BEIRUT, Lebanon Downtown Beirut was the place to be.
In early July, fashion and soccer were the summer's hot topics as thousands thronged the streets to watch the final matches of World Cup 2006 on large-screen TVs.
Bustling downtown Beirut also was a prime location for Melissa Hunt* and two other college students as they sought to connect with Lebanese students and city residents during an eight-week summer mission trip.
"It was really cool how God put the pieces together," said Hunt, a member of a St. Louis-area church. "When I was going through all the job descriptions, this one in the Middle East caught my eye. I put it down as my third choice, because I knew my parents would flip. It took me a few days before I accepted that I just knew that's where God wanted me to be."
For five weeks, Hunt and her team had two primary goals: to distribute Bibles in a Beirut neighborhood and to witness to college students in the city.
On the days the team hung out with the fashion-conscious college students at the American University of Beirut, Hunt chose her outfits carefully. Like typical college students, the girls chatted about anything from school to hair and makeup to the many social cliques that existed at the university.
Their reactions to the gospel included a wide range of what Hunt called "openness."
"A lot of people were very interested in the Bible," she said. "Several people ... told us they had been wanting to read the Bible and learn what was in there. Some of the students were totally against religion. But a lot of them would say, 'It's really great what you're telling me, but I just don't have time for that right now.'"
Hunt said the civil war in Lebanon that ended in 1990s "was pretty much fought between the Muslims and the Christians. To them, religion is political. Whatever (religion) you're born (into), that's what you are, and that's what you die."
Breaking the ice
To try to break through that mentality, the team shared the gospel on campus by using a survey as a conversation springboard. While two students went over the survey, the third member prayed nearby. For one of Hunt's teammates, Lori Strahan,* those campus witnessing opportunities enabled her to tell Muslim students, who believe Jesus was only a good man, that He wants to be their Savior.
"One girl didn't know what to believe," Strahan said. "When you explain to (Muslims) about Jesus from the verses in the Koran, though, it's like a light comes on in their head. Later, (the girl) said, 'Lori, I believe God led you to tell me these things.'"
The team also went door-to-door, offering Bibles to residents in the predominantly Muslim area. These neighborhood visits gave Hunt the opportunity to see Muslims in a new light, particularly after meeting some of the women.
"Before I went, I thought the women who wore the veil (didn't) have any opportunities to do anything," she said. "But they're just like usthey're women who love to meet people, love to have friends. They're ready to hear it; they just need people to tell them the gospel."
Although bridges were being built between the Lebanese people and the mission team, those newfound friendships were cut short as the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict broke out in July.
Hunt and Strahan were at the beach in southern Beirut the morning when word came that two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah militants. By 2 p.m., the beach was cleared. People were calling friends and family. Rumors were spreading that highways were closed and possibly bombed by Israeli jets. The next day, the rebuilt city began to feel the first effects of another war.
"The Lebanese are so used to living during war and having a life during war," Hunt said. "Especially after the bombings happened, they just went into their war mode. They were like, 'Yeah, this is war, but this is going to be our lives too. We're going to live through it.'"
Within 24 hours of the first bombings, three Lebanese college friends had called the team's cell phones to make sure they were OK. For a few days, they tried to make plans to get together, still thinking that "it's going to blow over."
However, the city streets and malls soon were bare and university classes cancelled. As the team hunkered down, first in one apartment and then in another with 20 other Americans, they could see the bombs coming in. During one of these attacks, Hunt's first thoughts were for her new Muslim friends.
"The second night of the bombing, I was awakened at 3:30 in the morning by the (Islamic) call to prayer," Hunt recounted. "In the background I could hear these huge bombs going off. I was thinking, 'Here they are praying, but their prayers aren't going anywhere.'"
Before the conflict began, taxi drivers and new friends constantly asked the team, "What do you think of Lebanon?" The pride in their city, its beauty and its people was evident. But in just a week's time that pride began to crumble.
Some Muslims are reaching toward the Bible for comfort amid the latest round of devastation. And for those displaced to the outskirts of Beirut, many have encountered Christians ready to love them, demonstrating that God can break down longstanding social barriers even in the midst of conflict.
"[T]heir cry is for more stability, for some peace," Strahan said. "Jesus would offer that peace."
*Names changed for security reasons.