Lebanon | Grace Under Fire

In Tripoli, northern Lebanon, a pastor tries to keep her church insulated from the region’s strife

01 August, 2012

ROLA SLEIMAN PARKED HER CAR in the only empty spot outside Tripoli’s evangelical church—a small, sand-coloured building with a simple façade and large wooden doors in the middle of the city, cramped in between two busy streets lined with vendors selling seasonal fruit, plastic toys and sweets. It was Sunday morning and, like every Sunday at around this time, Rola was headed to work. She’s a pastor, and at 37, she’s younger than most of her colleagues. But that’s not the only thing that makes her unique. Rola is also, as far as she knows, the only female pastor in Lebanon—and perhaps even in the entire Middle East.

Rola locked her car and crossed the street. She popped her head into the bakery on the corner to say hello, greeted the man selling colourful socks outside the church, then greeted the church caretaker. She’s a familiar figure in the area: in Lebanon, neighbours know each other well. Rola entered the yard and walked through the back door, into the small and spotless church.

“Already at fourteen, I knew that I wanted to serve,” she said. “I felt I wanted to do something to influence the lives of those around me.” At 17, Rola was ready to send in her application to study theology at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, but was told she was too young. Instead of waiting until she was old enough, she went ahead and studied on her own for one-and-a-half years. Impressed, the synod decided to accept her and she completed the final two-and-a-half years of the four-year theology program.

That was in the 1990s, when Lebanon had just come out of a devastating civil war. The fighting, which pit communities against each other and involved neighbours like Syria and Israel, lasted for 15 years and drew bitter fault lines in the small country. Rola was born in 1975, the same year that the war had started. “We call ourselves ‘children of the war’,” she said with a smile. She became a member of the evangelical church early on; her mother, a Lebanese, and her father, a Syrian living in Tripoli, were churchgoers and took their kids along. Throughout her studies in Beirut, and her first job as a Christian educator in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, she stayed in touch with the community in Tripoli. When she got an invitation to come and serve in her home church, she accepted.

“At that time, it wasn’t on my mind at all to be a pastor—that was unknown for a woman. I first started working with youth and kids in the church,” Rola said. “Then, our pastor went abroad. This was in 2006, right before the war between Hezbollah and Israel started. When the fighting began, he couldn’t come back to Lebanon.” With their spiritual leader away, the church needed someone to fill in. They turned to Rola. “It was a simple decision,” she said. “I had studied theology and our pastor wasn’t here. So I took over the church for a few months.”

The pastor finally made it back, but left Lebanon for good shortly after. That’s when Rola was officially appointed as a pastor. “I think the crucial thing is that I was already doing the job—unofficially,” she said. “The community knew me and trusted me. To start with, they never thought of appointing a woman—I’m sure. But then someone said, ‘Look at her, she’s doing a good job in the church already,’ and they chose me.”

That was in 2008. Since then, Rola has served as the pastor to a small, 85-person congregation. Many members are connected through family bonds, or know each other through the church. “We’re a small church,” Rola said, “and there are many families that we’ve lost. The younger generation leaves Lebanon to work abroad. One of our elders, a man in his 80s who always comes here to chat, has his entire family in Brazil. Had they stayed in Lebanon, we would’ve been another 85 members in the church!”

This kind of migration is nothing new to Lebanese society: for years, people have left the country for better opportunities abroad; or to escape war. But the country has retained its religious mosaic. There are 18 officially recognised religious sects in Lebanon, most of them with deep roots in the region. The main groups are Sunni Muslims, Shi’a Muslims and Christians, but there are also Jews and other Islamic communities, like the Druze and Alawites. Among the Christians, the biggest group is the Maronites, a Catholic community. Rola’s church, which is part of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, is Protestant. There are no reliable numbers today on how big the different sects are—the last census in Lebanon was in 1932 and the issue remains highly controversial since political power is informally allocated according to the strength of religious communities—but Christians are believed to make up somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the population, and Muslims at least 60 percent.

Lebanon’s political conflicts have often played out across religious lines—or within the religious communities themselves. For many Lebanese, however, religious affiliation is one of many dimensions of their identity, and does not necessarily lead to dischord. Rola firmly believes religion and conflict need not go hand in hand. “All prophets—Muhammad, Jesus and others—called for peace,” she said. “I cannot believe that any religion would support war. I have many Muslim friends, people who share the same mentality as me. They’re mothers and fathers, they have small shops or businesses. They just want to go about life as usual.”

It was only half an hour until the service would start, and Rola had begun to prepare. She put on her pastor’s outfit: a simple black coat, decorated in the front with two golden crosses. “There’s a difference between being a priest and a pastor,” she explained. “I’m a pastor, which means that I do everything except the sacraments—we get an ordained priest to do that.” But leading a church means more than just preaching on Sundays. Much of Rola’s time is spent caring for her community. “The most important thing is taking the time to sit and talk to people,” she said. “I make sure that everyone feels they’re involved in the church.”

Many churchgoers had now shown up: families with their kids, old couples who sat next to each other in the wooden pews. There are usually some 40-45 visitors—about half of the total members, which Rola considers a good number. She greeted every churchgoer personally—to her, the community is “like a big family”.

Her age and gender—which sets her apart from other pastors—have never been an issue, she said. “I haven’t been treated differently—on the contrary, people accept me as I am. When I was appointed, the pastor who played a big role in my appointment said, ‘There’s no official law that stands against it, and we believe in equality, so why not select a woman,’” she said. “But being a woman in a traditional male position is something that I’m always conscious of. It’s an inner challenge. You have to work double or triple to keep up with the age-old image of how a religious leader should be. We live in a patriarchal world, that’s a fact.”

Now, four years after starting as a pastor, Rola worries about what is happening in her home city. Lately, Tripoli has seen several breakouts of deadly street violence, related to the crisis in nearby Syria. It’s not the first time—when things happen in the region, they tend to become politicised in Lebanon. But Rola doesn’t believe in involving the church in these issues. “We try our best not to talk politics,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes, when you get daily news about bombings and killings. My nightmare is that what we lived through during the civil war will come back—I don’t want the children today to experience that. But Lebanese are a people with lots of hope. Without that, we would’ve given up already. We’ve made it through troubles before so we’ll make it through these as well.”