60 years' presence in Lebanon

This year the brothers of Lebanon celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of their presence in the Middle East. Twenty-five of these sixty years have been in Beirut, in the Nabaa Quarter, where Roger is living at the moment. Nabaa is a popular quarter where Lebanese families, both Christian and Moslem of all denominations, live side by side with Syrians, Kurds, Turkmenistanis, Africans and Asians. The precariousness and high cost of living, the negligence and weakness of the State, and the uncertainty about the future of the country all weigh heavily on the daily life of the families among whom we live. We often admire their courage, humility, love of life and their tenderness.

It was during the summer of 1967 that I was asked to come to Lebanon. The Taalabaya fraternity had opened eight years earlier. brothers in late 60s, Roger 1st on the rightbrothers in late 60s, Roger 1st on the right We lived by working with our hands. One of the brothers was a farm worker, another was a painter and decorator. As soon as I arrived, I began looking for work in factories and workshops. It was a period of instability and insecurity. First of all I worked for two months in a food factory during the tomato season, and for another month I was a labourer for a mason. Then I spent two months in an arak cellar, another two months putting back up the posts for the vines that the heavy winter snowfalls had knocked down. I ended up finding a permanent job in Zahle, in a concrete pipe factory where I stayed for eight years. The work consisted of preparing the moulds, turning them out, storing the pipes, loading them into lorries, and unloading the bags of cement. This meant ten hours of work six days a week in Summer, but long rainy days at home in Winter. The owners were three brothers, Chaldean Christians. The workers were Syrians and Palestinians, all Moslems. I was the only Christian among them, and the only foreigner, but they quickly adopted me and included me in their group. It was work without security, poorly paid, sometimes hard, but there was a good camaraderie and real solidarity among us, and, a remarkable thing was that the bosses worked with us and just like us.This period of my life was distinguished by manual work.

Life was full with our relationships with neighbours, work around the house, and times for prayer early in the morning and in the evening after work. We went to Mass at the Jesuit Priests’ monastery at 5.30 in the morning, by bicycle, in all weathers. And in the evening, it was not easy to stay awake during the hour of adoration. I still have a certain nostalgia for this period because we lived in poverty, alongside our neighbours, who were workers like us. When our coffers were empty at the end of the month, I found it humiliating to have to go and ask a friend to lend us the money for the rent.

We quickly decided to leave the Christian district where the brothers had come ten years earlier and go and live high up in the village, in a mixed area where the majority of people were Shiite Muslims. Our Christian friends and neighbours were astonished and asked us: "Why are you going to live with the Moslems? " We tried to explain as well as we could, how as followers of Charles de Foucauld, we felt called to live amongst non-Christians. When the priest came to celebrate the first Mass in our new chapel and leave the Blessed Sacrament there, it was a moment of great joy and gratitude for us: Jesus the Eucharist was from now on present in the heart of this district, and this presence demanded that we increased the time we had available for prayer and hospitality. This move also needs to be seen in the context of the pre-war period when tensions between the communities were developing. Some of our Christian neighbours felt our departure from their district was a desertion and would no longer visit us. For us, though, this change was a call to live, in a more real way, a fuller love at a time when we could see the dangers of civil war.
In April 1975, when war began, it quickly took on a very strict denominational character and we were torn because we wanted to live belonging to both Christians and Muslims. There was a lot of violence on both sides, but in Taalabaya it was the Christians who paid the highest price in the conflict, with much suffering and many tears. At the end of 1975 there were many tragic events in the Christian areas: there were more than ten people killed, houses were pillaged and burned, the population was fleeing. Christian friends were insisting that we leave with them. What were we to do? We were in solidarity with the Christians who were suffering, but we also wanted to give witness to our faithfulness to our Moslem neighbours who had welcomed us and who were the guarantors of our safety. With another Christian family in the district, we decided to remain under their protection.
I was the only brother remaining in Taalabaya, and when they bombed us from Zahle or when unknown militiamen were driving around in the evenings, I went to sleep with a neighbouring Moslem family, and, being together, our anxiety decreased. Calm was restored little by little, but I no longer had any work. During the summer of 1976, I closed the fraternity for a year, stored our belongings with the Jesuit Fathers at the Taanayel monastery, and I left for a 'desert year' in Algeria.
A year later, in 1977, I came back to Taalabaya, with Bertrand and I became a teacher. Some of the young neighbours had asked us to help with their French homework and I noticed that they were at a low standard. The idea came to me to go and see if their school needed a French teacher. Against all expectations, I was accepted there straightaway, and I began teaching there the next day. The head of the school, the teachers and the young pupils were all Shiites. I stayed at this school for eight years. It was a very powerful experience, difficult as regards education, but rich in the relationships with the children and their families, simple people who, with a lot of courage, faced the daily problems made worse by the fears and dangers of war. They all knew me as a member of a religious community, and I always felt a lot of respect and trust from them.

For us, this period began a change of direction in the work we did. Work was an important issue for us as we lived from our paid work. Personally, I lived my best years sharing the work and the social conditions of the workers. But we took our friends’ advice into consideration, and now the brothers take on the kind of work that suits them best. But whatever sort of work it is, whether manual work or in the service sector, we want to remain men of the people in our way of life and where we live.

In 1985, Bertrand and I opened a new fraternity in Beirut. We felt a need to be closer to some young people who were searching for something and who were questioning us about our religious life. We found ourselves a small apartment in Nabaa. Bertrand, Roger, with a neighbourBertrand, Roger, with a neighbour Bertrand found work immediately as a nurse. As for me, a friend who wanted to found a C. A. T. (a centre for aid through work) encouraged me to work with him. This association made me discover a totally new world, that of mentally handicapped people, a world that I faced with many questions and a little fear: what could I do about it? How should I behave? What should I give? I quickly understood that above all I had to receive from these people, from their simplicity and from their capacity for love, provided that I myself was also simple and loving. We took on several handicapped Moslems and I discovered that when faced with a handicapped person all religious barriers fall down, and our weaknesses can be a source of communion. The retreat that Jean Vanier facilitated in 1988 led us, with a few friends, to base this in the parish in Nabaa. During the last 20 years, the community has grown and has taken off in other parishes. I am always full of admiration for the seriousness of the commitment of these young people who accompany their handicapped brothers and sisters, several of whom are married in the community.
a street in Naabaa street in Naaba
The last two years of the war, 1989-1990, allowed us to live through a real experience of living in harmony with our neighbours. Many people took refuge in basements during the bombings but ours was flooded. With the help of neighbours, we filled bags with sand and we made our apartment on the ground floor a shelter where everyone could take refuge night or day. The children slept in the chapel. We lived in great solidarity there, sharing the same roof, the same bread and, with some of them, the same prayer. The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist helped us to overcome our fears and to hope.

Several young Lebanese, Iraqis, and Egyptians have come to live with us during the last twenty years. Only one stayed and fully committed himself to our way of life. We are now an ageing community and there are not many of us. Some friends reproach us for not making ourselves known. It is true that we don't like to talk about ourselves and we don't have institutions or outside activities that would make us more easily recognised as a religious community. And we express our vocation with the symbols of salt or yeast than with the symbol of light shining from the candlestick. But we are aware as well that the message of Charles de Foucauld is not only for us and we have to share the treasure that we have received from Jesus of Nazareth. Pray that we may be faithful to our vocation as brothers, brothers of Jesus, and 'little', 'little brothers of Jesus', brothers to everyone, and witnesses to the tenderness and forgiveness of God for all his children