NAD Communication Director Dan Weber interviews Rick McEdward, the president of the Middle East North Africa Union, about his service as a missionary from the NAD. McEdward also shares the latest update on the situation in Beirut, Lebanon, after the recent explosion that has impacted hundreds of thousands of people, and how the church is helping in the community. Watch this video below.
Dan Weber: Today we're going to take the opportunity to meet Rick McEdward, who is president of the Middle East and North Africa Union based in Beirut, Lebanon, which has been in the news lately. First of all, we want to say thank you to all our members in North America for your faithful dedication to supporting the church during COVID-19.
We thought we'd take an opportunity to introduce you to one of the missionaries from North America who is working in the field, and that is Rick McEdward, so Rick, thank you for joining us today.
Rick McEdward: Happy to be with you, Dan.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Seattle, Washington, and right near where the airport is now and grew up in a small church plant that my parents participated in there near the airport, and grew up with a lot of different programs in the church, going to the church school there, and eventually my family moved away to Saudi Arabia to – for my dad to work in a hospital in Saudi. So I spent a little bit of my youth in the Middle East, and later I went back and gave my heart to the Lord at Auburn Adventist Academy there near Seattle in Auburn, Washington, and really devoted my life to doing whatever God wanted me to do.
After that, you know, I wanted to be a doctor, so I was planning on being an orthopedic surgeon and I felt God's call to ministry very strongly, and so I switched and went to Walla Walla College – and back then it was College – and graduated. Met my life partner there, my sweetheart, and she and I married just after I graduated, and then we went to Andrews University and went back to Seattle as a pastor and church planter in the Seattle area.
Tell us a little bit about your wife and kids.
My wife is an RN. She has done all kinds of nursing, and she always says it's a blessing that she took nursing because it's flexible; wherever, as a pastor, I’ve gotten moved she's been able to follow along, and she's done a number of things. We have two adult children. Our son works in a summer camp in the Seattle, Washington, area. We still have roots there. Our daughter is a teacher at La Sierra Academy Elementary School, and her husband is in medical school at Loma Linda University in California.
You've served overseas on two different occasions. How did you end up doing mission work and where were you first located?
Because I spent time as a youth overseas, the cross-cultural gene was planted in my heart. At one time I went to Honduras to do evangelism with the Quiet Hour, just a one-week, two-week project, but it rekindled in me something really strong. I actually started searching for opportunities and nothing was available. I contacted the GC, I contacted Adventist Frontier Missions and everyone I could. And then one day out of the blue a man named Robert Kloosterhuis phoned my home, and my wife came into that room and said, "Rick, there's a man by the name of Bob Kloosterhuis on the phone and he wants to talk to you," and I thought, Oh my goodness, I must be in trouble. He was the vice president of the GC!
He said, "Rick, we're looking for someone who can help with church planting and church growth in the country of Sri Lanka." So we moved our little family — our kids were small — to Sri Lanka and we lived there for four years. … We had a lovely time. We loved the people there. And after 2005 we were relocated to the division office in the Philippines where I served as the Adventist mission coordinator among other responsibilities there in the Philippines for the 18 countries of SSD [Southern-Asia Pacific Division].
That's where we met — in Sri Lanka in 2004. I went there to get stories after the tsunami hit. So unfortunately you've had experience with two different tragedies.
Yes . . .
And we'll talk a little bit about that later as we get into what's happening in Beirut. So what happened after you served in the Philippines and the SSD?
We needed to advance our children's education and I was working on my doctorate. I received a call to be a church planter back in Texas Conference, and so I went there and worked for about a year. I was blessed to work with a really good group. We organized a church in the northern suburbs of Houston. And following that I was called by the General Conference first with the Institution of World Mission and then later on with Adventist Mission, and so we served at the General Conference for about five years doing consulting with all the divisions around the world on how to reach out to the world religions, including Islam and Buddhism, etc., but in a wholistic way, to try to represent the very best of God to the world around us.
So what took you to the Middle East and what's your current role there right now?
I'm president of the union, and I don't know if you can see the map behind me, Dan, but there's 20 countries in our union and half of a billion people — 538 million people. So our territory, our union is actually more populated than the North America Division by about 200 million.
Wow. So what are some of the challenges that you face there when it comes to mission? About how many members do you have?
We have about 5,200 members in the entire union.
So that would be the size of some small conferences in here in North America.
Yes, and even some college churches are bigger than our entire union in terms of membership, and those members are divided not equally among expatriates who work in the Gulf Region and indigenous members and a few of us front-line workers around the union. We actually have a member-to-population ratio of about one to I think it's 108,000, so when you look at …
Is that one of the largest ratios in the church?
I believe it is. There isn't any other – there are subunits of MENA that have one-to-a-million ratio. So one of our fields has a one-to-a-million ratio, but basically it's the highest that I'm aware of in the church.
Where is the Union office located?
We're in Beirut, Lebanon, overlooking the city and the Mediterranean [Ocean], right next to the campus of Middle East University.
What happened with the recent tragedy?
I was sitting here in my office at 6:06 p.m. The ground started shaking, and not long after the ground shook and as we were all running to the exit because [we thought it was] an earthquake. The explosion blast hit our union office. All of the ceiling panels in my office just above me raised about a foot and then settled back down, and we realized something — it was a massive explosion. It sounded like a bomb went off right next to our office, and everybody in Beirut says the same thing: “it sounded right next to me.”
