AMBASSADORS OF PEACE
IN A WORLD OF WAR
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
ARAFAT – BEIRUT
I can’t sleep tonight as bombs explode and guns fire all around us. But Joshua is asleep. We’ve had nothing to eat and I’m so hungry. Looking back on this day, I tremble. I walked through a minefield and a battlefield with my young son. The way you kept Joshua safe reminded me of the way you kept Isaac safe when Abraham led him up the mountain to die. No matter how much fear I felt today I knew that not trying would be worse than dying. I cannot live with having stopped short of doing what you tell me to do, Lord. I felt almost numb as we walked through the fighting armies.
Joshua was so strong and had the glory of the Lord on his face. Oh, Jesus, you led us right into the arms of Yasser Arafat and had us pray for him. Joshua and I held our crosses with Arafat between us. I know many people will criticize us for praying with him and hugging him, but, Jesus you let the sinner touch you, hold you and kiss you. You led us from Sweden to West Beirut to pray for Arafat, and I’m still shaking. The cross and I are supposed to be in the center of conflict and need, where life and death are raging. It forces me to deny myself and do your will. I suppress all my emotions, fears, desires and dreams and step out into the madness with a smile, peace and Jesus. This was truly church today. Pews were foxholes with people huddled behind barricades, the lights were bombs bursting, and the choir was the sound of explosions with the screams of the wounded and dying. The sanctuary was full of tracer bullets, screeching rockets and men shouting. But everyone was interested and welcomed us, the cross and Jesus!
In the summer of 1980 I was in predominantly Muslim West Beirut, Lebanon, with the cross. The Palestinians and Israelis, as usual, were fighting for territory and autonomy. I had been praying that God would give me the opportunity to meet a man who, depending on your point of view, was either (a) hero, patriot and liberator respected by millions of people throughout the world or (b) the world’s most notorious terrorist. Before arriving there, I heard many people say many things about this man.
About midnight, some armed men suddenly awakened me. “Yasser Arafat wants to see you,” they said.
I dressed quickly and went with the men in their car, which raced without headlights through the battle-strewn streets of Beirut. Soon I was looking into the eyes of the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO. As I looked at this small, energetic man wearing a traditional Palestinian head wrap and sporting a pistol strapped to his hip, I saw someone whose eyes were alive and sparkling.
“Well,” I said, smiling, “I guess it’s one fanatic meeting another!”
He reached out his arms and hugged me and we exchanged kisses in the traditional Arab custom.
Here we were, two radicals seeking to make people free. One had a cross and the other a gun. As I looked at Arafat, I sensed we both had been forged of steel in the paths of our lives. I felt as if I knew him – his pain and hurts.
As we sat down, I said, “Sir, it’s 2:00 a.m. You have had a long day and a long struggle. I’m not here as a politician, a diplomat or a reporter. You’ve met plenty of those. I’m here as a simple man with a cross. And I would like to read you some of the words of Jesus.”
I started reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit….Blessed are those who mourn….Blessed are the meek….Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness….Blessed are the merciful….Blessed are the pure in heart….Blessed are the peacemakers.”
I read and shared many more Scriptures. Then I took his hand and said, “Let’s pray.” I knelt and talked to God for about fifteen minutes, crying as I prayed. Arafat had taken my hand with both of his and tears filled his eyes. When I finished praying, he spoke softly. “There is no doubt the Bible is more powerful than the gun or sword. The Romans tried to kill Christians. They beat, imprisoned and murdered them. But slowly the believers, the Christians, took Rome and Rome became Christian. They took it by the heart. They did with the cross what no army had done.
We talked for about two more hours. I explained how Jesus died for us and why he is the way, the truth and the life. Finally, I asked Arafat to join me in praying a prayer of commitment to Christ. “Dear Lord Jesus, come into my heart. Cleanse me. Save me.”
He squeezed my hand as I prayed, but he did not repeat the words of the prayer. When I asked Arafat if he had accepted Jesus into his heart, he simply smiled and told me about a Christian friend of his.
