A Fish Out of Water: One Virginian Woman’s Choice to Study the MENA Region

April 29, 2016

Joy Fuller

Joy Fuller, a new student in the Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program (MRel) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a short piece describing her recent experience in the MENA Christianity module. Her travel around Lebanon, her discovery of the historical Arab Church, and the diversity of her peers had a lasting impact on her understanding of the global Church.

Joy in class during the January residency in Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo: ABTS Staff)

Joy in class during the January residency in Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo: ABTS Staff)

A Fish out of Water was published in 1961. The title itself has entered the world of familiar sayings and idioms. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the idiom as “to feel awkward because you are in a new situation that you have not experienced before.”

My husband and I live on a small farm in southwest Virginia and we pastor a new churchplant. We also run a small, nonprofit missions organization with a concentration on Africa and India. Recently we have become “empty-nesters” as our 3 adult children have moved out of the house and into their own situations. This transition has left me feeling like “a fish out of water.”

For several years, I have mulled over a return to my studies, thinking about an MA. The “emptynest” phase has given me space to look into this option. I first heard about the Englishlanguage MRel program when I visited Beirut a year ago. My husband and I were there to visit several pastors who were working with Syrian refugees. I was intrigued by the program structure of 4 core modules. So when this Southwest Virginia girl enrolled in the MRel program at ABTS’s Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES), she was definitely “a fish out of water.”

MRel students at the Catholic Salvatorian Monastery and Manuscript Library in South Lebanon. (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

MRel students at the Catholic Salvatorian Monastery and Manuscript Library in South Lebanon. (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

Having graduated from Texas Christian University many years ago, the idea of a return to studies left me feeling quite vulnerable. I was ‘feeling awkward in a new situation’ particularly because my coursework would take me to the Middle East. However, this program seemed to offer a broader understanding of the Middle East and North Africa region and a context for contemporary events happening in the world today. In fact, the program is designed for those who want to work in the MENA region. Even so, I believe it is beneficial for anyone wanting to learn and understand current events. This program better equips those people serving others in difficult situations, such as, but not limited to, the multitudes of refugees across the world. It also serves to help the largely uninformed Church in the West.

The MRel program consists of four modules: Christianity, Culture, Islam and History, Politics and Economics. The program is mostly conducted online, with twoweek residencies halfway through each module. My first module was MENA Christianity. In the pre- residency portion we read about Christianity and the Church in the Near East, mostly from the 2nd century to the 19th century, including the eight Church Councils. We wrote papers, posted them on an interactive site, and dialogued with our classmates. In January 2016, we all met face-to-face in Lebanon for the first time in the two-week residency portion.

MRel students at the Catholic Church of St. Paul in Dar'oun Harissa, Lebanon. (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

MRel students at the Catholic Church of St. Paul in Dar’oun Harissa, Lebanon. (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

I thoroughly enjoyed all of my classmates. They were not as intimidating as I had imagined. They were very genuine, smart, thoughtful, lovely people who were sold out to the ministry of Jesus. We were all from various cities, countries, and backgrounds. Sharing two weeks together was a rich experience. My professors were not nearly as scary as I had anticipated either. We toured multiple monasteries, talked with Orthodox, Melkite, and Catholic leaders from the churches in the region, visited ancient sites pertaining to our Christian faith and viewed ageold texts and manuscripts. It was an honor to learn about the different expressions of faith within our shared Christian heritage.

Being in Beirut has given me an appreciation for all who have gone before me for those who have suffered and been persecuted for the faith. I was humbled. Rather than being “a fish out of water” gasping for breath, I am finding new friends, new perspectives and fresh air.

Curious about our Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program? The two-week residencies are only part of the multidisciplinary instruction and learning of this English-language, distance-learning program! Get more information about this flexible and accredited postgraduate degree here! Email us with any questions at IMES@abtslebanon.org. 

This article was originally published in the monthly newsletter of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. You can read other articles and updates about the seminary here.

A Fish Out of Water: One Virginian Woman's Choice to Study the MENA Region

MRel students on a tour at the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate and Library in Harissa, Lebanon. (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

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