The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Fighting fires in Iraq

The mullah's call to prayer flooded the streets and poured into the ready room where I trained the firefighters, just as it invaded every square inch of the northern Iraqi city of Sulymaniyah. Dozens of mosques populate the crowded neighborhoods of this city of 800,000, and nowhere could one escape the blaring loudspeakers.

Even when we went climbing in the mountains to get away, we could hear the mullahs' chants echoing up from every quarter of the city far below. The only Christian, I turned to the firefighters and signaled we would take a short break for those who wished to pray. A few started to roll out their prayer rugs.

My congregation had granted me a sabbatical, and I chose to spend four months in Iraq working with Muslims and attempting to reach out to them even though the government outlawed proselytizing people "against their will" in this Islamic republic. A volunteer firefighter/EMT for 37 years, I contacted the local fire department. No Westerner, much less a Christian, had ever worked with them.

I learned they had never received training in pre-hospital care or extrication. Considering the trauma they encountered, this lack of training seemed shocking. The minister of health eagerly accepted my offer to teach them basic life-support and extrication skills, admitting that most people died before they reached the hospital.

In all, I trained more than 140 firefighters in the five stations and went on their calls. In the process I became close friends with many of them, especially one station chief. Having tea and exchanging stories about our families, I learned his youngest son suffered from cerebral palsy. So I asked if I could see the boy and possibly help with his care. I visited often in their home, ate with them and helped them improve their son's care. As we drew closer he eagerly accepted my prayers for his son. Our eventual parting was tearful for both of us.

I found the firefighters very warm, and I shared a common brotherhood with them that bonds all firefighters. But I found the Islamic culture oppressive. Islamic tradition greatly limited what I could share of my faith. Still, the firefighters were fascinated to know what U.S. firefighters were paid and asked me how much I was paid to do the training. I explained that I had volunteered without pay and actually had to pay to come to Iraq to work with them. Dumbfounded, they could not understand why anyone would pay to come to Iraq.

I explained I was a Christian and was grateful for what God had done for me through his son, Jesus Christ. I couldn't repay God. But I could show my gratitude for his grace. So I came to Iraq to serve them as a way to thank God for what he had done for me. This kind of witness was allowed and over the months, as we became friends, opened the door for further sharing.

Check out this week's articles:

cover3Our interreligious involvement: (right) Notes from the field show great commitment, rapid progress.

'Build bridges among the faith communities': William E. Lesher, ELCA pastor and chair, board of trustees, 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions.

'The one thing all religions have in common is responsibility for caring for the earth': Sara Spoonheim, deputy director, Faith in Place, Chicago, and member, Resurrection Lutheran Church, Chicago.

Unhappy business: Why the prosperity gospel doesn't add up in good times or bad. 

Also: 'We want peace for all people.'

Also: 'This is most certainly clear.'

Also:  Religious charities gain.

Read these articles at our front page ...

Discuss perils of the prosperity gospel

JacobsonAug. 11-18: Join Karl N. Jacobson (right), assistant professor of religion at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, to discuss the perils of the prosperity gospel.

Consider reading "Unhappy business" before joining in.

Join the discussion ...


Tell us: Bible verses that made a difference

What Bible verse made a difference in your life and why?

Please explain in 250 words or less. Include your name, the Scripture (book, chapter and verse), your congregation (provide town and state), and your e-mail address or phone number.

Send to: The Lutheran magazine, attn: Elizabeth Hunter, 8765 W. Higgins Rd,, Chicago, IL 60631; e-mail: elizabeth.hunter@thelutheran.org.

Deadline: Sept. 1


This week on our blog:Julie

Julie Sevig (right) blogs about good news.



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