From Beirut to Sydney: The Story of Pastor Bill Zaydan

 

“What has been the greatest American contribution to the rest of the world? Has it been money? Has it been food? Has it been medical skill? Has it been military might? Has it been industrial know-how? The greatest thing to come out of America has been the American missionary effort: the quiet, selfless men and women who have left the comfort and security of their homeland to bring the gospel of Christianity to less favored nations.” – Charles Malik, First Ambassador of Lebanon to the United Nations

 

Pastor Richard and Mrs. Kathleen Hester on the balcony of their apartment in Tripoli, Lebanon, 1960In 1959, God moved a young man and his family from Oklahoma to the Muslim-dominated city of Tripoli, Lebanon, to establish a Gospel-preaching church. Richard Hester wasn’t the first American missionary to go to Lebanon, but he was one of the few who would go to the Muslim area of North Lebanon. Other missionaries thought it was a bad idea, but by moving where few others would go, Brother Hester reached a group of people and influenced a young man who would be used of God to pastor one of the largest independent Baptist churches in Australia.

In the same year Richard Hester moved his family to Lebanon, Bill Zaydan was born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents, George Zaydan and Dalal Saoud-Zaydan. Dalal was head nurse at the Royal Hospital in Kuwait City. George developed property in Lebanon to sell as vacation homes to wealthy Kuwaitis and Lebanese living in Kuwait. He made millions, and the money became his own undoing.

A few years after the Zaydans moved back to Lebanon, Bill’s father began to attract many new friends and habits. Gambling soon drained his considerable wealth, and his new friends blew away with his money. One very early morning when Bill was twelve years old, his father woke him and explained he would be going away on a business trip. Though his father often went on business trips, his mother was crying. Bill knew this time was different.

It was the last time Bill would see his father for the next nine years.

The next year, 1973, brought rumblings of a civil war, but few people were concerned. Skirmishes were a regular occurrence in the country. Families would pack up their belongings, move to Cyprus, Greece, or Turkey for a month, and wait until the dust settled. But the war which broke out in 1975 was like nothing the country had seen in recent memory, and it would forever change the face of Lebanon.

Relations between the nominally Lebanese Christians (majority Maronites, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic) and Lebanese Muslims were friendly before the civil war. Certain regions of the country were heavily skewed toward one religion or the other, but both groups lived as friends and neighbors. This war, however, radicalized both groups. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization with its armed militia supported the Muslims who called for an overthrow of the Christian-controlled government and pitted neighbors against each other. The Lebanese government collapsed, and the Christian and Muslim militias grasped for weapons and supplies from the defunct national military.

Bill’s family, though they lived in a Muslim-controlled area, identified themselves as Christians. Like most other young men his age, Bill was swept up in the fervor of war and joined a militia. At first, the young men from the village were trained at night and on weekends by the Kataeb Regulatory Forces (krf), the largest and oldest political paramilitary force in Lebanon. In the second phase of training, men as young as fourteen were taken to several camps. “We were taken to the high mountains to be joined by Israeli army officers who trained us on land mines and more advanced equipment,” recalled Brother Zaydan.

At the age of sixteen, Bill Zaydan was thrust into the fighting on the streets of Beirut. His younger brother Wally took part in the training, but was not involved in the fighting. The battles for Beirut were terrible—whole neighborhoods were left in ruins. The civil war would stretch on for fifteen years, but Bill’s time in the conflict would come to an end much sooner.

Three months after being thrust into the fighting, two of Bill’s best friends, Michael and Tony, were killed in battle. It was a breaking point. Bill knew he needed God to save him from the war, and more. Though most of those who called themselves Christians in Lebanon were not born again, Bill had been exposed to the Gospel many times. His father’s brother, Pastor Maziad Zaydan, was an independent Free Evangelical pastor who preached the Gospel throughout Lebanon. An American missionary, Richard Hester, planted a church close by the Zaydan’s village and would have Bill’s uncle preach revivals. When Pastor Maziad came to preach, the Zaydans would go to hear his message. Bill also attended the church’s summer Bible camps. Despite all the opportunities, Bill never accepted Christ during his childhood. “I attended many summer camps where I raised my hand for salvation at the end of the meetings, said the sinner’s prayer,” Brother Zaydan said, “but I was not saved.”

“When I cried out to God in the war, God listened to my heart.” While Bill was fighting the war, his uncle Suhail Saoud came to Lebanon and took his sister Dalal (Bill’s mother) and Bill’s younger brother and two sisters to Kuwait. Two months after their departure, Bill eventually was able to contact and join his family, as God gave him passage to Damascus, Syria, and then a flight to Kuwait.

While getting into Kuwait was difficult enough, staying would require a miracle. His mother was readily approved because of her prior work as a nurse in the country, but Bill was considered an adult and had to apply to the country on his own merit. Uncle Sahoud found Bill a sponsor and helped secure a one-month visa, but he would have to go to the immigration department to see if he could stay.

Bill filled out an application at the station, but he was sure it would be rejected—he was a sixteen-year-old war refugee with no professional skills. As he was waiting in line, there was a loud disagreement between the applicant in front of him and the processing officer. Both men left the room, and another employee stepped in to look at Bill’s application. It was obvious the employee didn’t usually do this.

“What do you want?” asked the substitute immigration processor.

“I’m hoping to be able to stay because my mother and siblings are here.”

“Okay, not a problem.” Without any further questions, the employee stamped Bill’s passport. He would be allowed to stay.