As I prepared to leave, I gave him a small, simple cross. Arafat responded with a more extravagant gift: a two-foot long mother-of-pearl cross from the Holy Land.
“Sir,” I said, “if you will lay down your weapons, I will pick up my cross and walk alongside you into Jerusalem.
Arafat didn’t respond to my offer. But as his men drove me to my hotel about five that morning, I reflected on the fact that I had just been with one of the most gentle and kind men I had ever met. We didn’t agree on everything, but we became friends. As I would see, that friendship would continue for many years.
Called to Return
Two years later, in the summer of 1982, I carried the cross through Scandinavia with my eleven year old son, Joshua and my daughter Joy, thirteen. On Sunday morning, June 27, I picked up a Swedish newspaper and saw a photo of Yasser Arafat on the front page. A cease-fire forged by the United Nations between Israel and the PLO had fallen apart. War had again broken out in the Middle East.
Immediately I felt the Lord calling me to return to this land. I said to God: If you will have some other evangelist go, then I won’t need to go to this war. But as I looked through the newspaper, there was no evidence that Billy Graham or the pope or any other Christian leader was going to Lebanon.
Then something amazing happened. While Joy, Joshua and I were praying, Joshua looked up and saw Jesus standing behind me as I prayed. Jesus spoke to Joshua and said, “Joshua, go with your father to the other countries as far as you can.” Joshua told me about his vision and we knew we had to go.
But I wrestled a great deal with this call. How could I take my son into this horrible war? There was no choice. I had to go to Lebanon. Here I was in beautiful Scandinavia; we had just arrived in Sweden and I wanted so much to continue to Stockholm with the cross. But war and death were raging in Lebanon and had to be offset with the good news of life. Joy flew back to Los Angles and Joshua and I booked the first flight to Israel.
I explained to Joshua as best I could about the war-torn region that was our destination. “You know,” I said, “thousands of years ago a man of God named Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. The descendants of Ishmael became the Arabs and the descendants of Isaac became the Jews. These two groups have been fighting for thousands of years. Christians are involved, too, because Jesus was a Jew and came from this part of the world. Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim to follow the same God, but in the last few decades, tensions between these groups have broken out into conflict and war. The latest battle started because the PLO and other groups were attacking Israel, so the Israeli army invaded Lebanon to drive out the PLO and stop the attacks.
I don’t know how much my explanation helped, but as Joshua and I traveled to this troubled land, we sensed that God could use us to relieve the tensions a bit. Or at least that was our prayer.
When we arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, we had to figure out how to get to West Beirut. I felt the Lord wanted us to speak with Yasser Arafat and the people again. But now the Israeli army, which was pounding the outgunned PLO and Syrian forces in the city, surrounded the Beirut. Still, Joshua and I rented a small car, tied our crosses on top and started driving toward West Beirut.
We encountered roadblock after roadblock. When we got to the Lebanese border, we were turned back. “Come back tomorrow,” said the soldiers.
A young man from Youth With a Mission, who was known to the Israeli army, went with us to the border the next morning and helped us get permission to go a few miles into Lebanon to the Israeli army headquarters. When we arrived, we asked for a travel pass.
“It is impossible,” they responded.
Joshua and I prayed and drove into a small town. We entered a restaurant to eat and I began speaking to a young woman who happened to be from Scandinavia.
“The Lord told us to come to West Beirut to talk to Arafat and the people there,” I told her.
“Shhhh!” she said. “Don’t say that here. We are the ones they are fighting.”
Then I explained our mission to her and how we needed to get permission to go on. She said, “My boyfriend is a bodyguard for one of the men you need to see – one of the commanders.”
She introduced me to her boyfriend, who then took us to the commander’s home. The commander was so kind and wonderful to us. He agreed to give us the pass we needed, but he begged me not to take Joshua into the battle zone.
“I’ll go with Daddy,” Joshua said.
