Grace Presbyterian pastor Joanne Sizoo says she is headed toward a calling in Iraq

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comJanuary 21, 2014 

Pastor Joanne Sizoo of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill will leave Jan. 25 for a mission in Iraq.

JEFF SOCHKO — news@fortmilltimes.com

— 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 Hwy. 160 West. She’s been there five years and ministers to about 400 members. She’s been on mission trips to South America. She’s delivered sermons on listening to God and obeying.

In the middle of 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 to back the decision.

By the time the presbytery emailed that 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. Sizoo soon was exchanging email with a congregation in Baghdad, one she can’t name or say much about for security reasons.

A decision was made, and finalized Christmas Eve, for her to visit with 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.

Christianity isn’t always seen in Iraq – a country known for its Muslim population – in as friendly terms as it is here, she said. Sizoo 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,” she said. “This feels more like call than desire.”

The plane leaves Saturday.

Is it safe?

Ron Popp buys food Thursdays, gives it away Fridays.

Popp leads a team at Grace Presbyterian whose mission field sits across the street; the team volunteers to serve free Friday meals at the Community Café, hosted by Fort Mill’s Lake Wylie Lutheran Church.

Popp 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 PCUSA personnel in Iraq to familiarize children here and there with life in each others’ countries. Videos will be made. A collection for Iraq will be part of VBS this year.

With all the possible partnerships, Forrest said she was elated to hear Sizoo would go to Iraq. “I’m so glad that she’s going, because I was worried that God was going to make me go,” Forrest said.

Sizoo said she’s only seen Iraq through reports during wartime, too, so she understands the most common reaction among members. As of last week, she hadn’t formally addressed the trip with the entire congregation.

Members made prayer bookmarks Sunday for Iraqis. “Certainly the response has been concern for me,” Sizoo said.

A small group including Sizoo 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 PCUSA personnel and host church leaders in another, relatively safer, area of the country.

She’s learned what to wear and when. She’ll be particular about covering knees and shoulders.

Sizoo doesn’t use clergy shirts, but ministers there do, so she bought one. As 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. She thinks about the common perception of Iraqis here – Muslim, perhaps terrorist, war-ravaged. She wonders what the perception of Americans there is.

Sizoo wants to be part of putting faces to people in 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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