During that time, I studied in shelters, walked to the school to take my exams and walked back to continue my studies in the shelters. It is amazing, the strength that God gave me during those times. When I look at the churches in Syria, I am impressed at how God has given them strength. What they encounter every day is terrifying. Many of the pastors have many opportunities to leave Syria. But they choose to stay because they feel that God is using them to be the message of hope to the people.
For several years, we could not hold our meetings in Syria. One day, a woman in charge of the Women’s group called me and asked if I would be able to join them for their Women’s group. There was shelling in Damascus at that time, but I agreed. Usually my family is very supportive of my ministry, but this was the only time they were reluctant to let me go. I said, “If I do not stand with a suffering church now, then they will never believe that I love them.” In Damascus, I stayed with the woman who had contacted me in her home. Having lived through war, I prayed that they would put me in a room without any windows or big glass object, because if something were to happen, the glass would fall on us. There were supposed to be 40 women at the meeting, but we ended up being 200 women from all the churches – not only our church. It was a powerful experience. We were standing and singing together, “God is our refuge,” and we can hear the bombs falling. Many times we talk about God as our refuge, but such situations really put it into question, do we really believe in what we talk about? Being with these women was a sign of hope that God had not left us. In this way, we live what we preach; like the delegation from Hungary visiting Lebanon and Syria was a sign of hope. The best way to live hope is to show up, show support to the people. This is the same in the Middle East, and the churches in Syria are stronger than ever because they are living up to the hope we talk about.
How can the people and the church in Hungary help?
The starting point to helping us is to want to help. This is where I was really impressed: the people in Hungary care to support the Christian minority. Our identity as a church is ecumenical, open to Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims. When the Hungarian government says, they are going to work with Christians, especially ecumenical Christians this is a way of thinking that I would be using in talks to change minds on how to do mission. I think we shouldn’t feel guilty if we start by working with Christian groups. This is a different way of thinking. For me, what is important is the belief behind the support: that the Christian community has a role.
As for getting involved in education, yesterday I visited the Reformed Collegium in Debrecen. Such an education would be wonderful in preparing leaders for the Middle East, and for our churches too. This can be done with exchange groups of youth and women. In the end, we don’t want mission to stay on the level of the leadership. We want it to be in the grassroots because they will be the next ambassadors of mission. If 10 young Hungarians and 10 young Syrians and Lebanese come together for a conference, we have set the mission to be in the hands of these young people where this encounter will have changed their lives. We can also do this with women.
Humanitarian work is also important. There is a great need for humanitarian aid, especially medication and care for the elderly. The elderly are often neglected. If we tell people we want to help children, everyone is excited to donate. Unfortunately, most times, people don’t want to give money for the elderly. It is very costly to admit an elderly person into a nursing home.
Last year when you were elected as President of the WCRC, you said that you had a lot of things to do as President. It is not enough to speak about injustice, but we need to heal wounds. What did you mean by “healing wounds”?
Not long ago, I attended a TED Talk titled Refugees Want Empowerment, Not Handouts. The speaker talked about how we wanted to help people, but sometimes we offered them the wrong kind of help. With all the injustice in the world today, many times, ecumenical organizations simply publish statements. For me, the question is, how do we impact lives?
I attended a mission conference in Tanzania. During a session, a woman stood up and said, “I am poor, I am marginalized, I am depressed, and I feel I don’t have a future.” I still think of her, asking myself, “What did we do for her?” She had stood up and opened her needs in front of thousands of people, and what did we do for her. WCRC cannot solve all the problems of the world, but we can start with places where we can make an impact. Many people are tired of hearing the words. Many times during my ministry, people would ask for practical hope. This is how we need to heal the wounds, we need to live it, and we need to walk the talk. This is a challenge we face in our world today. We need to get involved in a real way and relate practically to the life of the people. As a church, we get so used to preaching, we have to move to practical solutions.
Interview by György Feke
Edited by Priscilla Yang