We were all running for the exit wondering, were we under attack? We were looking at the sky and people were literally running for old Lebanon civil war bomb shelters that still exist because some years ago the civil war was still going on.
So what was the impact on the local church there? And by the church I mean all the different union entities you have in Beirut.
As in every crisis there's several different layers of impact. One is physical impact. Our university had windows blown out and ceiling panels disrupted. Our local church here had quite a bit of damage as did our school. We have a center of influence that sustained a lot of damage. And when I say damage it's stuff that can be repaired.
We're thankful for that. We're also very grateful that in spite of the incredible lives lost around Beirut and the injuries, none of our members had any serious injury or a death. We've had cousins of our members who lost their lives. We've had politicians who are related to our church members lost their lives. And so we're saddened by the impact and also grateful. And basically our attitude is, Lord, we're here for a reason. Put us to work. So we've been out doing as much as we can in the community, trying to recover from this.
What was the impact on the broader community there in Beirut?
It feels like a small-scale tsunami. I say that because that's my reference point. We were in apartments the other day helping a gentleman and his wife clean out their apartment, and everything — every glass piece was blown — their furniture was blown against the walls. Everything in that area was just totally disrupted. And you look across the city and every office building in that front-line area around the port, all of the windows are blown in, and you can talk about the psychological impact because of the remembering of the wartimes, but you can also say the economic impact because Lebanon has already been in an economic spiral, much worse than other parts of the world.
We've had political chaos, economic and health chaos all simultaneous. And all of the windows of these big office buildings blown out, that means more people will be unemployed for a period of time as a result of this crisis.
I've heard numbers … how many people perished in the blast?
We have about 165 who have been counted as deceased, but there's still another 60 or so missing and about 6,000 injured.
One figure I heard that really was hard to believe was that close to 300,000 people are homeless now?
It's hard to estimate. There are a lot of apartments just near the blast site, and as I went down there are a lot of people living with broken glass around them in their apartments trying to get it cleaned up, but it's small pieces that have just exploded, and they're living now with the insecurity of no doors and windows. Others have had to totally leave their workplace and their [homes] and are living with family members or friends or out in the open in some cases.
So what has the church been able to do to help not only with your own needs but also for the broader community?
There are two streams in many crises, what ADRA is doing and what the church is doing, and we're coordinating together and working together. Many of our church members are volunteering with ADRA to go out and ask the needs — what do people need individually? — to look at communities, go door-to-door, asking what people are really needing. We're also packing food boxes, parcels, because food supply has been already disrupted, but the granary of the country just got [destroyed] in the explosion, so we're actually looking at how we [can] help the food chain remain intact and then we are going down with teams of students and church members and asking, “Where can we help you?”
And so we've been cleaning streets, apartments, businesses, helping carry bags of broken glass and put them on the street corner so that people can clean out their places, addressing small needs and larges ones. The open reception that the Lebanese people are giving us is touching.
When you were in Sri Lanka in 2004 and the tsunami hit there, you ended up stepping in because ADRA did not have a country director at that time and you stepped in and helped fill a void. Did that time help prepare you for what's happening now?
Absolutely. That tragedy was on a scale larger than what we're seeing here, but similar; a lot of damage to everything. And what we went through there, when this happened – also our ADRA director, by the way, is out of the country right now. (And even though he's able to coordinate and stuff from a distance, several of us here jumped in, and the same things that we went through then) — it was almost like a checklist in my mind and it’s helped me to be prepared for the response. And I praise God for that background, even though we never want to go through this kind of tragedy. God has helped tool not only me but several of our staff members for going through what we're experiencing now.
For some of our church members who are hearing this and want to help, what's a way that they could respond if they feel called to do so?
You know, one of the beauties of our [Adventist] world church is we can all pray, and we have been receiving messages. Dan, you messaged me and others, saying, "Hey Rick, we're praying for you. We want to give you a word of encouragement." Some people are sending a Bible promise or a story from their experience, and I can't tell you how encouraging those things are to us as we're going day by day, working as much as we possibly can. Little sleep, you know?
There are some people who have said, "We want to reach out and we want to support financially in some way," and I would say that one of the primary ways of helping financially is through ADRA. ADRA is doing everything they can here and impacting communities. They were there the first day giving water bottles and resting places, cots and tents, to first responders, the firefighters. They were able to get right to the site itself and helping search and rescue teams.
The General Conference has also opened up a window if anyone wants to send a check. We don't have an online portal, but if they want to send a check to the General Conference they could support ongoing efforts here that the church is doing.
But I want to say that my purpose for accepting the [interview] invitation isn't to gain financial support; rather, it's to say thank you for what the world church has already done, especially North America, which has been our backbone for so many years in mission, and I'm a missionary today because of the upbringing I had in North America. Let's just face it. I wouldn't be here without the mission stories and the mission offerings and the funding that [North America] has given.
Rick, thank you for taking the time to be with us, and we're praying for you, our members are praying for you. Know that North America Division has you in our hearts and our prayers.
Thanks so much. We know that you are there to support us. The leadership in North America has reached out. And having this chance just to share a little bit means a lot to us. But again, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the support and the prayers that you guys are sharing with us. It is making an impact here in Beirut.
*Minor edits made for clarity.