The visa approval was just one of a series of miracles that happened that year. After Dalal’s trials of her husband leaving their family and her son’s fate uncertain in the war, she prayed to God for a miracle. While Bill was still fighting in Beirut, his mother was befriended by another nurse, a born-again Christian from India. She shared the Gospel with Mrs. Zaydan, who then accepted Christ as her Saviour. Dalal and her family began attending a house church in Kuwait started by a group of genuine born-again Christians from several Arab countries.

One of the volunteer leaders in the small house church was Brother Farid, a Palestinian engineer who led the youth group. When he met Dalal and heard her son was coming to Kuwait, Farid determined to befriend the young man. He found Bill a job at a friend’s printing press, and would often give him rides to and from work. After Bill had been in Kuwait for about three months, Brother Farid invited him to a Bible study. He enjoyed the Bible study, mostly because he liked Brother Farid, but during the second visit his eternity was changed. The Holy Spirit brought to mind all the false decisions Bill had made. Bill knew he had been running away from God his entire life, but God was chasing him and was giving him one more chance. Bill was scared to death, and he knew he needed to be saved.

When the Bible study was finished, Bill went to Brother Farid and told him he needed to be saved. “There, that night, I said the sinner’s prayer, but it was different from any other time,” said Brother Zaydan. “God changed my life forever from that day.”

Bill’s life was different from then on. When he got home that night, he read the Bible until 4:30 in the morning. Before he was saved, every other word out of his mouth was an expletive. But when he started to say something filthy to his friend the next day, it felt like a dagger was stuck in his heart. He cried and asked God to forgive the sinfulness of his thoughts.

Bill led his brother to the Lord shortly after he was saved. “He saw me every night, reading my Bible. He saw something had changed in my life, and I got to share Christ with him.” Soon after, his sister was also saved.

Mr. Zaydan’s abandonment of his family left Bill bitter for many years, but after he was saved, he wrote his father in Australia to tell him of his changed life. Not long before, his father had discovered that his family was living in Kuwait and applied to the Australian embassy to reunite their family. Nearly nine years after Bill’s father left his family, they were reunited in Melbourne, Australia.

The Zaydan family reunited in 1982“When we came together, it was strange,” recalled Brother Zaydan. In hindsight, he could see his mother was both strongly loyal to her husband and was protective of her children. She would never allow her children to say anything bad about their father in front of her. “He is my husband, the father of my children,” she told those who questioned her, “and it’s no one’s business how long I wait for him.” But this wasn’t the first time Mr. Zaydan had tried to bring his family to Australia. A previous attempt was refused by his wife because he was in the country illegally, and she knew it was a hardship that would put tremendous strain on her family.

In the end, it was the war that allowed their family to be reunited. After it became apparent that many of the Lebanese refugees would not be able to return to their homeland, Australia granted amnesty to all those who had fled Lebanon. Mr. Zaydan was granted permanent residency, and Mrs. Zaydan trusted that God was reuniting her family.

In Melbourne, Bill finished the education for his Information Technology qualification and found a job in Sydney with the company Honeywell. He began looking for a church right away, and discovered through some friends that his Uncle Maziad attended Faith Baptist Church in Sydney. When Bill attended the church, the pastor was none other than Richard Hester, the American missionary who started the Baptist church just fifteen miles away from his home near Tripoli, Lebanon.

The war had forced Pastor Hester to flee like many others. His heart was with the Lebanese people, and he waited for the time he could return to the country. During the war, however, many of the members from Tripoli emigrated to Sydney. They wrote Pastor Hester asking him to come start an Arabic church. After a survey trip, he was moved to start Faith Baptist Church in Sydney.

Bill joined the church and quickly became active in the ministry. God was doing a good work in the young church of war refugees, and He was preparing Bill for a greater purpose. In the early days of the church, about forty members gathered for a missions conference. Pastor Hester preached the message, “The Greatest Need that Mankind Has.” He challenged parents and young people to be servants of God, and Bill knew God was speaking to him. He attended Bible Baptist College in Sydney, graduated in 1985, and became Pastor Hester’s assistant pastor. In 1986, he married Joseline Youssef, a young lady saved through the ministry of the church.

Pastor Zaydan honoring the Hesters in 2011Brother Zaydan learned much from the American missionary who loved the Lebanese people and adopted their culture as his own. “He always says that he loves us and wants to die among us,” Brother Zaydan said of Pastor Hester. For years they labored together until Richard Hester stepped down as pastor, and Brother Zaydan was given the responsibility to lead the church in 1994. Since then, Brother Hester has remained in the church still serving and discipling new families. The church has grown to hundreds of people meeting every week, so much that they recently built a new facility to keep up with the growth. There is excitement in the church, and so many are praying for God’s continued hand on this special congregation.

Bill and Joseline ZaydanBill Zaydan visited Lebanon with his wife after the war in 1998. As they saw their home country in a state of disrepair, they came over a hill and saw children playing in the street near a cemetery. Mrs. Zaydan began to cry, and her husband asked what was wrong.

“That could have been my nephews and nieces. This is the same place where my brother and I used to play,” she said gazing at the children and thinking about what it would have been like living through the war. “How rich is God’s grace!”

Looking across the way, Brother Zaydan motioned toward the cemetery. “And that could have been me.”

How rich God’s grace has been for Pastor Zaydan, and for all those God used to bring him and his family to salvation.