Fort Mill pastor to answer calling in Iraq

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comJanuary 22, 2014 

— A typo- turned-divine appointment has one local minister testing her faith, and hoping she’ll return to tell the story.

Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church on S.C. 160 West. She’s been there five years and has about 400 members. She’s been on mission trips to South America. She’s delivered sermons on listening to God and obeying.

Last year, she received an email from her Presbytery asking if she’d like to partner with a church in Iraq. She asked her church. One member had served in the military there, and voted yes. Enough others joined in to stamp the decision. By the time the Presbytery emailed they’d meant Lebanon and not Iraq, it was too late.

“I said, we meant Iraq, because the people who said yes had very specific reasons for that,” Sizoo said.

The Presbytery had to find an opportunity. Soon Sizoo was emailing with a congregation in Baghdad. She can’t name or say much about them for possible repercussions there. A decision was made, and finalized Christmas Eve, for her to visit with some of those fellow believers.

“In a few days together, you can go a lot further in building relationships than you can in years of emails,” Sizoo said.

A country known for its Muslim population, Christianity isn’t always seen there in as friendly of terms as it is here, she said. The pastor said she’ll be honored to meet believers “for whom being a Christian costs them.”

“Our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq are really invisible,” Sizoo said.

Her anticipation of the trip isn’t to say she’s overly looking forward to it.

“This was never really on my bucket list,” Sizoo said. “This feels more like call than desire.”

Her plane leaves Saturday.

Is it safe?

Ron Popp buys food on Thursdays. Gives it away on Fridays. Popp leads a team at Grace Presbyterian whose mission field literally sits across the street, volunteering to serve free Friday meals at The Community Cafe hosted by Lake Wylie Lutheran Church. He imagines the experience isn’t much like what Sizoo will see on the other side of the world.

“I don’t think I’d go,” he said. “But she seems to be called there.”

Judy Forrest heads vacation Bible school at Grace and is working with missionaries in Iraq on ways to familiarize children here and there about life on the other side. Videos will be filmed. A collection for Iraq will be part of VBS this year. With all the possible partnerships, Forrest was elated to hear Sizoo would go there.

“I’m so glad that she’s going, because I was worried God was going to make me go,” Forrest said.

Sizoo said she’s only seen Iraq through the lens of war, too, so she understands this common reaction. Members made prayer bookmarks Sunday for Iraqis.

“Certainly the response has been concern for me,” Sizoo said.

A small group including the minister and her husband, retired minister Sam Roberson, will spend five days in Istanbul, Turkey and six in Cairo, Egypt. Then Roberson will visit grandchildren in Ireland. Sizoo will spend eight days in Iraq. She isn’t going to Baghdad. She’ll meet with missionaries and host church leaders in another, relatively safer, area of the country.

She’s learned what to wear and when, particularly about covering knees and shoulders. Sizoo doesn’t use clergy shirts, but ministers there do so she bought one. Best she knows, she’ll be the only American in her group.

“I’m not super anxious,” Sizoo said. “I just really believe this is what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s all I know to do."

Is it worth it?

Trusting God, Sizoo said, doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen. Bad things happen all the time, she said. The pastor thinks about the common perception of Iraqis, here – Muslim, perhaps terrorist, war-ravaged. She wonders what the perception of Americans is there.

The pastor wants to be a part of putting faces to people groups, of breaking down an intimidating barrier and bringing home with her a plan for how more church members can keep the connection open.

“I’m beyond grateful for this opportunity,” she said. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

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