Fort Mill pastor returns from Iraq with lessons of faith, courage learned

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comMarch 28, 2014 

The Rev. Joanne Sizoo of Fort Mill’s Grace Presbyterian Church poses for a photo in Iraq. She spent about two weeks in the Middle East.

COURTESY OF JOANNE SIZOO

— Joanne Sizoo saw unmatched hospitality. She saw devotion. She saw people of varying faiths living peacefully.

Then, the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church came home.

Sizoo returned recently from Iraq, where she went places and saw sights she still can’t entirely share. Some, because details could put Christians there in danger. Others, because Sizoo is still reconciling them herself.

“Just the extraordinary faithfulness of the Christians in Iraq, and their graciousness towards Americans, was pretty amazing,” she said.

Sizoo met a woman, a “very visible Christian who’s out to make a difference,” who leaves the area where she lives every weekend because it isn’t safe. She has bodyguards at all times when she is there.

She also met enough people to understand there’s more than fear to the country.

“The danger comes from the outliers, not the regular folks,” Sizoo said.

The Christians Sizoo met are well-educated – engineers and reconstructive surgeons. They’re respected and thought honest by outsiders. They’re committed to prayer. There are no female pastors, Sizoo learned when invited to serve communion.

“She whipped out a camera and took a picture,” Sizoo said of her encounter with an Iraqi woman during the service. “The flash went off in my face. It was pretty clear she had never seen a woman in that role before.”

Faith stories weren’t confined to Christians.

Sizoo met a Muslim who, at 80, still tends the grave of someone “very important in the Jewish tradition.” He began tending the grave 64 years ago, when Jewish neighbors chose – or were forced – to move to a newly established Israel. The man’s family will tend the grave when he is no longer able, Sizoo said, “because of a promise he made to his Jewish neighbors before they left.”

Another tomb has a Christian man tending the burial place of Nahum, a Jewish prophet and namesake of an Old Testament book of the Bible. The man’s children understand they will tend the tomb once their father no longer can.

“It was profoundly moving to see these promises still being kept by people of other faiths,” Sizoo said.

Visiting aqueducts, Sizoo motioned for a young child so the pastor could take a picture. A Muslim family had several children photographed, then invited Sizoo to dinner and to spend the night.

Long-read Bible stories of people taking in travelers and strangers came to life in modern Iraq.

“I’ve been teaching this stuff about the culture of hospitality my whole ministry,” Sizoo said, “and it’s the same today as it ever was.”

Hurting people

Sizoo visited two Syrian camps, homes to 15,000 and 60,000 refugees.

“Pretty much a whole town from Syria arrived within a week,” Sizoo said.

Refugees lived in tents “significantly smaller” than Sizoo’s church office. One father of three had to sell his heater to pay for open-heart surgery. Still, he made sure to have a neighbor serve tea when Sizoo visited.

It’s illegal to proselytize – trying to convert someone from one faith to another – so Sizoo and pastors in the area had to show love through service. Which is the way people there need it, she said.

“It was a profound experience to offer a little bit of hope to someone who has no hope,” she said.

Sizoo also met with political leaders. Iraqis have differing opinions of political events in their region. Where Sizoo stayed, people were grateful for American intervention in the Gulf War more than 20 years ago.

However, “I didn’t find anyone who found our involvement there (in 2003) favorable,” she said. “Those are two very different experiences.”

Reconciling worlds

Sizoo probably kids when talking about how she’ll react to American Christians’ claiming mistreatment for their faith – probably.

“That, now, sort of makes me want to slap them,” the pastor said. “We have no idea.

“The problems that people have here are very real, and I care about them. The things they deal with (in Iraq) are of such a different magnitude.”

After about two weeks in the Middle East, Sizoo spent two days in Germany as snow grounded flights to Charlotte. She “just wandered around Frankfurt,” internalizing the trip she would take again “in a heartbeat.” It took several days back home to overcome the “culture lag.”

There aren’t souvenir stands in Iraq. Along with a few remnants from one of Saddam’s toppled palaces, all Sizoo brought back is the belief she’ll be a better minister from having gone.

John Marks •  803-547-2353

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