The commander replied, “But the PLO will kill you.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think they will kill us. In fact, they would probably say that you would kill us.”
As we drove toward West Beirut we were stopped at about thirty roadblocks, where Israeli soldiers wondered how we had gotten a pass.
“Jehovah is our friend and he wants us to take the cross into Beirut,” I would reply.
Into the Crossfire
It’s one thing to discuss war. It’s another thing to experience war at close range.
We could see Beirut just ahead of us. The roads were full of troops, tanks and armored cars. The sky lit up with artillery and rocket fire. Guns roared and flashes of fire filled the air.
Joshua, having never experienced anything like this, began to cry. I held him in my arms as we stopped on the roadside. “Joshua,” I said, “I will take you back and return here alone.”
No, Daddy,” he said through his tears, “Jesus told me to go with you as far as I can. I can’t turn back. I’ll stay with you. Jesus is with us. Let’s go; I’m okay.”
He gave me a little smile and looked ahead. I gunned the accelerator and raced up the winding road without saying a word. But in my heart I could feel the glory of God. This was God’s mission for us. We were under the orders of our Commander. Maybe we would die carrying out our orders, but we would not flee.
We met some Christian monks who lived in the area. They let us sleep in their monastery, which was located high atop a mountain. The monks were also worried for us. “Please let us keep Joshua tomorrow when you go to Beirut,” the pleaded. “You will die. One of our monks was killed today.”
Joshua, lying beside me on the single cot, went to sleep in my arms. A candle was my only light. I could see from the mountains into the darkness below. Beirut was being pounded by land, sea and air. Flashes of light lit the sky. As I was praying and thinking, a mosquito began to circle my arm. I thought, Well tomorrow I may die. Why not let this mosquito get its fill?
The mosquito landed on my arm and I waited for it to enjoy its feast. But the moment it tried to bite me, it began to shake. Then it flipped over onto its back, kicking its legs a few times until it didn’t move again. It was dead!
I sensed the Lord’s wonderful protective presence and these words:
My glory is upon you. Tomorrow night you will sleep in West Beirut.
As tears flooded my eyes, I hugged Joshua tighter to my chest and fell asleep.
Glimmers of Hope in the Midst of War
Joshua and I experienced so many amazing things during our time in Lebanon that we could write an entire book about them.
There was the man in East Beirut who watched over our car
for us day and night.
There was the man who ran up to us, ripped off his shirt,
tore it apart and tied a strip of white cloth on the top of
each of our crosses. He wept as he did so, and he said
“You will die if you go in there.” He made the sign of the
cross and walked on.
For Joshua and me to enter West Beirut we had to walk through a minefield two blocks long in the middle of five fighting armies. As we crossed into West Beirut, the PLO militants welcomed us with pointed guns.
“What are you doing?” They asked.
“We are carrying the cross,” I replied. “We have good news. God loves you! Jesus is alive!”
A few minutes later Yasser Arafat came out of a building and approached us. His eyes were sparkling and he was smiling and happy. He hugged Joshua and we looked at each other. It had been two years since we last met. We hugged and kissed each other; then I told him how we had struggled to get there and how God had called us.
“I expected you would come,” he said. “You are welcome!”
As we talked Arafat said he had been told that we walked through a minefield to see him. As at our first meeting, I gave him a cross – this time a small cross I made out of two pieces of wood taken from the cross I carried. He graciously received this gift and kept it with him until his death in 2004.
There were Muslim shop owners who stopped us as we passed
with our crosses and asked us to pray for the safety of their shops.
Many soldiers at numerous border crossings and roadblocks refused to let us pass until I persuaded them that we were on a mission from God. They would relent, let us pass and bless us; saying, “God be with you.”
There was the Syrian soldier who saw us with our
crosses and handed me the badge from his shirt.
Reporters and photographers from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Time, Newsweek, the Associated Press and Reuters were so desperate for something positive amid the death and destruction that they mobbed Joshua and me. They delivered our message of hope to a global audience.
