By Tim Barringer
In Iraq, May 2003, just weeks after coalition forces had entered Baghdad, Carl Medearis and some of his friends drove from Lebanon, through Jordan, to Basra. In his new book Adventures in Saying Yes (Bethany House), Carl recalls: “I jumped out of our rented white Suburban in downtown Basra and yelled, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ A crowd formed instantly. By our third minute in Basra, I found myself in the backseat of a stranger’s black Mercedes going to meet a man I’d never heard of – the leading Shi’ite cleric of southern Iraq.
“Sheikh Ali’s domain was the largest mosque in the city. He was presiding over a large gathering of other Islamic leaders when we arrived, but in the good fashion of Arab hospitality he immediately stood up when he saw the four of us at the door and left his meeting to greet us.
“‘What are you doing here?’ A fair question to an American in Iraq in May 2003.
“‘Well, I’m not very good at it, but I’m trying to follow Jesus and we’ve come here looking for him. Have you seen him?’ (That got his attention.) ‘We were in Lebanon a few weeks ago praying, and the thought came to us that Jesus might be in Iraq. Two thousand years ago he was always where the religious leaders of his day thought he wouldn’t be. Have you seen him?’ I repeated.
“The Sheikh squinted over the top of his reading glasses, leaned toward his friends with a slight smile, and said, ‘Interesting question. No, we’ve not seen Jesus, but maybe the question should be, if he were here, what would he be doing?’
“We batted the idea around for about thirty minutes until they announced with an air of finality, ‘He’d be helping the children and taking care of the poor. Therefore, if Jesus would be doing that, maybe we should give more attention to the poor and the children – specifically, poor children.’
“Sheikh Ali looked at me and smiled. ‘That was a good question you asked. This is my city, and I give it to you and your friends. Whatever you want to do here I’ll help. Come and stay with me. You can store your humanitarian supplies here. I’ll tell everyone that you’re okay and not to mess with you.’”
In the end, Carl and the team managed to distribute basic kids’ schools supplies to around 20,000 children, enabling schools in Basra to continue to operate.
Welcome to the world of Carl Medearis, a tall American from Colorado who, with fluent Arabic and a disarmingly self-deprecating humour, has lived and travelled in the Middle East for the last 30 years. He knows what it is like to have his life threatened and his family in danger. He has been kidnapped by thieves at gunpoint and seen the inside of a prison cell. He tragically lost a friend working as a nurse with Lebanon’s poor, shot dead on their doorstep. However, none of this has diminished his love for the Middle East and the Arab people.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is his desire to try to follow Jesus that has led him on many of these adventures and given him the reputation, just like Jesus, in fact, of hanging out with the wrong type of people.
“We often have this postmodern Western view of Jesus; meek and mild, perhaps a small man, slightly blond flowing locks, a pretty man! We don’t see a working class man’s man, a strong carpenter. I haven’t done this, but look at the Gospels and think how many miles Jesus walked! Look at the kind of adventurers he was on; confronting religious leaders, casting out demons and healing the sick. Following him is what leads us on this adventure.”
Carl has sat in tents with Bedouin refugees and regularly drunk coffee and made friends with members of the Hezbollah and Hamas. He has even ended up chairing meetings of the Arab League.
These days, in many countries, being a Christian no longer carries the meaning of someone who appears to ‘be like Jesus’ or a ‘mini-Christ’. Often it can mean quite the opposite. If you ask him, Carl would not say that he is a Christian. “If I say I am Christian in Muslim context they think I sleep around, don’t look after my parents and watch pornography. It’s not what I am saying, it’s what they hear that makes all the difference. If someone asks what religion I am, I’m Christian, but who cares because religion is stupid! You know, Jesus wasn’t a Christian, and he didn’t start Christianity. If you are asking what I am passionate about, what gives me life, it’s following Jesus.” Speaking to him you can tell that he means it. He wants to get back to being someone who simply tries to look like Jesus.
Carl moved out to Beirut in Lebanon with his wife and two daughters in 1992. At that time, Lebanon was an extremely unstable country, having just recovered from a war that had left 150,000 dead. It had also seen a spate of kidnappings, including that of Terry Waite in 1987.
In the beginning, Carl and his wife Chris faced a tough time adjusting to their new life in the Middle East. So much was alien to them, from small differences such as learning new ways of cooking, to larger challenges such as going without electricity for weeks on end. On top of this was the ever-present tension that came from living in a country that was often at war with its neighbours. Chris recalls seeing buildings blown up and worrying for Carl’s life.
At the same time, they were falling in love with the country and felt themselves learning from the Lebanese. “When we arrived in Beirut we thought we ‘knew’ hospitality. But then, well, we met Arabs. Wow! That’s a whole new level of being kind, considerate, paying the bill when eating out, inviting you in even when you’re a stranger, and being the nicest people on the planet.” There were times when they had nothing to eat; they would hear a knock on the door and a neighbour would give them a basket of food.
Whether they are in the US, or somewhere else in the world, Carl and his family are always thinking about how they can live like Jesus and how they can show love like he did. They think about ways they can be like the heretic Samaritan in Jesus’ story of the good neighbour.
