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Like the Cedars of Lebanon: Baptists Honored for Lifelong Service

Recognized for the promotion of women’s rights and inclusive education, two leading figures relate civil war struggles and the challenge of special needs.
Like the Cedars of Lebanon: Baptists Honored for Lifelong Service
Image: Edits by Christianity Today / Source Image: Courtesy of Nabil Costa / Créel / Baptist World Alliance
Mona Khauli (left) and Nabil Costa (right)

Lebanese Baptists have reason to be proud. This month, two senior members of their community, Mona Khauli and Nabil Costa, were recognized for their faith-based work on behalf of their nation.

Mona Khauli, the 85-year-old executive director of the national Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), was honored by the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) for her human rights work.

“Honor comes from God,” she said. “Having been in his service all these years, I do not need any from people.” She did, however, note her acceptance may be useful to inspire others.

Costa, general secretary of the Association of Evangelical Schools in Lebanon (AESL), was locally recognized with the inaugural Créel Award as one of the top luminaries hailing from his nation’s southern region for pioneering leadership in special needs education.

“As a son of Maghdoucheh, I am pleased to be honored here,” he said of his Greek Catholic agricultural village, located five miles southeast of Sidon, which hosted the ceremony. “But our victory comes only from the Lord.”

Khauli experienced such triumph firsthand amid constant loss due to the civil war.

Assuming her role in 1977 following many years of volunteering, Khauli was immediately plunged into the reality of ongoing bombardment in Muslim-dominated West Beirut. So she turned the YWCA headquarters into a women’s hostel, receiving displaced Lebanese of all religious confessions.

The Syrian general occupying their neighborhood assigned his men to mount a missile launcher on YWCA’s strategically-placed rooftop. Khauli rushed to confront him. We have women here, she told him. Would you accept men running through the quarters of your mother and sister?

Anxious the whole time, she had to think on her feet when the general mentioned the Muslims among them. Change the name of your organization, he said. How can Christians oversee Muslims?

Khauli refused, setting a pattern of fidelity to the YWCA’s faith foundations, later repeated in peacetime.

“You are under the authority of your president, who trusts you because you serve Syria,” she told the general. “We are under the authority of Christ, and therefore we serve everyone in his name.”

Before the war, Khauli’s predecessor had helped establish Lebanon’s Young Women’s Muslim Association, under Islamic leadership. The Christian version developed a reputation for vocational training, offering programs for women’s employment in government and the banking sector.

The war caused the YWCA to shift their focus from work to relief. Khauli negotiated with militia leaders to ensure neighborhood bread distribution and street cleaning. But vocational training became more important than ever, as war-widowed women were forced to open shops to care for their families.

Mona Khauli (center) receiving the human rights award from Baptist World Alliance.
Image: Courtesy of Baptist World Alliance

Mona Khauli (center) receiving the human rights award from Baptist World Alliance.

Khauli navigated narrow alleyways and landmine-laden underpasses, just to get safely to work each day.

“We worked under shelling, sniping, and kidnapping,” she said, noting how her husband endured one day of the latter. “But we maintained the Christian faith, impulse, and motto of the original YWCA.”

After the war ended in 1990, Khauli led an initiative—called Come, Let Us Rebuild—to expand income-generating projects and promote women’s leadership in society. In 1997, the YWCA led training sessions for female candidates in the municipal elections, and a few years later assisted those running for parliament.

Working with business leaders and multiple first ladies of Lebanon, Khauli put up billboards on the streets, raising awareness about women’s rights and domestic violence. And in 2004, the YWCA opened the first shelter for abused women and children.

While overseeing 800 multi-faith volunteers in nine regional associations, Khauli and her fellow executives resisted the international YWCA trend to water down the confession of faith. When our husbands and sons are dying in war, she told multiple symposiums, we don’t have time to question the fatherhood of God—we need him for divine protection.

It wasn’t long before Muslim women wanted to partner in leadership with YWCA’s good work of serving all communities—including the aunt of the prime minister. Though completely different in context, Khauli’s answer reflected the same conviction with which she spoke to the general. Our Christian mission guarantees we will not be political, she said of the organization’s place in Lebanon’s sectarian system. We will not impose our faith on you, and you can trust us since we serve in the spirit of Christ.

Lebanon’s Protestant churches drew most of their members from the historic Catholic and Orthodox denominations. Once distrusted similarly, Khauli said the YWCA today has the Maronite patriarch, Lebanon’s foremost Christian cleric, as one of its strongest supporters. But far from being just a social organization, several members told her their faith has been strengthened by her commitment.

The YWCA leadership starts all meetings with prayer and reflective meditation. And although a Muslim-background Christian is part of the leadership in the northern, Sunni-majority city of Tripoli, any direct proselytizing is left to the churches.

“If you stand up for your faith,” Khauli said, “you pass it on through your life.”

