During the early 1900s, a British doctor came to Kuwait with physicians from the American missionary services. They arrived in an ancient world unfamiliar with modern medicine. However, their work made a difference in common medical problems like cataracts that the traditional medical practices didn’t address. The compassionate work of the doctors eventually led to cataract surgery on the Skeiks own daughter, saving her from blindness and earning the gratitude of the wealthy family. As a result, the Sheik donated land to the missionary for the Amricani hospital.
Today, the original hospital is a museum and one of the oldest buildings in Kuwait City. Modern medicine advanced in Kuwait with new hospitals and even Kuwaiti initiatives to impoverished countries to “give medicine as it was given to us”.
The compassion and service of those early missionaries left a lasting impression on the Muslim country and today the entire city block is busy with various denominational churches in a same complex as the museum. Known as the National Evangelical Center of Kuwait, the complex hosts approximately 80 congregations ranging from Pentecostal to Orthodox. Most of the parishoners are from other Asian countries–they came to Kuwait seeking employment and often work very long hours for little pay. In this context, the entrance to the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait is particularly meaningful.
Various chaplains lead monthly trips downtown to see the museum and services in “spiritual resiliency trips”. Saturday, a fellow chaplain and I brought a small group downtown for services. Our Soldiers on this particular trip were Catholic, so we attended the Holy Family mass together. No photos are allowed during the service so I took a picture as parishioners arrived. By the time the service started, the pews were packed.
The mass followed the traditional liturgy and the people sang with such passion. It was humbling to pray and sing with them. “Jesus have mercy on us”. “Christ have mercy”. As is common in all liturgical Christian churches, they sang the “Great Thanksgiving”. These words come from the Didache–a worship book preserved from the first century Christians. Though I am not catholic and did not receive the sacrament, I always feel connected to the generations of Christians reading and singing those words the first century Christians professed.
After mass, we walked through the Protestant side. The complex contained many rooms and several stories. Each room offered services of various denominations and languages. It was a hot, summer evening so all the doors were open. As I walked down the alley, some congregations were loud and passionate, others bowed in solemn prayer. In one service, the people sat segregated by gender and were barefoot, while their shoes sat waiting by the door.
Other services had brightly colored altars and cultural paraments. Every service offered a different language and ethnic group.
As I walked, immersed in the colors and sounds, the sunset faded past twilight marking the time for evening prayers for Muslims. For a moment, the languages and colors mixed with the muzzeim’s song of prayer projected over greater Kuwait City. I was struck by the common struggle of people to seek God. The line became so fine between beauty and chaos. For a moment, I sensed God in the collective prayers and for a moment I found him blurred in the cacophony.
Anyone walking paths of faith in moments like that could have a number of responses. Some choose to abandon religion in the chaos, other cling more tightly to what they know. For me, the question deep in my soul was a call to reflect on what I seek. Can I hear God higher than my own language, culture and custom? Can I see him in others? Can I reflect what is holy in the frail attempts of human worship that constantly contends with self interest?
Today in chapel, we reflected on the story of the paralyzed man in Mark 2. His friends brought him to Jesus to seek healing but the house was crowded and he could not get in. This story reminded me of the times we seek God but the path is crowded by our own pain, lack of faith, hypocrisy, other people…the list is endless, but the lasting question in quest of faith is whether we persist in spirit and in truth.
“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I will seek after. That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in his temple.” Psalm 27:4