She saw unmatched hospitality. She saw devotion. She saw people of varying faiths living peacefully.
Then, Joanne Sizoo came home.
The Grace Presbyterian Church minister recently returned 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.
Images of faith
Sizoo met a lady, 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. Sizoo met sisters who couldn’t pay the ransom for their brother, kidnapped one day and found on a street the next.
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 man in Amadie who, at age 80, still tends the grave of someone “very important in the Jewish tradition.” The man is Muslim. 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 “because of a promise he made to his Jewish neighbors before they left,” Sizoo said.
Another tomb, this one in Al’Qush, has a Christian man tending the burial place of Nahum, one of the great Jewish prophets 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.”
Sizoo visited two Syrian refugee camps. One had 15,000 people. The other had 60,000.
“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 for open heart surgery, but made sure to have a neighbor woman serve tea when Sizoo arrived. Another mother couldn’t work because of her three young children. Nor could she leave those three to get the four more back in Syria, where a civil war is raging.
It’s illegal to proselytize, 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,” Sizoo said.
Sizoo also met with political leaders, like the governor of the Kirkuk province. Iraqis may have differing opinions of past political events based on 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.”
Sizoo said she had it best explained to her by one Iraqi who is thankful former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was eventually captured after the U.S.-led invasion and then executed by Iraq’s new government, isn’t in power, but said he was only one “very bad man.”
“Now there are 10,000 very bad men,” Sizoo recalls the Iraqi saying, “and nobody has control over them.”
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.”
Much of her job description involves caring for a congregation, listening to struggles and helping others through crises of health or circumstance. Sizoo doesn’t belittle that role, or the people who need her. But for the idea some American Christians have that any faith-related slight or insult is divine testing on par with those in the Bible?
“The problems that people have here are very real, and I care about them,” Sizoo said. “The things they deal with (in Iraq) are of such a different magnitude.”
After about two weeks in the Middle East, Sizoo spent two extra days in Germany as snow grounded return 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. There isn’t the tourism to warrant them. Along with a few remnants of a toppled Hussein palace, all Sizoo brought back is the belief she’ll be a better minister from having gone.