Former Beirut Hostage Father Lawrence Jenco: ‘We Must Learn to Forgive’
“In that critical situation,” said Father Jenco, “I was speaking to God about his goodness and his beauty.”
Servite Father Lawrence Martin Jenco (1934-1996) was kidnapped in Beirut on Jan. 8, 1985, where he had been acting as Director of Catholic Relief Services. For 564 days he endured harsh treatment as he was held captive by members of the Islamic Jihad. During an interview at the Catholic Center of the University of Southern California where he served as director in the years before his death, Father related his experiences in his book Bound to Forgive:
Why were you in Lebanon?
I had been working in Thailand with Catholic Relief Services, when in 1984, I was asked to go to Lebanon. CRS had been there since 1976, supplying clothing and medical assistance, as well as crisis situation assistance. We changed later into a different program of reconstructing many of the private institutions that had been either destroyed or damaged during warring years, such as hospitals, schools, vocational training institutes, orphanages and homes for the elderly.
I was stationed in West Beirut on what they called the Muslim side. The East Side was predominantly Christian, although there were Christians on the West Side as well. We were on the West Side as we were there to serve the poorest of the poor, many of whom are the people of Islam.
The CRS staff was Muslim and Christian, as well as one American, a Sister of Notre Dame. We all worked well together; it’s too bad Lebanon couldn’t work as well as our office worked.
What was Lebanon like?
When I arrived in 1984, it looked as if all the initiatives towards peace were taking root. The government was functioning for the first time in many years. But, several months later all those beautiful things that I had experienced, the peace initiatives that I thought had taken root, were being destroyed nightly by tremendous violence that would come upon the city between the East and the West.
What were you doing the day before you were kidnapped?
I was getting some signals from my own body that things were not okay. So, I went to the doctor and he suggested that I go home. He said he’d call me later that evening. He wanted to see me the next morning.
And, what happened the day of your kidnap?
That morning, I got up, celebrated Mass, and waited for my driver to arrive. He came by at 7:30 a.m. I got into the car and began reviewing notes. I was in the front seat for a minute when I turned to the right and saw four policemen standing there talking to each other. And, the owner of the grocery store was standing at the corner in his white apron directing the traffic. It just didn’t make sense. Why was the grocer directing traffic?
And then, all of a sudden, this tremendous violence was coming down on me. Men with machine guns were rushing towards my car. I turned to my river and said, “I’m going to be kidnapped.” Within seconds, I was in the back seat, and then the trunk. While in the trunk, my first thought was death. I used to teach a course on death and dying. I can recall telling God I don’t have the luxury now to go through those stages as one comes to the final stage, which is acceptance of one’s own death.
I thought in dying I would be thinking about sin, and my own sinfulness, and asking God to forgive me. But, in that critical situation, I was speaking to God about his goodness and his beauty.
What were the conditions of your imprisonment?
In my first prison I was chained to a radiator by my foot. Being chained to a radiator and having no control over one’s life was an experience. I had to tell God something because you have a sense of being an animal. You have no control of your life. And, I was telling God that I’m not an animal. I’m a person with dignity and love. I do have a destiny.
What did you do each day?
From day one, I had no glasses and nothing to read. I would try to recall the words of the Gospels as best I could. Then, I would take a piece of Arabic bread and celebrate the Eucharist. The two great nourishments are the nourishment of God’s word and the nourishment of God’s table.
Then I prayed my own litany of the saints. Most of them, my saints, are those who touched my life, like my mother and father, the Servites, so many people. I didn’t exclude other saints, but these are the ones I really touched upon. Later, when I was put into a cell with the Reverend Ben Weir, he became my third nourishment. He had a Bible and glasses. We prayed together.
Did you go through any spiritual stages?
I was surprised. Utter trust. At one point, I said to God, “When you decide for me to go home, I’ll go home.” And I left it. It wasn’t easy. There were times when I used to complain to God. In the dying process there is a whole bargaining process. “If I get out, I’ll …” I realized that I couldn’t bargain with God.
What sort of relationship did you have with your captors?
It varied. The first day I was stripped of my belongings. I was wearing a cross that was given to me by a Servite Brother. I treasured it greatly because it came from the Holy Land, from Jerusalem. They took it off and they never gave it back. I reflect upon that. The beautiful thing about it is that on the eve of my release the young guard that I was with me gave me a cross. It was an amazing gift. I often wonder what the first cross is all about. And what the new cross will bring me.
I looked into the eyes of hate for the first time when a young guard said to me, “You’re dead.” But, that young man stood behind me on the day of my release and massaged my shoulders. It was not a touch of violence. It was a touch of love. Another guard gave me his prayer beads form around his neck. I wore them for the rest of my stay.
What is your message for the Christian community?
Forgiveness. We must learn to forgive. And, the basic message of Jesus: Love God, love one another.