Alumni Spotlight: Joy El Kazzi (Spring 2022)
Beirut, Lebanon- When asked how they are faring the pause is noticeable. “Praise God,” Pastor Joseph El Kazzi responds, his hands in the pockets of his black jacket, collar popped, a plaid scarf wrapped around his neck. “We’re managing,” says his daughter, Joy El Kazzi (MSW ’21, GML Scholarship Recipient), gesturing with hands partially covered by the camel-colored turtleneck pulled past her knuckles. The Kazzi family tries not to turn on the heater due to the price of fuel, but “it is freezing!”
Lebanon, Pastor Kazzi and Joy’s beloved country, has been plagued with crises over the past few years: gas prices remain at an all-time high; medicine is non-existent, as are doctors to administer it, even if you have insurance; aid for the current refugee crisis is being redirected to Ukraine; and worsening inflation three years in the making only quickens, more fallout from the Ukraine Crisis. “The people need hope. There is no hope in Lebanon,” Pastor Kazzi explains.
Pastor Kazzi is no stranger to crisis. He was 14 years old when the civil war started in Lebanon, and since then, “every 5-6 years another project, another trouble. But praise God, he wants us here.” Pastor Kazzi grew up in a Catholic family where the Bible was a foreign language, until an elderly woman came to live with his family for one month before transitioning into a nursing home. “She was a believer, born-again Christian. And she started speaking with me [daily, over coffee] not about Jesus, but about life.” Before she left she gave Pastor Kazzi a copy of the new testament saying, ”This is the way of heaven.’” By God’s grace, six months later, in September 1982 at 7:30pm, Pastor Kazzi was converted.
In 2011, Pastor Kazzi, now the Pastor of the first Baptist Church built in Lebanon in 1954, noticed there were no children or young adults in his church, while there were many in the neighborhood. In 2006, the Israel–Hezbollah War had broken out, causing many Lebanese Muslims to seek food and shelter in Christian areas, their children playing in the streets. In 2011, the Syrian Civil War began, causing more than 1.5 million Syrian families to pour into Lebanon. Pastor Kazzi and his congregation decided to offer these children not only food, but the Bible. Collaborating with churches worldwide, his church started hosting 21 camps per year; the Baptist Children and Youth Ministry, BCYM, was born.
Joy started attending BCYM when she was 9 years old, all summer, every session. When Joy turned 13, Pastor Kazzi told her she was no longer a camper and would be helping him to lead, unsurprising considering Pastor Kazzi and Joy’s similarities. “She is like me,” he explains. “If she wants to say something, she will say it.” Here, he struggles with an English work, saying something to Joy in Arabic which makes her giggle, “He says I’m nosy.” Pastor Kazzi nods enthusiastically, “She asks questions, questions, all the time! Why? Why? Who? All the time questions!”
As a leader in the camp, Joy saw people her own age suffering, struggling with basic needs. “I would see that not everyone has a shelter, not everyone has food.” Pastor Kazzi also emphasized Joy’s capabilities for empathy, telling of his two-month hospital stay during Joy’s time at university when she would visit him early in the morning before going to classes. He didn’t know until then how soft-hearted she was. So, young Joy, seeing her struggling peers, asked the most important question: “How can I help?”
Picture this: a slight, long-haired, young woman in the Beirut airport. She is about to board a plane for the first time in her life. Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport is a busy place on a good day, but today there are large groups of people travelling, almost like a pilgrimage, and the chaos is palpable. Her father walks her through the airport, navigating her towards the security checkpoint where he can no longer follow. He hands her her passport, saying, “Go ahead.” She looks around at the throng of people who all seem to know what to do and begins to cry.
As a university student, Joy knew she wanted to help those on the margins. She planned to work in Public Health and Development Sciences in Lebanon for a few years and then potentially apply for her masters. She was looking at different scholarships in Europe as it was cheaper than in Lebanon, going to school in the United States never even a passing thought. And then she received an encouragement from a family friend to apply to the GML program. She thought, “What were the odds?”
