by Rose Khouri
For this week’s post, I want to follow up on my most recent blog post in which I discussed my frustrations with the Lebanese (Arab) Church and what I perceived as inaction on a simultaneously visible and invisible human rights crisis perpetrated by members of its community: mistreatment of migrant and domestic workers. In the last blog post I lamented. In this post I want to move forward.
There are Church servants already actively serving to address this issue that can provide a model for the Arab Church. Their numbers are still small but they are making an impact where they can, and they are seeking measured, sustainable transformation. There are also hopeful signs that the new generation of Lebanese is making such social justice issues a key element of their faith-driven lives. I sat down to discuss the Church’s role in this issue with Dr. Daniel Chetti, an Indian-American faculty member here at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Chetti is heavily involved in ministry among African and Asian migrant worker communities in Lebanon along with his wife Sarah. Sarah Chetti has led a number of initiatives for the mostly-female guest workers, from bringing hot meals to women put into detention centers after running away from abusive work situations to opening up a center dedicated to justice and compassion for migrant domestic workers in the name of Jesus.
RK: How is the Church in Lebanon already involved in serving migrant domestic workers?
DC: Many evangelical churches are already involved at a basic level, opening up their church space for groups of believing migrant workers to hold their own services or meetings. Other churches are more actively involved, such as the International Community Church which meets in Downtown Beirut. One-third of their congregation consists of migrant workers and they have had the longest sustained involvement in ministry to migrant workers. My involvement with migrant worker ministry actually began through my church, All Saints, which used to serve Sudanese refugee community living in Lebanon. I became further involved in this ministry after some of ABTS’s Sudanese students invited me to preach in the largely Sudanese congregation that met in Fanar Baptist Church Sunday afternoons. I was so impressed with the zeal and fervor of this congregation that I immediately connected with them. That church became my window to observe the plight of migrant workers in Lebanon.
RK: How did your wife get involved in this ministry and what is her role?
DC: My wife Sarah worked as the librarian at ABTS for years, but after serving as a translator for a young Indian maid in a court case, she came face to face with the overwhelming moral, economic, and legal deprivation being faced by the migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Convicted by the need to get involved, she essentially worked herself out of her job as the ABTS librarian and began volunteering in a prison ministry with Catholic charity CARITAS. Sarah is fluent in a number of South Asian languages and began ministering among female migrant workers from several Asian and African countries – bringing them hot meals, feminine hygiene items, and providing telephone cards. Eventually she developed a team of women from different nationalities to join her each week, visiting women prisons, conducting Bible studies, worship, and counselling them.
Last year, in the beginning of 2015, we started an integrated center for ministry among the Migrant Domestic Workers called INSAAF: Justice and Compassion of Jesus. We initially ran it out of Hadath Baptist Church, but we discovered that the general location of the church was considered by the women as too “middle class,” and they did not feel comfortable coming here. So we moved to a more working class area of Dora. The center seeks to provide guidance and orientation for newly-arrived migrant workers, instruction in professional skills, Arabic and English language courses, and advocacy and legal counsel. We also provide personal and spiritual counseling for these young women who have experienced unbelievable trauma. For those who are being deported, we buy them clothing, assist with tickets, and luggage so that they can travel home in dignity. We also recently contracted with a clinic to provide free or heavily discounted medical care for the women, many of whom suffer from chronic illnesses. The doctor of this clinic is a believer and only charges the women $3 for a consultation (a normal visit to the doctor in Lebanon is around $50 – too expensive for women making a couple hundred dollars a month).
Sarah also networks with human rights organizations like KAFA, INSAAN, Anti-Racism Movement, CARITAS, and the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) whose lawyers work ‘pro bono’ helping migrant domestic workers to collect their over-due salaries, deal with work-place harassment, and fight cases that are falsely foisted against them.
RK: What are the challenges in this ministry?
DC: One of the biggest challenges Sarah & her team face is that they are only able to serve women who are either “free agents” or those that are allowed by their ‘madams’ to travel out of homes. It’s hard for us to develop an organized structure for women who are not in control of their own time. Pursuing advocacy is fundamentally important but not an easy task. Human rights organizations have already identified key areas like scrapping the Kafala (sponsorship) system, inclusion of the migrant domestic workers under protection of Lebanese Labor Laws, allowing the “maids” to seek legal redress, etc. We are also moving cautiously so that we don’t add additional pressure on the Lebanese civic and political institutions which are now teetering on the brink of collapse.
The Lebanese government and society at large are far more concerned about the political and economic challenges that affect their daily lives. Safeguarding the rights of lowly “maids” is not a priority for them. We are not able to be reactionary or confrontational – nor do we want to be. We want employers to see that a “happy worker” is a more “productive worker.” How can we make the employers move towards a win-win situation? We are seeking slow transformation over revolutionary change, enabling this movement to develop in a sustainable way.
RK: What can the Lebanese Church do?
DC: Defending the cause of the weak, the fatherless, and the oppressed, and speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves is very much a concern of the God of the Bible. It’s not clear to what extent the average Lebanese church goer understands these central themes of the bible. Are church leaders doing enough to address them? There should be no excuse for not addressing these justice issues, despite the state of flux in which we are living. After all most of these same church-goers benefit from the services of Migrant Domestic Workers. Jesus expects us to protect the “weakest”. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” is the cry of the Prophets the churches must never abandon.
Pastors must preach the “full Gospel” and educate their congregations to see these issues as spiritual and moral issues that are central to Christian faith. Pastors and leaders must not only lead people to believe in Jesus but also follow Jesus in all his ways.
RK: Do you see signs of hope? An improvement in treatment of and attitudes towards domestic migrant workers in Lebanon?
DC: I do see signs of hope among the younger Lebanese. So many young people are passionate about justice and ending racism. All of the human rights organizations in Lebanon are staffed by young people. The people most conscious about this issue are young people and I believe this is a sign of hope and promise, that the new generation will bring visible transformation.
So how do we move forward? Providing space on church property for migrant workers to meet and worship with their fellow nationals or sponsoring pastors from countries like Sri Lanka and Ethiopia to come and minister to established migrant worker communities seeking stronger leadership is an important first step. But we must ask ourselves why Western missionaries and workers feel comfortable joining local Lebanese churches and integrating into those communities while domestic workers from non-Western countries do not. We must also ask how we can better serve migrant domestic workers who are not able to leave their employer’s houses even for a church service once a week. I believe that servants like Dan and Sarah Chetti are providing a model for the Church in our region. Their emphasis on gradual, sustainable transformation over quick, revolutionary change requires long-term commitment and focus – which is why the local leadership must ultimately take a larger role in combatting this issue so prevalent in their congregations. Our small community may not be able to change how migrant domestic workers are treated at a national level, but we can start within our community.