“Jesus taught us to love one another. He even commanded us to forgive, bless and serve those who persecute us. If I don’t follow Jesus’ commands, I cannot call myself a Christian.” These are the words of Philip Etre, whom I interviewed as part of a project for my 8th grade history class.
I first met Philip Etre in a church that we visited after my family arrived in Harrisonburg, Virginia two years ago. Philip was teaching English to Iraqi refugees at that church. I discovered later that he is a well-known figure in town and was a food service manager at James Madison University for many years before he retired a few years ago.
Harrisonburg is a small city in Virginia with a population of around 50,000 people. It is mainly known as the home of James Madison University with more than 20,000 students and Eastern Mennonite University, famous for its Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where my mother is a visiting scholar. Harrisonburg is a multicultural city that has resettled refugees from different parts of the world; an estimated 1600 refugees have resettled in it since 2004. The most recent wave of refugees was from Iraq.
In 1968 Philip came to the United States to study and decided to stay. He was born in 1949 in Lebanon, and his father was a Presbyterian pastor. He is married to Moleen, and they have two adult sons. After he retired from work, he started volunteering at his church, Covenant Presbyterian, as an English as a Second Language teacher for refugees. He also teaches Arabic to the English teachers. In addition, he helps refugees in multiple ways, such as escorting people to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for obtaining a driver’s license, translating at Social Services, and helping with rental and housing negotiations and contracts. He also volunteers at the fire department as a translator.
Philip left the Middle East a long time ago, but he is still connected to that area. Philip’s home country of Lebanon suffered in a civil war between Christians and Muslims from 1975 to 1991. He also has relatives in Syria which has been living with civil war since 2011.
The tragedy in the Middle East has personally hit Philip’s family since his mother is from Syria and he has cousins who still live there. One day a group from the militant Islamic terrorist group, Jabhat Al Nusra, came into the city where his cousin lived. They asked where Christian families live, and the people pointed at the house of Philip’s cousin. The terrorists knocked on the door, and when his cousin opened the door, they captured him and took him away. They told him that if he didn’t become a Muslim, they were going to kill him. He replied that he was a Christian; he only follows Jesus and they could do whatever they wanted to him. Their response was very brutal - they beheaded him and brought his head to the front door of his house. They left his head as a warning to his family and other Christians. After this incident his family fled the area and moved to Damascus, the capital of Syria.
Philip has another cousin who lives in Lebanon. During the civil war, a Muslim group tortured this 14 year old cousin at a checkpoint by putting out cigarettes on his body while he was on his way to school. Although this happened 30 years ago, Philip’s cousin is still suffering from the trauma today.
These horrible events did not lead Philip to build a “wall” between him and Muslims; on the contrary, he builds bridges. Philip’s ministry with refugees in Harrisonburg is mainly with Muslim families. Philip does not hate Muslims but rather loves them and serves them, even though Muslim extremists killed his cousin. He says, “Jesus taught us to love one another and forgive those who persecute us and this is why I love and serve others.”
My interview with Philip left me shocked and with mixed feelings; I was touched by his story but saddened to hear about the torture his family went through. However, I’ve learned valuable lessons on forgiveness and love. Forgiveness is not about saying “I forgive you;” it’s about living a forgiving life and loving others by building bridges with them.
Philip’s story is an example of a person who decided to build bridges with others and not build “walls” by excluding them. I think God is not happy when people build “walls”. As Christians we are to follow Christ’s example and build bridges, and as Philip said: “If I don’t follow Jesus’ commands then I cannot call myself a Christian.”
Thank you, Philip Etre!
Rami Mansour from Nazareth is currently living with his family in the USA. He is an 8th grade student at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Virginia.