“The Lord is behind this,” Pastor Kazzi praises. “She took a visa, zero tuition, transportation and even the [plane] ticket. It's like a miracle for us as family here. The hand of the Lord led her there.”
Pastor Kazzi was admitted to the hospital as Joy made preparations to apply for a visa at the American Embassy, and, because he could not accompany her, he booked her a taxi. Pastor Kazzi and Joy both knew this would be a long appointment, most applicants having to wait 2-3 hours to potentially receive the visa itself. Joy was granted a multiple-entry visa in 20 minutes. “My taxi driver thought I forgot something in the car because my interview was so short. So I came back and he said, ‘Did you forget anything?’ and I'm like, ‘No I got the visa!’ He was like, ‘No, there's no way!’”
At the airport, as Joy cries, Pastor Kazzi cannot find anyone to help Joy with her bags, and the police have closed most of the rows at security. But he sees a porter sprinting by. “’Please can you—' and he say, ‘No, I don't want money,’ and I say, ‘Look at me.’” The porter stops. “’I have one daughter and she have entry to the US, can you help me please?’ And he sighs saying, ‘Sure, but don't kiss her, we don't have time for anything.’” The porter grabs Joy’s bags and runs towards the gate. “In 2 minutes she left us behind, and I started crying for more than 3 hours.” Despite the years, and Joy being seated beside him, the grief and longing he felt in those hours after her departure read on his face and in his voice.
When Joy returns to Lebanon after her first year of coursework at Baylor, the Beirut she returns to, the Beirut she currently lives in, is crumbling. “Everything is getting worse by the day,” Joy translates for her father. “We lose our new members, young adults, so who will lead our churches? Who will take care of the other families? It's not easy for us as pastors. Even myself, while I'm pastoring the church, I am tempted to go outside of Lebanon.” In the past year Pastor Kazzi has been invited to pastor churches in the US, in California and Georgia, and also in Canada, so he understands why young couples would want to leave. “You can't buy a house; you can't buy a car. It's tempting because we have no hope, no electricity.”
“It's never been like that before,” Joy explains. “Beirut is considered the [phoenix] rising from the ashes, because it has been burned down and rebuilt over all these years, and so we would take pride in our resiliency. But now we are tired of being resilient, and we just wanna survive.”
Pastor Kazzi nods, “It's not easy to stay and not easy to leave. Like somebody stuck between Heaven and Hell. There's no in-between.”
And yet the gospel is lived out. Joy currently works at MERATH, a Christian NGO in Lebanon working with local churches and faith-based organizations to implement relief and development projects for vulnerable individuals and families in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. “We don't evangelize at all,” Joy explains. “What we provide is unconditional assistance. But our motivation and our mission are driven by Christ and by God's love. So we are seeing that many times we are giving food vouchers, winterization assistance, or livelihood training, and people ask, ‘Why are you helping us unconditionally?’ and we say, ‘Because Jesus loved you first, and we are just a tool that he's using to serve you.’’’
Joy has also noticed, “A change happening in the community--more and more Lebanese people are in need. Before we would say we need assistance to give to refugees, to Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, but now we are seeing more Lebanese families living in poverty. More than half of the Lebanese population fall under the poverty line. You just feel like everyone needs assistance and everyone needs help, and you can't save everyone so there's also this guilt that comes with everything. It's not easy, but the Lord has been using us and doing amazing work.”
“People look at Lebanon as dark area, but the Lord is working,” says Pastor Kazzi. “We never had many people asking questions about this. Asking questions about eternity, about the Bible, about Christ, about future life. The people need hope. People say, ‘Bad situation, dark moment in Lebanon.’ I see a small light: Jesus proclaimed, Jesus shining, in Beirut, in Muslim areas, all over the country. I see people baptized, coming to church, so I don't see it dark. We are under pressure daily, daily, daily. People need food, they need medicine, they need to go to hospital, they need money. Most of the families that used to help us--now they need help. It's not easy, but I don't see a dark area. I see Jesus.”