We were enjoying cookies and hot tea during a 15 minute break between sessions at the school. I had so many questions to ask my new friend and colleague, but hesitated because I didn’t want to be too personal or surface painful memories. “Did you have time to pack or plan what to take with you?” I asked. Only minutes, she said. Even now, eleven months later, I can still hear her words. “I had just my baby in my arms and followed my husband. We walked. We don’t know when or if we will ever go back.”
MCC photo/Charity Stahl
The tragic event began in August 2014 when ISIS invaded Mosel and the villages of the Nineveh Plains in Iraq. More than 400,000 people were forced to flee at a moment’s notice. My new friend, an Iraqi Christian of Assyrian descent, was one of those who fled. She and her family escaped to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They found refuge in a suburb called Ankawa in the city of Erbil. Ankawa, also called the Assyrian quarter, has a long Christian history dating back to a grave marked 925 AD. It is likely that Christianity in this area began even earlier. Eastern Christian tradition celebrates Saint Addai, who evangelized this region in the first century. He is believed to be one of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus in the gospel of Luke.
I marvel at how Christians in this part of the world are descendants of those early believers. I feel honored to have met them and to be involved in educational efforts along with them. Mennonite Central Committee gave me the opportunity to work with teachers at Mar Qardakh School in Ankawa. The school offers K-12 education in English and serves a growing community of internally displaced people who have found themselves starting over in Northern Iraq. No doubt, this school will make a significant impact in the lives of many students and families working to make the best of a difficult situation and to contribute to the rebuilding of their beloved country. Our team of teachers from the United States spent a month working with Iraqi teachers on curriculum development and planning for the coming school year. The teachers were eager, and we enjoyed brainstorming with them and creating units and lessons that follow the International Baccalaureate education model. Student learning must be inquiry-based, transdisciplinary, and global.
Besides the academic work, a highlight for me was worshipping at a Chaldean Mass. My colleagues and I walked in quietly and claimed a row near the back of the church. The smell of incense quickly overtook my senses. Many worshippers already filled the large sanctuary. I noticed some of the women had their heads covered loosely with a black lace shawl. Young and old, families and individuals – each one stopped in the aisle to lower one knee in reverence. They took their places in the pews and stood with expectation. The service began and I was careful to observe well and follow the congregation in sitting and standing at the appropriate times.
Worship at the Chaldean Cathedral Church of Mar Yusef (St. Joseph) located in Ankawa, Erbil.MCC photo/Charity Stahl
About halfway through the service, I was caught off guard by a familiar tune, a melody in a minor key that I have known since my youth. They sang in Arabic and I worshipped along with them. The English lyrics came quickly to my mind…“whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you.” The song Hiding Place, popular in the ‘80s, had crossed the ocean before me. I wondered at how this song touched my heart deeply when hearing it in Arabic and in this setting at a Chaldean Mass. Perhaps it was because the emotion in the voices told me the singers knew what it was like to feel afraid and to trust in God.
Later, another song and the Arabic word qadus rang over and over in my ear. It is the word holy. They sang it again and again… holy, holy, holy. Bells rang and a priest held up The Book. It was ornate and glowed, shimmering in the light. The censer swung like a pendulum and created a cloud of incense around the ancient script as it processed up the aisle and to the podium. I sensed the sacredness of The Book and its meaning. This pomp and circumstance is not common in my church tradition, but there is no mistaking its meaning. The Holy Book contains the message of God to us. In my church tradition, before the Scripture is read, the pastor says, “Please stand for the reading of God’s Word.” I remember doing this since my childhood and it instilled in me a similar reverence. There is much we can learn from ancient church traditions.
We alternated sitting and standing as the call and response liturgy continued with the words Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One. The priest began to read. I tried to follow along with the translated pages of liturgy that I held in my hand. One column contained the Syriac or Arabic liturgy; in the other, the English translation. I listened closely, taking in the sounds of an ancient language. Syriac is a language closely related to Aramaic, which is the language Jesus spoke. The first translation of the scriptures from Greek was completed in Syriac in the second century. Syriac is the language used in Christian liturgy by the Assyrian people of northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, southwestern Iran, and in diaspora communities around the world. Unlike other liturgical languages, like Latin, Syriac is a living language. It is still spoken as a common language among Assyrian people in their everyday lives.
A wave of weariness washed over me. The hot sun of the day and time spent teaching and planning had taken a toll. I looked forward to an outing for refreshing fruit smoothies after the service. I glanced at my friends, my new friends that I had just met a week ago. God gathered us here for a month of summer service in the land where it all began. Literally, it all began here. The Garden of Eden is believed to have been in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq. Soaking in that thought and the fact that I was sitting among the descendants of first century Christians still awes and humbles me. What a gift of spiritual heritage these brothers and sisters have to hold on to in trying times. Our Lord Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world (John 16:33). This is one of the promises Iraqi Christians cling to.
As the service ended, there was a prayer for the country: “Put an end to all pain, and establish in our country peace and harmony.” Then, with hands outstretched and palms turned facing upwards, they sang the Lord’s Prayer. I hummed along and wished I could sing it loud and clear with them. For that, I would need some Arabic language study. The prayer begins with an intriguing melody that is despondent, yet anticipatory. A steady underlying rhythm drives the melody forward as if reaching for something yet to come. At the chorus, there is an echoing part that becomes more and more dissonant until it rises to a climax pleading the deliverance from evil. The anthem then slows to a calm proclamation, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” The word amen (amin) in Syriac means lasting, never-ceasing, and never-ending. It is no wonder I wanted them to keep singing it over and over: to proclaim his kingdom and his will to be done on earth even as it is in heaven. His kingdom come. Amen.
MCC photo/Charity Stahl
Charity Stahl served with MCC in Iraq for one month during the summer of 2018. She was part of a team of teachers who conducted professional development workshops for Iraqi teachers at Mar Qardakh School in Erbil. While in Iraq, the team got to know the community of local Christians who were generous in sharing their culture and history. Besides working for the education of youth in Iraq, Charity enjoyed expanding her knowledge about the deep roots and traditions of Christianity in the region. These roots and traditions are highlighted in her reflective piece. Currently, Charity attends Bethel Mennonite Brethren Church in rural Yale, South Dakota. She works as a teacher for English language learners in her hometown public school district of Huron, South Dakota.