In one instance, during their early days in Lebanon, Carl and his wife decided to show kindness to some despised Syrian soldiers based in Beirut by baking them some chocolate chip cookies. “Chris and I didn’t understand all the nuances of hatred and rivalries we’d stepped into. We just saw a bunch of tents and some lonely 18-year-old boys with guns.” Carl remembers their hosts told them they were ‘crazy’, that the soldiers would think we were ‘silly, foolish’. “And who knows – maybe they’d kidnap us, or worse. No, we should not do this. We did anyway.
“Was it smart? Effective? Did it change the course of history? Nope – none of that. It did make our hosts mad. The Syrian soldiers did not laugh at us. They did like the cookies, however. They were appreciative. We learned some Arabic and sat and ate with them. And – it helped us. It broke some of the fear gripping our hearts.”
While chocolate chip cookies may not have changed the world, we would be wrong to think that this is just meaningless benevolence or pointless do-gooding. In a paper that Carl presented to the Arab League he wrote: “When we do what Jesus commanded, it frees us in so many ways. It frees our time and thinking and emotions from being entangled with our enemy so that we can live good and productive lives. It wins the day. When you keep on loving your enemy, what happens? They can’t stay your enemy forever. You will win them over eventually. Some have tried this with great effect. Gandhi overthrew the most powerful empire on earth with these methods. Martin Luther King Jr. changed the culture of America with these principles.”
It would have been easy for the Medearis family never to have left the familiarity of the US and embark on this adventure. They could have stayed at home and let their fear of the unknown feed them excuses about why now wasn’t the right time, about the kids’ schooling, about the danger.
This is exactly the subject of Carl’s new book: Adventures in Saying Yes: A Journey From Fear to Faith. In the book, Carl and his family tell many of their remarkable stories along with, refreshingly, real vulnerability, and stories of mistakes and failures. It’s clear throughout that far from damaging Carl’s family, their time in the Middle East has helped to create a strong family of remarkable individuals. His daughter Anna, while telling of her doubts about doing something for Iraqi children during the war, tells us, “It’s crazy to see what happens when you choose to step out and do something that may seem intimidating or insignificant. But aren’t we just called to love? And to love, we’re supposed to care.” She is following in the footsteps of her dad and going to a Middle Eastern country to run a film school for refugees. As her dad says, following Jesus makes life more interesting.
Carl is also very clear that this is not an exercise in choosing to go to the most dangerous place on the map and hoping that God will bless you. The key is following Jesus to where you think he is leading, even if it the most dangerous place on the map.
Just as Carl loves the Middle East, he is obviously pained by the destruction and violence that engulfs it today. “We have to be asking about the next generation. Who are the kids playing soccer in the dirty streets of Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan with who could become successful businesspeople or the next ISIS? We never heard of ISIS just one year ago. We didn’t know about Al Qaeda before 9/11. Who is the next ___________? And how do we move beyond our short-sighted four-year-at-a-time policies to a more enlightened policy of generations?” Carl’s work today as an expert voice on American-Arab and Christian-Muslim relations has led him to some unexpected places. Not only did he present a paper to the Arab League but he was even asked to chair the meetings.
He says, “I got a slightly mysterious message from someone in Egypt who was supposedly the ambassador to Palestine from the Arab League. I had never heard of him and couldn’t find out any information about him. Then I started getting messages from his assistant saying the Iraqi government wanted to pay for my attendance at the annual Arab League meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli issue – in Baghdad.
“I decided to write a paper that I’d want to present to several hundred key Arab leaders, something on Jesus (obviously). It developed into a three-page paper called ‘The Answer to Injustice According to Jesus of Nazareth.’ I wrote that the way forward depended on both divine and human forgiveness. Very controversial in such a setting, but somehow they okayed the paper.
“We headed out – an adventure in saying yes if ever there was one. On the way, I got a text message asking if I would ‘chair’ one of the meetings. I had no idea what that meant – I still didn’t even know what we were doing but said yes. We got there, and then the ambassador asked if I’d be the chairperson for two of the six main meetings.
“It was a meeting full of Arab politicians, Palestinians, Western activists, and an interesting mix of journalists, foreign ambassadors, and even heads of state. I was put in charge of leading and moderating two of the meetings. The first night I closed with a little talk (five minutes) on prayer. I simply suggested that we needed to pray for the people of the region. You would have thought I had called for the end of the world. The Muslim Arabs were all elated, but the majority of Westerners were furious.
“The next day something similar happened when I closed by sharing my thoughts on Jesus’ way – the way of forgiveness. I spoke softly and sensitively but very clearly about Jesus. They told me that has never happened before at the Arab League meeting. ‘Why not?’ I asked. They weren’t sure.
“Three mothers from Gaza came in tears. Two had lost their children by Israeli shelling. They grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. ‘Thank you, thank you thank you,’ they repeated over and over. ‘Finally, someone acknowledges there is a God!’”
Carl has a great marriage and a wonderful family, and he shows that there can be more to life than just the daily grind. He inspires us to live a different kind of life, perhaps not the easy one with everything under the illusion of control, but Adventures in Saying Yes challenges us to get out of our comfort zones. Jesus was always with the wrong people at the wrong time.
Whether we are talking about refugees on our doorstep, the homeless man in town, or just our neighbours in our street, the questions must be, what can we do to care and how can we be bold? How can we look like Jesus? Carl tells us, “In the end, the adventure of saying yes to Jesus is a journey of love conquering fear. That’s it. Every day we have to make that choice perhaps dozens of times. Love – don’t fear.”