03.11.19 | Aktuelles
Education in an Increasingly Diverse ContextChallenges and Opportunities in Lebanon
Tolerance versus Influence
Johann Ludwig Schneller School in Khirbet Qanafar is in the eyes of many a Garden of Eden. It is not only a Garden of Eden in the beauty of its campus and location, or in the care, education, or vocational training it provides. It is a Garden of Eden in the opportunities it opens for the fulfilment of the Schneller mission. When we mention JLSS we immediately think of challenges and opportunities. Challenges point to the tolerance element while opportunities point to the influence part of our mission.
This immediately reveals the tension that lies within the JLSS mission: tolerance versus influence. As a person who lived and studied in JLSS for many years, I especially value the impact of both its tolerance and influence which had huge bearing on my life. This is what drives me in my work as director. I want all our students to have the same blessings which I received, through the Schneller tolerance on one side, and its great influence on the other. In many ways, these two elements made me what I am. Tolerance on one side and influence on the other, are like the two opposite sides of the stone-arch of ancient architecture, which through the weight of the stones coming from the opposite sides, hold the structure together.
Diversity in this context is also a positive element. It also fits the image of ancient stone architecture. The old Lebanese house was built from multiple arches from every direction, composed of stones of different sizes, shapes and sometimes even colors, rising all towards the cornerstone on top of the house, which locks everything together.
The cornerstone in JLSS is Jesus Christ. JLSS is first and foremost a Protestant Christian school, that carries its mission to underprivileged children, in obedience to our Lord’s calling, to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe those needing clothes, and welcome strangers. We do it exactly as Jesus asked: to the least of his brothers and sisters, to the least of society and the most needy. Jesus’ brothers and sisters that we have in JLSS are like the stones of the old Lebanese house. They are different in every way: different religions, different denominations, different nationalities, different backgrounds, different needs, different capabilities, different talents, and the list goes on and on. We provide them with care, education or vocational training, exercising tolerance with them, yet at the same time influencing them as much as we can.
The balance between tolerance and influence, is what keeps the JLSS mission going. I will take this picture from ancient architecture even further. When earthquakes happen, the ability of the stones in the old Lebanese house to wiggle left and right helps it to withstand the magnitude of the earthquake. The same is with us in JLSS. During difficult times we wiggle our policy in one direction or the other, with the tension between tolerance and influence working its magic, to maintain our mission and continue with it to posterity.
This completes the cycle: tolerance on one side, influence on the other, and flexibility in between. Having clarified the thinking behind our concept, I turn now to the practical side of implementing it. The implementation is done through two main channels: religion classes and chapel on one side, and the behavioral approach of all JLSS staff towards children, as they care for them, educate them, or provide them with vocational training.
The first is the easy part, but the second is the most difficult. The first part consists of religion classes which include four elements:
1- Basic introduction to the Christian faith.
2- Basic introduction to Islam.
3- Care of the Environment.
4- Peace education and conflict resolution through nonviolent means.
We point to the need to combine intellect with faith in making decisions on religious practices that challenge logic or common sense. The framework of our lessons is Protestant, yet we remain tolerant in teaching about other denominations, without going much into details, in order not to offend others. Students raise difficult questions, and teachers do their best to answer them honestly. It is always tolerance versus influence with some flexibility in between. The most important element of our teaching is to explain to our students that they may follow religious leaders, as long as they don’t teach them to hurt others. When religious leaders teach people to hurt others, they should not be obeyed. Hurting others is not, and must not be, the teaching of religion, be it Christianity or Islam. It is the wrong teaching of evil religious leaders who must not be obeyed.
To give you an idea about the practical way we implement the policy of tolerance versus influence with flexibility in between, I will give you a few examples. During Ramadan students are allowed to fast, but young children are not allowed to do so. (…) We know it is very wrong for young children to fast, especially the very long Muslim fast in summer, away from home, where even if they change their mind and are hungry, they do not have access to food all the time.
Girls are allowed to wear the headscarf (HIJAB) to cover their hair if they choose to do so. (…) (But they are) not allowed to wear the Hijab inside the boarding home. (…) We also teach gender equality very vehemently in spite of the thinking of some Muslim or Christian individuals on this issue. (…) Daily chapel services follow the same concept of religion classes. Singing hymns during evening chapel remains the most important teaching element through the lyrics of the hymns. The contributions of teachers and educators are also very valuable in these very short children’s services. Music is a most wonderful means for building bridges and reaching out to children. We are also trying to develop our music program to enhance peace education.
When I say this first part is the easy part, I don’t mean to undermine it, because, by itself, it is a very difficult task. The usage of the term easy is relative to the enormity of the second part. The second part is a mammoth task. The behavioral approach of JLSS staff towards children is the most important element of our mission and the most difficult. All we say or teach is useless, unless it is matched with ideal behavioral treatment of students by teachers, trainers, and members of staff. The wonderful work of the Schneller team for many years, can be completely undone by a single incident, a single remark, or a single mistake committed by one member of staff.
