A restlessness in her spirit kept Elmarie Parker from getting too comfortable in her faith and birthed a desire to serve Christ in the Middle East

From a practicality standpoint, the move didn’t make sense. Elmarie Parker and her husband Scott were perfectly content to continue serving as pastors in Northeast Ohio – Elmarie with a congregation and Scott as a trauma chaplain. It was their latest stop on a missional journey that had taken them to congregations in Southern California and Florida previously.

But something was stirring in Elmarie’s spirit – a restlessness – that wouldn’t let her stick with the status quo.

For years the Parkers attended the New Wilmington Mission Conference, annually held on the campus of Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. And each time, Elmarie left with a restless spirit. She didn’t know what to think of it – or what it meant.

“I just began praying, ‘Lord, what do you have in mind with this restlessness? What am I to be understanding from this? What are you seeking to shift or help me see or be aware of?’”

It took years before the prayer was answered in 2011, and it wasn’t anything she could have anticipated. The directive: Pick up your lives and move to the Middle East.

It began with a simple invitation.

“A woman at the conference shared about her work with the churches in Iraq, and it just struck a deep chord in me,” says Parker, a student in Portland Seminary’s doctor of leadership in global perspectives program. “I was profoundly impacted by what I heard, so I shared that with her and she said, ‘Well, I’m planning a trip to Iraq in November. Would you like to come?’ The only answer I could give her was, ‘Yes.’ I knew I had to be on that trip.”

So began the Parkers’ new life half a world away. Today, they live in Beirut, Lebanon, where Elmarie serves as a regional liaison with The Presbyterian Church (USA). For nearly 10 years now she has served as a relational bridge between partners all over the region – including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait – and the organization’s national offices and local congregations throughout the U.S.

Her role is essentially all about building relationships, supporting educational and humanitarian efforts in the region, and helping people in the U.S. gain a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East and its partners there. Her work involves meeting with leaders, listening to their concerns, praying with them, and supporting them.

“As we know in a U.S. context, often leaders have no one who's pastoring them, so in a sense I’m in a very broad way a parish pastor to leaders here in the region.”

What she encountered in her new surroundings caught her off guard – and reinvigorated her faith.

“When I first went to Iraq I was expecting to meet a church that was pretty beleaguered and just trying to survive. That is not the church that I met,” she says. “I found people who were praying, ‘Lord, how may we be of service to you in our country at this time?’ And this was coming from folks whose communities were literal war zones after the U.S. invasion in 2003.”

It was a far cry from the comparatively petty topics she had encountered in U.S. churches – among them conversations about how to get people to start going back to church in wake of the halcyon days of American faith in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

“‘Lord, how do we fill our churches again?’ is a far different prayer than ‘Lord, how may we be of service to you in our country even as bombs fall around us daily?’,” she says. “It gives you a different perspective – a global perspective – to hear these stories of faith, to hear people cry out and bring their country to the feet of Jesus for healing.”

Parker watched as the Iraqi churches responded to the civil unrest by praying and starting children’s, medical and radio ministries. She was struck when, broadcasting in four languages, an Iraqi radio broadcast invited American personnel serving on the ground to encounter hope in Christ. “And I just thought, wow, if the shoe was on the other foot and we had an invading army in the U.S., would we as church communities think to reach out in ministry to those foreign troops with a message of hope and healing?”

Elmarie Parker preaching

Seeing a passion for Christ among a people so under duress inspired Parker to follow the call to the Middle East and be a relational bridge back to the U.S. This, she says, gives her opportunity to “invite people into a deeper journey of discipleship, of following after Jesus, of looking with a different lens at their own context in the U.S., and, rather than living with a sense of discouragement, or fear or anxiety, to realize that there is life happening, that God is at work.”

It was while fulfilling this call that Parker sensed another form of restlessness – the desire to broaden the scope of her training to better equip herself for the work at hand. Again, she knew she wanted to earn a doctorate; she just didn’t know which degree to pursue – or where to get it from.

Her heart has always been to serve the church at a grassroots level and equip people to take the next step in following Christ. So, a practical doctorate – one that allowed her to deepen these intercultural, cross-cultural conversations and relationships – was her first choice. She discovered Portland Seminary’s doctor of leadership in global perspectives program through a friend who had attended the seminary, and upon looking into it, discovered it was the ideal fit. She enrolled in 2020 and is due to graduate in May of 2023.

“I was looking for a program that would give me room to work with what God had put on my heart, which was to develop some kind of cross-cultural leadership experience for young adults. I wanted something practical, so I love the fact the project portfolio portion of the program allows you to work with stakeholders along the way.”

“I also appreciate the global perspectives angle and the fact that the [face-to-face] advances take place outside the U.S. There are other leadership programs in the U.S. that say they're looking at global dynamics, but all of the work takes place in the U.S. As I see it, if we don't step out of our own context, it's really hard to develop a global perspective."

A recent encounter with one of the directors of an ecumenical body she works with allowed Elmarie to put her seminary training into practice.

“It was just that moment of realizing what a sacred space I’m invited into,” she says. “This woman works with some incredibly complex dynamics in Syria and in Lebanon, and she opened up her heart to me. The situation in Lebanon right now is absolutely exhausting. And so, after hearing her share what was on her heart and mind – and praying with her, having a meal with her – I could see the shift in her from the beginning of our time to the end. Some of that weight lifted, and she was fueled again for the work that she's doing. .

“That's the kind of thing that I get to be part of – and I love it.”

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