There was one sentence people on both sides of the
conflict said to us many times: “We welcome you, but the
other side will kill you.”
As Joshua and I walked together – father and son, each of us carrying a cross – I could see what a powerful impact we were having on people. They were touched by our willingness to walk among them as ambassadors of peace.
Beauty in Ashes
As Joshua and I walked with our crosses in Beirut, we heard the screams of the dying. We heard the cries of people trapped in bombed buildings. We saw diving planes and falling rockets and heard the shrieking sounds of explosives as they tore apart everything they struck.
Walking in Beirut one day, Joshua and I came upon the scene of an apartment building shortly after it had been it by a bomb. Human body parts were scattered throughout the rubble. We began to help those who we using sticks to collect the remains for burial. We wept as we picked up these pieces of men, women and children whom God loved and for whom Jesus died.
Then I looked down the street and noticed that in the ashes where a bomb had exploded sometime before a flower was growing. When I saw that flower, I sat down and I cried and I smiled. That‘s one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen – out of ashes beauty can grow. And so it is with the hope of Christ. He died for us, he knows suffering. But He rose again. His resurrection life brings hope in a troubled and confused world, even in a world ravaged by hate and war.
Centuries ago, at a time when Christians and Muslims were killing each other during the Crusades, a man named Francis of Assisi crossed enemy lines to tell Muslim leaders about Jesus. Like Francis, I want to be one of Jesus blessed peacemakers. What about you?
The Way of Peace in Northern Ireland
The conflict between Protestant Unionists (or Loyalists) and Catholic Nationalists (or Republicans) tore apart Northern Ireland for decades and killed thousands of citizens. British troops tried to keep things under control, but terrorist bombings and sniper fire were part of normal life for many people. In 1972 evangelist Billy Graham wanted to visit Northern Ireland. I had met Billy the year before and he asked me to accompany him in Northern Ireland since I had been there previously. He wanted me to take him to streets of Belfast so he could meet people face to face. His team wanted us to have the protecion of armed guards, which was reasonable, but I refused. I promised no harm would come to him and informed the IRA of our plans. I gave Billy a supply of little red Jesus stickers. He stuck on low on his chest, about stomach level. “Oh, no!” I said “Don’t put it there.” “Why not?” he asked.
“Because if you get shot at by a sniper he’ll use that red dot as a target. If you are hit, it’ll take you all day to die, but if you put it here,” I said, pointing to Billy’s heart, “you’ll go just like that” – and I snapped my fingers.
He grabbed the sticker and stuck it over his heart. It stayed there all day.
Soon Billy felt at home. As we walked, he handed out Jesus stickers and gospel tracts to British soldiers in their bunkers and to other people while speaking to them about Christ. Then we heard someone calling us from a bombed-out building on the Catholic side of the street: “Hey, preacher! Come over here and preach to us. It’s Sunday morning and we’re all inside.”
I shared a simple gospel message with about forty-five people who were drinking and smoking in an illegal pub inside the bombed out building. When I finished preaching everyone applauded.
Later Billy and I knelt and prayed between the barbed wire barricades at the “peace line” separating the Protestant and Catholic areas of Belfast. The evidence of violence around us broke our hearts, yet we prayed as God’s servants in the midst of the conflict, seeking to change hearts and promote faith, hope and love.
The funniest thing happened when Billy began sharing Jesus with a man on the Protestant side of the street.
“Well,” said the man, “if I ever met Billy Graham, I think I’d get saved. He’s the only one that gets to me. I’d like to meet him.”
The man hadn’t recognized Billy in his sunglasses and hat. So I spoke up. “Sir, today is your day of salvation, I want you to meet Billy Graham!”
Billy took off his hat and sunglasses. The man fell under deep conviction. It was so wonderful to see Billy kneel with the man, who prayed to accept Christ.
Thank God that, since the time Billy Graham and I walked the streets of Belfast, peace has come to Northern Ireland.