“Any day, doing this is better than a day in the office,” said a Middle East and North Africa Union (MENA) staff member after spending a day in community service at Mouseitbeh Adventist Secondary School (MASS) in West Beirut, Lebanon. He had just spent the day telling stories to students as he visited them in their classrooms.
Mouseitbeh school was established in 1929 as the first Adventist school in Lebanon. It began on one floor of a building and expanded to include two buildings that now house 700 students, from pre-school to grade 12. The academic program, delivered to students who are 99.9 percent from a Muslim background, is considered one of the best among the Evangelical schools in Lebanon.
School principal Elias Choufani tells how during the civil war, the school was occupied several times by different armed parties, but it never shut its doors.
“We serve in an area where the war made strong demographic changes. Our students are now mostly non-Christians” Choufani said. “The trust we received from parents and the community kept us working with full and promising potential.”
School chaplain and pastor Elia Wehbe recalls the division between West and East Beirut in 1978. Christian teachers had to travel daily from East Beirut to this area where it was unsafe for Christians. “To avoid the daily snipers and bombings I had to use my classroom as a sleeping room during the night,” said Wehbe.
The idea to visit the school was born out of MENA president Rick McEdward’s vision to connect with people in the community. “As Union staff, it is very important for us to connect and get acquainted with the students and staff,” he said. “We hope to joyfully disrupt their lives and give them something new.”
MENA staff began the day at the school with a short worship followed by a traditional Lebanese breakfast of Zatar (herb) and Jibneh (cheese). After breakfast, the office staff broke into small groups as they engaged in a variety of activities with the students. One group painted murals on the walls of the playground.
“It was soothing to work with paint and colors,” said MENA Media Center production manager Jean Jack Kerah. “[It was] a great way to interact with the students as they came out for recess.”
Another group visited the classrooms and told stories. Some of the staff played soccer with the kids at recess, and a fourth group did maintenance work.
“There were two rooms inside of the church with a lot of old stuff stored inside,” said web manager for the MENA Media Center Magdy Salama. “We took everything out, cleaned the rooms, painted the walls and now everything looks brand new.”
Eniko Szilvasi, a personal assistant for the Treasury department, visited the classrooms with her cello. She explained the history of her cello, shared an experience from her teenage years, and played “In His Time.”
“They were very educated students,” said Szilvasi. “They expressed a lot of interest, and I enjoyed the people and the environment.”
At the end of the day, some of the students shared their thoughts. Ahmad, a 16-year-old from grade 11, said, “We had a lot of fun with you, and I enjoyed the stories.”
“We had learned a lot about the people from the different countries, getting to know about a different religion,” said Anemo also from grade 11 and who wants to be a physician.
Students from the youngest to the oldest expressed delight in all the activities, from playing soccer with MENA staff, listening to stories, and helping paint murals on the playground walls.
“My teachers and students were so excited about the day that they asked if we could do it again,” Choufani said.
McEdward expressed pride in the team and the way it engaged with the community, students, and teachers. “I think of the relationships we established even though it was just for a day, and hope that many good things will come out of it,” he said.