There are no official missionaries - certainly not young, clean-cut elders, but no senior couple missionaries either. Instead, the few older married couples who go to the Middle East (on what would otherwise be called a mission) are simply known as "humanitarian service volunteers." They teach English or serve as advisors or instructors at the university, or find some other innocuous position to fill. No preaching or proselytizing is allowed.
The "native" members of the church, if there are any, and there sometimes aren't, don't officially pay tithing. They aren't encouraged to attend meetings, either. It's like some bizzarro, backwards world where every attribute the Mormons are usually known for is conspicuously absent. And I haven't even told you the part where we identify more with the Muslims and tend to separate ourselves from the Christians!
Anyway, the focus of this Flashback Friday is how the Mormons who found themselves in Syria managed to worship together. There were never very many of us in Damascus at any given time. The lowest consistent membership count I can remember (not counting days where some of us were absent) is four members, plus two "humanitarian service volunteers." It made for very intimate church meetings. The meetings were held at the volunteers' apartment in Abou Romaneh. We had a ghetto little keyboard that I played to accompany the hymns (and we managed to avoid singing "Onward Christian Soldiers," except for that one time).
You may be surprised to learn that even though there were so few of us, we still held all three hours of church: Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School (renamed Sabbath School since church was held on Fridays), and Priesthood/Relief Society. Needless to say, we all had plenty of opportunities to give talks and teach. And Relief Society was simultaneously kind of a joke, and also awesome: there were only two of us (just the wife half of the non-missionary couple and I). We would just go into the living room and take turns teaching the lesson to each other.
Before you feel too bad for us, having church for three hours with such a small group, please know that we were very generous with our passing times. Another reason you shouldn't feel bad for us was that every Friday after church, we had an expansive, delicious dinner. It was always an odd mix of American and Syrian food - tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, pomegranates, potatoes, and maybe a roast if we could get a good one - and always the best food we ever ate during any given week. After that, we'd settle down for a few (or several...ok, many) rounds of Speed Scrabble.
And now for some pictures:
An intense Speed Scrabble tournament. It should be noted that the usual champion was a 60-something Finnish lady whose native language was not English (Go Sister Jeffery!). Yeah.
There was a little parlor off the living room with a bed in it. Sometimes we used it for a little post-church nap.
Christmas in Damascus for the Mormons. This was our tree - an ingeniously arranged string of Christmas lights, topped with a star cut out from a package of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. The two humanitarian service volunteers to the left are the Pitkins. They are currently serving another mission in Nigeria.
A typical day at Church in Damascus. From left, standing: Elder Jeffery, then two American students, then a Syrian member, then Jeremy. Seated are Sister Jeffery and I. You can see our pathetic keyboard on the left.
I have to admit, I don't think I've ever loved church more than I did while living in Syria. We got to know our fellow Mormons so well and grew so close to one another as we struggled to live in a country very different than what we were used to.