“Are you a Christian?”
Paul Lawrence was sitting in the cooling-down room at a Turkish bathhouse in Gaza — a Palestinian territory on the western border of Israel — when a man asked him that question. The two had been talking for a while.
“Yes, I am,” Paul replied.
The man then said something that has stuck with Paul for decades: “I could tell by your face.”
Paul said he knew there were a dozen things that could’ve told the man he was a foreigner — his lighter complexion, his accent, the type of shorts he was wearing. But the man mentioned his face as the thing that told him Paul was a Christian.
That experience was an encouragement to stay grounded in Christ over the years as he and his wife, Harriet, served as Southern Baptist representatives among the Palestinian people, first in Gaza and later in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
He writes about the episode in a book the two of them authored called, “Going to School in Gaza: Lessons Learned in Thirty Years of Service in the Middle East.”
“My new friend’s simple comment had a great impact on me,” Paul wrote, noting he hoped the man’s words were true. “How could my face not be changed forever if I am reflecting the love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control so freely given by the Holy Spirit? I would hope that everyone could tell I am a Christian because ‘with ever-increasing glory’ my face, my life, is being transformed into the image of His Son.”
The book’s title comes from the idea that wherever you are is a “school” of learning how to walk more closely in Christ’s footsteps.
“God taught us so many things,” Paul said, referencing Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11 for the heavy laden to take His yoke and learn from Him. “As the burdens have gotten heavy from time to time it’s made me think, ‘Is this the burden He intends for me to carry? If it is, what is He teaching me through this?’”
Harriet noted God “wants to teach us and grow us and mold us, and He’ll do it in America just like He did for us overseas.”
“It doesn’t matter where your ‘school’ is, you’re still in school — ours just happened to be in Gaza,” she said.
It’s a place she never thought they would end up.
When the Lawrences first started dating in the mid-1970s Paul told her God had called him to missions. Not too far down the road, that call became personal for Harriet too. But she didn’t want to go to Gaza, which was frequently in conflict with Israel.
“The team from Gaza had been recruiting Paul, and I had been saying, ‘Thank you, but no,’” Harriet recalled.
They were preparing to go to the west African country of Ghana as Paul was finishing his graduate degree in nursing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Harriet was teaching kindergarten at First Baptist Church Leeds.
“We weren’t poor — we were dirt poor,” she remembered.
But when their pastor announced he was taking a tour to Israel, she felt God was prompting her to go too.
Paul said he didn’t know how it was going to happen, but they got an income tax refund, and Harriet pulled the rest of the money together.
“I told a friend at work one Friday that Harriet was going to the Holy Land,” Paul recalled. “I’d told her about my call to missions, and she said, ‘Paul, you ought to go on this trip.’”
But he explained their financial constraints and that God had miraculously provided the way for Harriet to go.
“And then on Monday she said, ‘Paul, I’ve got money in my account for an emergency, and I want you to take that and go on that trip, and I’m going to trust God I’m not going to have an emergency until I build it back up.’”
Profoundly touched by the gesture and God’s provision, Paul and Harriet both went, and while they were there Harriet “fell in love with the Palestinian women.”
“The Lord used that trip to convince us that the Palestinians were our people group,” she recalled.
They moved to Gaza in 1985 and started working at the school of nursing and raising their two children. They served God through bombings and evacuations and the emotional exhaustion that comes with having hungry women sitting on the porch begging for food every day. They walked through some difficult goodbyes.
And through it God taught them more and more about His faithfulness, Paul related. Those are the stories they write about.
“We wanted to share how God used those experiences in our lives to teach us how to follow Him,” he said.
“He’s willing to use everything, if we allow Him to, to conform us to His image,” she asserted.
In 2003, the Lawrences moved to Jerusalem, then four years later to Bethlehem, retiring in 2015 and moving back to Alabama where they are active members of FBC Leeds.
“You don’t think about the lessons that the Lord is teaching through those experiences, both the good ones and the traumatic experiences — you’re just getting through that,” Harriet said. “But now, being able to look back and see where we came from and the progress we made personally, is a blessing.”
The book is available only on Amazon.