We make a good team- Pastor and I. It is an unlikely connection, but one we feel was written by the hand of God long ago. Pastor is an immigrant, a refugee to be exact. He is a handsome, stocky Arab man almost thirty years my senior, with strong, Mediterranean features and a tempered Middle Eastern accent. He has a commanding, yet friendly presence, and a coy kind of smile that makes you wonder what kind of complicated ideas are really swiring behind his round, observant eyes. I was in my early twenties when we met, and looked much the same as I do today (only younger and well rested), but back then I had unbridled tenacity and a seemingly infinite amount of passion for life. He was the pastor of the church we started attending in Lowell, Massachusetts, the church that later became an extension of our home and family. Pastor was one of the first people who truly believed in me and in my ability to make a difference in the world, and he not only listened to all my crazy ideas, but he gave me freedom to pursue them by sharing his own personal influence and platform with me. Over the years our connection in ministry has grown into a strong friendship and even though Judah and I have since moved away, we still keep in touch, and we still call him our Pastor. When we come to the area to visit he still makes a point to invite us to minister alongside him and he has taken an interest in Judah’s newfound career, teaching him everything he knows about cooking Lebanese food. I know it sounds cliche, but Pastor truly gave me wings to fly, so when he mentioned to me that he was ready to write a biography about his life I immediately wanted in on the project. I knew his story was incredible and since storytelling is a passion of mine, I was excited about the idea of helping him tell it. Plus, it would be a great opportunity to help him achieve one of his dreams like he had done for me so many times before.
The distance between us was the biggest hurdle we faced while writing the book as our schedules forced us to rely mainly on email communication. Pastor would write out a few paragraphs about his life in an email, which I then edited and appropriately placed in the timeline. If necessary, I would probe him a little further for more details about his experiences, which I then used to add descriptive narrative. During this time I was pregnant and gave birth twice, both times pausing our project for a significant amount of time. Pastor was incredibly patient with me and even though it should have only taken less than a quarter of the time, we finally finished the book at just about the four year mark. He titled it Strong Wings Gentle Wind.
I am incredibly proud of this project, and I believe that Pastor's inspiring story is a perfect example of how God can quite literally make beauty from ashes. If you are interested in ordering his book or reading more about him, please visit www.raffoulnajem.com. For those of you who are interested in reading a sneak peek of his amazing story, I am including one of my favorite segments below. It sheds just a glimmer of light on how dangerous life was during the Lebanese Civil War. I hope that the story of his journey will encourage you as much as it has encouraged me.
“For six months, all the stores were closed and we were left without running water or electricity. As the sole provider for my family it was my responsibility to find water for our home. Transporting water for a large family was no easy task, so I built a wagon from neighborhood scraps and my mother cleaned out some empty gasoline jugs that I had gathered around the city. I heard about a well that was working in West Beirut where we lived, so I headed off with my wagon in tow, the pressure of the task heavy on my shoulders. When I arrived at the well I found about twenty people already standing in line with their gasoline jugs and buckets, both men and women representing all genders and ages. Initially I thought they were waiting in line to fill their jugs, but I quickly realized the true cause of the delay. A sniper was positioned on the East side of the city within perfect shooting distance of our West side well. He let his rifle loose on the well in a consistent loop:
BANG! One, two, three, four, five- BANG! BANG! BANG!…
I got in line behind the last person, a middle aged man with deep worry lines etched in his bronzed forehead. My heart sank when I realize that the group was counting the seconds between gun shots, memorizing the sequence so they could calculate the safest route to the well.
One, two, three- BANG! One, two, three, four, five- BANG! BANG! BANG! The gunfire flew like deadly, red laser beams across the open space. I kept my eyes on the old, rusty water pump in the far right side of the courtyard, and calculated in my head how many steps it would take to get to the other side. The water pump gleamed in the distance like a diamond in the sun, promising life to all within its reach. My palms were sweating, making the stained, white plastic container slip in my hands.
We memorized the sniper’s firing sequence: three seconds, one shot; five seconds, three shots; seven seconds, two shots. We calculated that our best chance would be to run after the three shots, giving us a full seven seconds to reach the other side. I watched as one person after another gathered their courage and ran as fast as they could to the well. The rest of us waited along the grey, crumbling wall lining the other side of the courtyard and counted the sequence out loud so the runner would know how much time was remaining.
When my turn came I dug my toes into the gravel for momentum and took a few deep breaths. My heart beat so loudly in my head that I thought for sure the sniper would hear it echoing across the courtyard.
After the next sequence of three shots, I launched into a full speed sprint across the open courtyard. I could hear my bronzed faced line-partner counting out the sequence to me, his booming voice echoing back from the courtyard wall. The empty gasoline container slapped loudly against my thighs, and at seven seconds exactly, I slid into the dust alongside the water pump.
I filled the water container in record time, sealing off the liquid gold with a dirty black twist top. I knew the run back would be the hardest part as we had been standing in the hot, Beirut sun for hours and I had used all of my remaining energy to get to the well. So I closed my eyes and thought of my mother, as I often did in moments like this. I thought of her smile, her unruly red-brown hair, and her comforting smell of olive oil and lemon. I pictured her as she so often was, leaning over our old, tired, propane stove, nervously heating and reheating the mujaddara*, stirring and singing gently under her breath. Thinking of her gave me the peace and strength that I needed to make my run back across the courtyard.
This remained our only way to get water for months. I went to that courtyard and waited in line once a week and it always took me half of a day to get my jugs filled. The sniper was always there."
*Mujaddara is a traditional Middle Eastern dish of cooked lentils and rice.
-Excerpt from the book Strong Wings Gentle Wind. Used with permission.