Bringing up children in boarding homes, teaching, and vocational training these days are extremely difficult tasks. JLSS members of staff must do all this, while maintaining the ideal behavioral treatment of students, in order for our mission to succeed. When you consider the extreme backgrounds of JLSS students, you immediately realize that this is truly a mammoth task. The extreme difficulty doesn’t only come from the extreme backgrounds of students but also from that of educators, teachers and trainers. The original Schneller mission was fulfilled through a coherent Protestant Christian community, both German and Arab, that was to a high degree truly representative of the Schneller mission in thought, word, and deed. This community lived on campus and was the parish of St. Michael’s Church, attending regular Sunday services and bible studies. In spite of all their human failures which are a normal aspect of any community, they were to a high degree, truly representative of the Schneller mission. Sadly, JLSS staff today (…) do not live on campus, and the church community is no more. JLSS therefore lost an absolutely necessary prerequisite for the success of its mission.
The Lebanese community is extremely diverse. Various forms of extremism and racism are found among Christians and Muslims. (…) Diversity becomes an impediment unless checks and balances are imposed vehemently. There are very clear requirements on anyone working in JLSS. The mission of Schneller School goes beyond care, education, and vocational training. It aims to transform students into honest, productive, hardworking, tolerant, and peace-loving individuals, who care for the environment, and are characterized by critical thinking, that combines religion with intellect, for the wellbeing of humanity. Educators, teachers, and trainers must be ideal role-models to students to achieve this. In all fairness, most of our staff, in spite of their diversity, are a good role-model, but there are always shortcomings that hinder our mission.
This challenge is addressed through what we call, the open-door policy of dialogue, which we extend to all our students. If a student has a problem, there are three levels he/she can use to deal with it. First, dialogue with the educator, teacher, or trainer. If the problem is not solved, he/she can move to the second level by raising the problem to the head of the department. If this also fails, there is the third level of bringing the problem directly to the director. Students have access all the way to the director. Furthermore, and in spite of the thinking of many teachers, trainers and educators, when one of them is wrong or makes a mistake, both he/she and the student are told that the educator, teacher, or trainer was wrong, without any reluctance. This is done in a meeting after all parties are calm and relaxed, in the presence of the student concerned, through calm dialogue that aims to clarify all issues. This of course is preceded by a private meeting of the educator, teacher, or trainer with the director, when the problem is analyzed and discussed, and mistakes are clarified and acknowledged. This is all done in a constructive spirit that accepts that mistakes are made but must not be repeated. (…) This may appear to be a simple approach, but when you take into consideration the diversity of people in JLSS, the challenge becomes clearly apparent. If you go to Mar Elias (St. Elijah) church in Khirbet Qanafar, the huge painting above the alter with its horrific beheadings ISIS style, makes you immediately realize the level of extremism in our region.
I was also shocked with the high antagonism and rivalry between the Catholics and the Maronites of Khirbet (…). The enormous hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims especially of late, is another enormous challenge. The fanatism between Christians and Muslims is also a huge problem. On top of that you have the political schism among the Lebanese with enormous hatred on both sides. You have a huge part of the population blindly following Iran and hoping for the extension of the Iranian Islamic revolution to Lebanon, when the slim majority on the other side would rather die than have this happen to Lebanon. Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian racism is an enormous problem exasperated by the presence of a huge number of Palestinian and Syrian refugees. The Palestinians did terrible things in Lebanon. Lebanese people did terrible things to Palestinians.
Many of the JLSS staff or their relatives were imprisoned, beaten, tortured, or even killed by the Syrian soldiers during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. You can imagine their feelings when we started having 35 Syrian refugee children in JLSS. Bringing women, from the most extreme Syrian refugee community into JLSS, for the Single Mothers’ Program, was also very difficult to accept. The remark I heard most of the time was: “you don’t only bring them to JLSS, you treat them better than the Lebanese!”
Fortunately, the last few years we no more have the rich-poor divide with some of the day-students, which we had a few years ago before the economic crisis. All the above factors point to the enormity of the challenges we face. The most important element of our mission is that although we are extremely careful not to get involved with politics, we are not neutral on issues that are central to our mission. When the Syrian refugees were all around us, in spite of all the Lebanese politics, we insisted on doing our share to alleviate their suffering as much as we could. When all other Lebanese schools are segregating between Syrian and Lebanese children having a morning program for the Lebanese and an afternoon program for the Syrians, we insisted on fully integrating the Syrian refugee children in our program, just like all our other students. In JLSS there are no Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, or German children, there are only children that are treated equally.
When our students or members of staff are discussing the extreme agendas of the political parties they support, we teach them that extremism is wrong, and democracy, human rights, respect of minority rights, and the rule of law, are the answer to our problems, not religious states and extremism. When our students under the influence of their parents or members of staff were rejoicing over the murder of individuals by extremists, or when they made remarks supporting murder or violence against their counterpart, be it Sunni of Shiite, we made it clear to them that hurting others is always very wrong. Human life is sacred, an no one can justify killing any other human being. This is exactly the Schneller Mission. It is as heavy as the huge stones of old stone houses. This heavy weight, when balanced between tolerance and influence with flexibility, is what truly represents the Schneller mission. It is comparable to the beauty, durability, resilience, and perfect fit in its region, of the old Lebanese stone-houses. Thank you for making this most wonderful mission possible, and for allowing it to be of this very high standard, truly fulfilling the calling of our Lord Jesus Christ.
George D. Haddad