TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Rola Sleiman never planned on running a church. But when the opportunity came along five years ago, she embraced the chance to serve a small Presbyterian congregation in Lebanon’s second city. “It’s a huge responsibility. As the first woman, I either succeed or it won’t be discussed for years,” Sleiman says at her office, whose door still reads “pastor” (rai) without the feminine ending, shortly before starting her Sunday sermon at the sanctuary next door at the Tripoli Evangelical Church. “As the first female, you need to be successful to pave the way for others.”
Growing up in Tripoli – born to a Presbyterian father from Syria and a Syriac Catholic mother from Lebanon – and attending school with mainly Muslim classmates and friends in the relatively conservative northern city, Sleiman says she knew early on that she wanted to serve God. After high school, she enrolled at the Near East Theology School in Beirut and shortly after graduation began teaching at three churches and two schools in the Zahle area of the Bekaa Valley. From there, she spent two years serving at a church in the village of Minyara in Akkar.
Then in 2008, she was asked to serve as a substitute to the pastor of her church, who had left to the United States for what at first was temporary move. When it became clear that he wasn’t returning – and with the encouragement of Rev. Hadi Ghantous from the Minyara church who was presiding over the Tripoli church at the time of an absent pastor – she applied for the position that she was already working hard at by then. Since that time, she has continued with the sermons and lessons she had already been doing, but perhaps with more passion and determination.
Every Sunday, the 38-year-old pastor arrives at the simple beige church in Tripoli’s Rahbat neighborhood and warmly greets the neighbors and parishioners, who typically number between 20 and 30 and up to 80 on holidays. After shaking the hands of everyone in the pews, she begins her sermon, interlaced with hymns and prayers. On this day, the theme is “thankfulness.”
“It is important to be thankful and think of others’ happiness,” she says as she begins her sermon. “Happiness is a state of mind, to see the good in others.”
Referring to the city’s poverty and sporadic political violence, she says, “If you ask people in Tripoli, they will likely say they’re unhappy.”
But she believes that helping others and giving thanks can help bring about happiness – even in hard times.
Pointing out that winter has almost arrived, she then announces a campaign to gather clothes for Syrian children living in makeshift refugee camps in Lebanon, organized in collaboration with several other churches in the area.
As the service wraps up, the members – around 15 on this Sunday – eagerly greet their pastor as they go downstairs for a quick snack and coffee.
While the membership of the church is small at around 33 families, many of whom have emigrated, and as Sleiman notes are a minority within Tripoli’s already small Christian minority, their dedication appears to run deep. The church’s elders, all five of them men, are among the most enthusiastic to greet Sleiman before and after the service.
The pastor says no one has ever questioned her qualifications based on her gender, and in fact the elders often praise her sermons, which she says she puts much work into every week.
“I’m always prepared,” she says, explaining an equally important key to her success: “love and having a good relationship with everyone.”
She stresses, “I don’t want anyone to judge me for my gender. It’s what God made me. Maybe it would be easier to be a man.”
She notes that she has developed a good relationship with neighbors and makes it a point to patronize local vendors. “When people feel love and respect, they give it back.”
She says, “The reputation of Tripoli is much worse than the reality. I lived and went to school here, where most of my friends were Muslim.”
During the week, she teaches ethics to local elementary school students at her alma mater, the Tripoli Evangelical School, founded by American Presbyterian missionaries in 1887. The nearby Tripoli Evangelical Church was built much later in the 1940s.
While she’s adamant in her belief that love is the best way to build bridges, Sleiman acknowledges that it can be difficult to live and work in a city where there are frequent outbreaks of violence. Some clashes have taken place near the church and school. And evening Bible study classes are usually done at the homes of church members so as to avoid the city center after dark. She credits the faithful parishioners for keeping the church alive during good and difficult times.
“I think the church has challenges since we’re in Tripoli and we’re a minority. It would probably be easier in Europe or the United States to serve where Christians are a majority,” Sleiman says. “Here we have a mission to say to Muslims that we’re their sisters and brothers and no one is better than the other.”
“We need to love everybody and we need to forgive everybody.”