Anyone would be challenged to cover eight decades of miracles in one weekend, but on November 15-17, 2019, Middle East University (MEU) in Beirut, Lebanon, commemorated 80 years of operation with storytelling, music, and moving testimonies. Even as Lebanon is gripped with economic and political challenges, the theme for the event spoke of MEU’s story, “We Walk By Faith.”
The weekend featured yellowed photos of the visionaries who invested wealth and sacrificed comfort to train generations of gospel workers for the Middle East region. It honored the faith of those who led the school with courage and prayer during Lebanon’s 15 years of devastating civil war. It also carried the message that MEU continues to exist to prepare the next generation of workers for the Middle East and North Africa region.
“After 80 years, you would think MEU’s mission would have changed, but it is now very clear to me that the original vision of the pioneers remains our vision today,” observed Rick McEdward, chairman of the MEU board and president of Middle East and North Africa Union (MENAU) church region.
Amir Ghali, a 1990 graduate who serves as MENAU field secretary, came to what was then Middle East College as a 12-year-old and grew up in the pine forests of Sabtieh Hill, literally “the Sabbath hill.” With his classmates and instructors, he spent months of his high school and college years in bomb shelters. He remembers dashing to class between mortars and fighting the frequent fires caused by random shellings.
In a 1989 manuscript, Manoug Nazirian, who served as school president from 1990 to 1993, recorded “the staggering disappointments and reverses” that the college met during those difficult years. “But,” as Ghali testifies, “despite wars, migration, financial difficulties, shortages of teachers, God saw to it that this institution has continued uninterrupted. He has a purpose for MEU.”
The first seeds of that purpose were very small. Walter Ising, a German-American pastor sent to Lebanon, met a half-dozen Adventist believers when he landed in Beirut in 1909. After studying Arabic, he ventured onto the campus of what is now American University of Beirut (AUB), one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East today. He engaged a handful of students to study the Bible with him in his home. Two years later, in 1911, he baptized Ibrahim El-Khalil, Shukry Nowfel, and Bashir Hasso.
No one recorded any discussions that may have taken place over the next several decades, but the evidence speaks of the dream they shared. When the Adventist College of Beirut opened in 1939 in the Mouseitbeh Adventist church building in downtown Beirut under the leadership of G. Arthur Keough, seven students enrolled, all to study theology. Shukry Nowfel, who had gone on from his baptism to become the first Lebanese Adventist pastor, was their religion instructor. He was assisted by Ibrahim El-Khalil, who had also become an Adventist minister and was retired by then.
Bashir Hasso, following his baptism, had returned to Iraq to share his new faith with his family and to build a highly successful business. But he never lost touch with his spiritual roots. In 1943 he bought a wooded hillside overlooking Beirut, Lebanon, and donated all 70 acres for a training center to prepare young people to do God’s work. It became the permanent home of Middle East College, now Middle East University.
“It’s amazing to me,” reflected current MEU president Larry Lichtenwalter, “that MEU’s history begins with a Bible worker who knew the potential of a public campus ministry, who engaged the students he met, and who opened his home to teach them the Bible.”
Whatever their studies included, they learned more than a few unusual doctrines. “The power source of that first generation of converts,” Lichtenwalter observed, “was not a shared history, Christian education for their children, or even the wealth that lifted them.”
Lichtenwalter said he believes it was the Holy Spirit’s conviction that the gospel message they had embraced needed to continue uninhibited to the next generation, “and the next, and the next.” “Eighty years later, we can take hold of the same vision, with the same Holy Spirit conviction,” he said.