On a wall in my house hangs a matted and framed charcoal rubbing of the cornerstone of the old Syrian Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Without the background of why that particular piece graces my wall, it seems rather odd and out-of-place in the rural country home of a southern boy. The coarse engraving is not hung because of the aesthetic value it adds to the room, but for the story it has to tell. It prompts our visitors to inquire, and to ask why.
Our story involves heroes. Heroes are not only the notable people that have gained notoriety through great campaigns they have won, or by notable achievements they have made. They include quiet and simple people who have done great things for God’s Kingdom with their lives by simply remaining faithful to the gospel. Their faith has moved mountains, but not always visible this side of the veil. Heroes are people who sacrifice their lives for the sake of the gospel, who live to make a difference for future generations, and who die faithfully in the Lord to seal their testimony forever.
Perhaps the best way to unfold our story is to see how each of the three words, “Syrian” “Presbyterian” and “Church” fit together. The Syrian label comes from the Lebanese family into which I married. I married a Soud. Little did I know when I married my wife that her family, whose short round jolly aunts demanded kisses on the cheek upon every greeting, whose gatherings are filled with life, loudness, and hilarity, and whose Thanksgiving turkeys share the table with kibbee, tabouli, and hummus, had a rich long Christian heritage filled with quiet heroes.
The label “Church” identifies with the long enduring Christian faith the family has espoused for hundreds of years. My wife’s ancestors come from a long history of Maronites. Maronites are a group of Christians named after their fourth century patron saint, St. Maron, a contemporary friend of John Chrysostom. When 350 of their folks were martyred for their Trinitarian beliefs by monophysite heretics, they found refuge in the mountains of Lebanon for where they are mostly known.
Not long after the rise of Islam, the land and culture of Lebanon became infiltrated by the Muslims, but God was gracious to maintain a remnant there through faithful unknown saints. Some of the older living patriarchs of our ancestors believe that the family had always been Christian, and there may be tokens of evidence to that end. Perhaps their names give us an indication. There is a long history of biblical names, or names associated with Christendom that graces the family tree. Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David, Solomon, and Gabriel, were common names among the men, and they married women with names like Esther and Sarah. My oldest daughter’s name is Kaliste. It is a name that has been in the family for a long time, and it is believed that the French Crusaders brought the name into Lebanon during their campaigns of the 11th century. Of all the contacts established by the Crusaders with the peoples of the Middle East, those with the Maronites of Lebanon were among the most enduring. Could the name have indicated with which side of the battle our family identified?
The “Presbyterian” label is attributed to the heroes of the missionary endeavors of the church in Scotland. In an interview with the second pastor of the Syrian Presbyterian Church, Gabriel Abdullah, now 97, he attributed their Presbyterian background in Lebanon to the missionary efforts of Scotland in the early 19th century. It was during this period that Scottish notable, Thomas Chalmers began mission clubs and created enthusiasm for missionaries to go to China, and India and to the Middle East. From Scotland, the gospel came to northern Lebanon and to our people. Rev. Abdullah recalls, “I visited Scotland and thanked the church in Edinburgh for sending their missionaries to my home town of Miniara.”
The family maintained their reformed Christian faith and began migrating to America in 1897 in the face of intensifying Muslim persecution. To maintain a Christian witness in an antithetical culture for a prolonged period of time is heroic. Heroic character is not found in the land of ease or complacency, but is forged through the fiery trials of suffering and perseverance.
While we sometimes carelessly take our heritage for granted, we are indebted to our ancestral heroes who sacrificed much, who lived well, and who died faithful. Because they fulfilled their Lord’s calling, they now enjoy countless blessings. The mountains their faith moved are now ours to defend. While many of their names are unknown, the legacy they leave behind is immeasurable. That’s the why.