“It’s still beautiful.”
This is the first thing Mohammad said when he took off the virtual reality headset. For ten minutes he had been immersed in a story of the destroyed city of Mosul, and the hope for its resurrection.
Through a headset worn in Baghdad, Mohammad walked the streets of Old Mosul.
Mohammad “stood” in the ancient St. Maskanta Church, used for centuries by the church to house orphans and teach a message of love; and most recently used by ISIS to house children and teach a message of hate.
When his virtual reality experience was finished, Mohammad took off the headset, and spoke with a shaking voice, “I know that place.”
It turns out Mohammad is from Mosul. His shop was just a few doors down the alley from the destroyed church. These were his streets until war took that life away.
“Our neighbors were Christians. Sometimes they invited us for lunch. Sometimes we invited them for lunch.” For Mohammad, a Muslim from Mosul, the city had lost far more than exquisite architecture. The city has lost part of its soul.
Mohammad’s Christian neighbors lived lives of love. “It’s not the same city without them.”
St. Maskanta—whose life inspired the construction of the church in Mosul…well, she never heard herself referred to that way. That name came later. Her mom called her Shirin, which means “sweet.”
Shirin and her two boys were Christians living in what we now call Iraq, 400 years after Jesus was killed for proclaiming a different way to live that challenged the hearts of his neighbors, and the egos of the powerful.
Shirin gathered the ingredients. Flour came first, mounded up to make a hill. Then she made a little well in the center with her fingers, poured water into the divot—measured by eye and years of practice. Her hands worked the mixture as it transformed from shaggy to smooth. Next there came shaping and finally baking—just like every other day.
Somewhere along that process, Shirin’s ordinary day was sliced through; bisected. There was the moment before she heard the news that 12,000 fellow Christians had been killed by the king, martyred for their faith—and then there was the moment after.
Shirin was so compelled to stand with her brothers and sisters–so compelled to be counted in this way of love–she left the bread half-made, took herself and her boys to the governor, and stated flatly that they too were Christians.
Standing up in such a public way cost Shirin and her boys their lives. But their choice to stand in the way of love made such a profound impact on those present when they were killed, that even their executioner decided to join the way of love, too.
Love does that. Love lays down its life. Sometimes that looks like inviting neighbors of a different faith over for lunch. Sometimes that looks like accepting that same invitation. For some, it might even look like staring death in the face.
Our team spent Easter 2017 in the town of Batnaya, Iraq. We spent time with former residents who had returned to celebrate the first Easter in their town after the expulsion of ISIS. It was moving to wind our way through the narrow alleys to the church building. It was powerful to stand in a building reclaimed from those who preach hate.
The church was filled to capacity and then some. Incense filled the air. Communion was administered. Scripture was read. Christians gathered in this building once again, and together made something sacred.
Love made the building sacred. Love made the ancient St. Maskanta Church in Mosul sacred. Love made the streets around that church, marked by neighbors inviting each other into their lives, sacred.
Love makes Notre Dame and Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, burned in accidental fires, sacred. Love makes three African-American churches in Louisiana and five Jehovah’s Witnesses centers in Washington, burned intentionally out of hate, sacred. Loves makes Mosul’s Al-Nouri Mosque, taken over by ISIS and destroyed as the city was liberated, sacred.
St. Maskanta knew this, when she left her bread dough and offered out her life. Mohammad knew this, when he remembered a city made richer by neighbors who broke bread together, no matter what faith they held to. The residents of Batnaya knew this, when they celebrated Easter and rebirth in a town decimated by ISIS.
Where can you take your love? Where can you make the broken, sacred?