Building bridges: Couple foster culteral understanding in Middle East, USA

January 2018 Posted in Community
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Elmarie and Scott Parker

By Nancy Jennings

The Middle East conjures images of endless violence and bloodshed. Certain parts of this region are not safe, especially if you’re an American. But if you ask married Reverends Scott and Elmarie Parker – who live there – they see inspiration all around them.

“Our Lord loves the people of the Middle East and is at work there,” Elmarie said.

With the official title of “Associates for Ecumenical Partnerships,” the couple began their assignment in the Middle East in July 2013. Prior to that, they were both pastors serving in various locations in the U.S. with the Presbyterian Church USA. Married for 22 years, Scott, 52, and Elmarie, 50, share an intense connection with the people they serve.

“We want others to fall in love with the people we fell in love with,” Scott said.

Elmarie grew up in Silverton with parents, Kenneth and Susannah Robinson. Scott was raised in Omaha, Neb. They don’t have children, but do have cats affectionately referred to as their “fur kids.”

They first met in Southern California at the Fuller Theological Seminary, where they both were pursuing their graduate studies.

“He actually led the orientation small-group that I was in,” she said, adding with a smile “lo and behold, I got into the cute guy’s group.”

The couple has come a long way from seminary students, to pastors and now church workers in a volatile environment.

Asked about common misconceptions in the U.S. about life in the Middle East, Elmarie answered emphatically: “That we are living in the midst of horrific violence all of the time – and that is not what we are experiencing.”

Another common misconception revolves around rules imposed on women in public, such as covering their faces by wearing a “hijab” veil. Elmarie said that Iraq is the most conservative, followed by Syria, while Lebanon is the most open – but that in each of these countries you will find women dressed from regular western-styled clothing to more conservative religious dress.

“Beirut is a very cosmopolitan city. You’ll see the same kinds of stores you’d see on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or 5th Avenue in New York City,” she said.

Scott added: “The picture we get of Islam here in the United States is that there’s pretty much one cookie-cutter shape and size of it. There’s so much more in terms of the wonderful aspects, and there’s just a huge amount of diversity.

“We always encourage people to realize there’s more than just what they’ve seen. Islam doesn’t hate us. Americans are largely respected and often admired. Even if they have frustrations with our government, they really like Americans and seek out relationships.
“We have experienced such graciousness,” he added.

Known as a “writer in residence,” Scott uses written story-telling to communicate the experiences and views of the Middle East Church and their people with Presbyterian constituents in the United States.

“The real heart of our work is to be a bridge between the church in the Middle East and here,” Scott said. A term formerly familiar to church workers serving overseas as a “furlough,” is now known as an “interpretation assignment.”

“The four months we are here (in the U.S.) is mostly spent visiting other churches,” he said.

Communication is key to sharing their experiences living in the Middle East and receiving more support for their cause.

Giving presentations before/after worship services, having mid-week gatherings, hosting dinners and sharing information within big and small groups are some activities the Parkers oversee. They visited 85 churches within their recent four-month interpretation assignment.

Scott shared the following story:

“Over Easter, we were in a city in Iraq called Basrah, a very religiously conservative city where there are probably only 200 Christians remaining. Christians there are a minority and struggling. We were staying at the Presbyterian church and one evening there’s a knock on the door. At the door is this very elegant Muslim woman, a Muslim man and a Christian woman. It turned out she was very good friends with the pastor and his family (our hosts). Over coffee, we found out that this Muslim woman has a ministry and she went from Mosque to Mosque in Basrah to introduce the Muslims to their very first Christian.

“The Muslims got to see these ‘Christians’ were wonderful people – and though their beliefs are not identical, there was enough common ground to have respect. Just through the simple ministry of introduction, the walls come down and the relationships build up,” he said.

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