This includes her own community. Khauli spoke of confrontations with “chauvinist Baptist leaders” in her work to ensure that women’s voices are heard in congregational affairs. She was only the second woman to serve as a deconess in her home church in Beirut, but by the completion of her tenure as president of the Lebanese Baptist Women’s Union in the late 1970s, she won permanent representation for her post in the national Baptist convention.

By 1995, she was elected vice president of the BWA, the first Middle Eastern woman to occupy that role. And on July 4, in recognition of her lifetime of service, the BWA awarded her the Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award at the annual gathering in Norway.

“This honor is an uplifting fulfillment of the promise in Psalm 92:12,” Khauli told delegates. “The righteous … shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon, they shall still bear fruit in old age, to declare that the Lord is upright.”

During the conference the BWA launched the Global Baptist Mission Network to coordinate work among 17 national associations and their 7,000 missionaries. Lebanon is an inaugural member.

The BWA also welcomed new partners from Niger and the Palestinian territories, and established new membership categories in aid work, missions, and education. And the first organization recognized in the aid category is the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), with AESL’s Costa as CEO.

“Inclusive education is restoring the value of evangelicals in Lebanon,” said Costa, “just as the missionaries did a century ago.”

In the 19th century, Western Protestants came to Beirut in the then-Ottoman Empire province of Syria, and focused on education—including the groundbreaking formal instruction of girls. The American University of Beirut was founded in 1866, and the first Baptist church was planted in 1895. Today, though evangelicals represent only one percent of the population, the AESL serves 20,000 multifaith students in 35 affiliated schools.

Lebanese minister of social affairs, Hector Hajjar (left), presents Nabil Costa (right) with the Créel award.
Image: Photo by Créel / Courtesy of Nabil Costa

Lebanese minister of social affairs, Hector Hajjar (left), presents Nabil Costa (right) with the Créel award.

In 1998, American Baptist missionaries handed over Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Beirut Baptist School, and Baptist Publications to local leadership, who formed LSESD as its umbrella entity. Under Costa’s leadership, LSESD later added a youth ministry wing that now focuses on outreach, as well as Middle East Revive and Thrive (MERATH) for disaster relief and community development.

In September, LSESD will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

But it was the SKILD Center (Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences), founded in 2011, that won him the Créel Award—created to inspire hope by highlighting the regional and often small-town origins of nationally influential leaders. Costa believes that special needs education—as a voice for the voiceless—is helping evangelicals move out from the fringes of society.

“Individuals who actively work towards the betterment of marginalized groups are truly rare,” said Joelle Bou Younes, founder of Créel, a media and event planning company. “They should be appreciated for their selflessness and dedication.”

Under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Tourism, the Maghdoucheh presentation followed a similar event in Tripoli that honored Lebanese from the north. Regional celebrations are also planned for Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Other southern recipients included the former director of general security, business and media leaders, an internationally celebrated violinist, and the mayor of Sidon, who was educated in an AESL-affiliated evangelical school.

Costa received his award from the minister of social affairs, and honored in testimony by the president of Notre Dame University–Louaize (NDU). In partnership with SKILD, in 2019 it became the first Lebanese collage to offer a study program for those with special needs.

Prior to this in 2013, Costa coordinated with the Ministry of Education and the British Council to launch Lebanon’s National Day for Students with Learning Difficulties. The same year, SKILD partnered with the Sunni Makassid school system to establish its special needs department. Today the country has 30 public and 50 private schools with inclusive education. This includes two AESL institutions, and at LSESD’s Beirut Baptist School, over 10 percent of the 1,400-member student body suffer some form of learning disability.

“I am simply an ambassador for the Lord,” said Costa. “God recognizes this, but he also gave us grace in the eyes of those around us.”

He owes it all to his son.

At age 5, Christopher Costa could not sit still in class. Medicine controlled his behavior but only made him sleepy. The family sent him to a specialized school, but discovered it was not equipped to educate the students.

Few were. Only after travel to the United States did Christopher receive a proper diagnosis to address his learning difference. Upon the family’s return to Lebanon, Costa founded SKILD and thereafter enrolled his son in an Orthodox school, then one of the few with professionally trained caregivers.

Last month, Christopher graduated from NDU.

“God created us all in his image,” said Costa. “So we treat these students as brothers and sisters.”

Meanwhile, Lebanon continues in the throes of economic depression, and may soon be without a central bank chief. The country already has no president, a caretaker prime minister, and a rapidly emigrating population. There is little hope to latch onto.

In the midst of such suffering, the BWA honored Mona Khauli, a woman of perseverance. And whereas the south of Lebanon is viewed most often through the lens of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Créel showcased Nabil Costa’s compassionate ministry that transcends sectarian boundaries.

“Our work for the Lord is not in vain,” he said, quoting I Corinthians 15:58, moving seamlessly to the forward vision of Nehemiah 2:20. “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding.”

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