The kids are mostly Sunni Muslims from across Syria. In the morning they receive English and Arabic lessons, then in the afternoon they learn about Jesus and the Bible.
In a small yard by the side of the road in the Bekaa Valley, eastern Lebanon, Kim and David are watching over their students.
The couple moved from Texas five months ago to set up a school for Syrian refugee children. They called it the House of Love.
“We have nothing left in the States now. We sold everything,” says Kim. “We have a 10 x 12 [foot] storage unit with our family pictures and my favorite chair. That’s it.”
“Actually it was God’s idea,” Kim says. She and her husband, middle-aged with eight grown children, had worked at their church in Texas and describe themselves as nondenominational Christians. During a previous visit to Lebanon to help refugees, they heard the call, as they put it, to return permanently.
“You know what, all kids all over the world just wanna be loved. They just want attention and they want to know they are worth something. That’s what we do here at House of Love,” she says.
A number of large, established Christian charities work with refugees in Lebanon, but not many people like Kim and David, who say they are here as independent missionaries, no big institution attached. It’s risky work, and raises a list of ethical questions.
Their school consists of two container buildings a few feet apart, with a school yard in the middle. It even has a sports court adjacent. Work was recently finished on a fence surrounding the property — a team had come from the US to build it after raising the money themselves.
Most of the kids who attend the school live in informal camps that dot the landscape in the Bekaa.
The Lebanese government and aid agencies have been overwhelmed by more than a million Syrians crossing the border to escape that country’s almost 6-year-old war. Many of the refugees here live in crippling poverty.
The kids are mostly Sunni Muslims from across Syria. In the morning they receive English and Arabic lessons, then in the afternoon they learn about Jesus and the Bible. On the afternoon of our recent visit, the children were singing along to a music video called “Jesus Is My Sugar,” which showed adoring children gathered around Jesus while singing those words.
Missionary work like this is controversial in Lebanon. The country has a sizeable and influential Christian population of its own, but relations between Christians and Muslims here have a complicated past, to say the least. (See the 1975-1990 civil war, fought largely along sectarian lines. Relations are continuing to be rebuilt 26 years after the war ended.)
So the few foreign missionaries who come here on their own are walking into a fraught situation. “Some of the independent missionaries who come out might not know the delicate balance of certain areas,” says Christine Lindner, a historian at Murray State University in Kentucky who has studied the history of missionaries in Lebanon.
“People who might have good intentions, but don’t necessarily speak the language, don’t know where to go or what not to say or do, they might inadvertently cause more problems than good.”
Kim and David, who are learning Arabic, say they are aware of the potential issues with their work and are very upfront with the parents of the kids they’re teaching.
“The families around us that bring their kids here, they know that we are Christians from the States and they are OK with that. We let them know, ‘look, it’s in our nature, it’s gonna be in the way we teach morals and values. And are you OK with that?’ Of course! And if they are not, then they don’t come. This is neutral ground,” Kim says.
Still, this kind of work can be dangerous. Back in 2002, American missionary Bonnie Penner was fatally shot in the southern city of Sidon. Less than a year later, a Jordanian convert to Christianity was killed in a bomb attack on a European missionary’s home in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.
Extremists aside, many in the Muslim community don’t look kindly on any activity that could be perceived as Christian evangelizing.
David and Kim insist this is not what they are here to do.
“I know some that come here, that this is their main agenda, and they want to evangelize to see them converted from Islam. We’re not here to convert anyone,” says Kim.
“Our main agenda is not to see that they become a follower of Christ, but if they ever question us, we certainly share with them.”