In the Palestinian stronghold of West Beirut, the streets of the Mouseitb neighborhood were cratered by shells and littered with garbage. Rifle-toting men stood at the corners, their uniforms changing, street by street, from Syrian soldiers to Lebanese militiamen to Palestinian guerrillas according to their political loyalties in this crazy-quilt community. Even before Israeli troops invaded Lebanon and swept to the outskirts of predominantly Muslim West Beirut, the armed patrols made Mouseitb a frightening place for a child. Now it is a nightmare.
For the past 27 years the children of Mouseitb have been the special ministry of an Oklahoma-born preacher named James Ragland. Through decades of bombings and terror, Ragland, 58, has kept the Beirut Baptist School open as an oasis of sanity for his young flock. “These children were facing death every night in their homes and every day in the streets,” he explains. “At least we could be here to give them some encouragement.” Sadly, on June 9 Ragland bowed to the inevitable and temporarily closed the school. “The soldiers began to open their antiaircraft guns about a half block away and the kids were terrified,” he says. “So we said, ‘School is finished. We hope to see you next October.’ ”
With a few local volunteer doctors and nurses, Ragland has transformed the school into a clinic for the wounded and a shelter for some of the 600,000 homeless Lebanese who have flooded into Beirut. The danger he faces is grave; when the fighting reached the city, Ragland urged the four American missionary women on his staff to take refuge in the nearby mountains. Two weeks ago he heard that one of his students, a 10-year-old girl named Nina, was found decapitated outside her bombed apartment building. The girl’s mother and sister also died in the attack, which apparently was aimed at a presumed PLO hideout a block away. Another student was killed the following week by a car bomb that detonated as she was playing in the street. Ragland expects to hear of many other deaths among his charges as the rubble is cleared in the days ahead, but he perseveres. “I think I owe it to the people with whom I’ve lived to stick with them in times of danger,” he says.
A native of Ada, Okla., the son of schoolteachers, Ragland earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma before entering the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. After serving as pastor of a small Texas church, he was appointed to his Beirut post in 1952 as a foreign missionary of the Southern Baptist Convention and settled there two years later with his wife, Leola, and their first two children, James, now 33, and Rebecca, 31. Their younger kids, John, 26, and Stephen, 23, were born in Beirut. He opened his school in 1955 for a student body of 100; it has since grown to 800. About 85 percent of the enrollment is Muslim. “We can’t really preach to these children,” he says, “but we feel that they need to know about God and be ready to meet Him if they should die.”
The school has been closed at least 20 times in the past because of fighting. During the civil war that raged in 1976, Ragland staged his July graduation ceremony under combat conditions. “There was no electricity and we couldn’t print diplomas,” he recalls. “Instead, we made them with stencils. We had little hand-held tape recorders that we used to play the Lebanese national anthem, and the students received their diplomas in blue jeans. During the ceremony, we could hear shelling in the background.”
Through the heaviest fighting in recent weeks, Ragland, with about 60 women and children from the neighborhood, has often huddled underground in the school’s bomb shelter. “Once you’ve been down below,” he remarks, “you get a new kind of terror.” During respites in the fighting, he and Leola pay sympathy calls on families in mourning. “Leola always comes home with her eyes red and her face swollen because you can’t help but cry with them,” he says. “But as long as I can give relief, I will remain.”