In War-Torn West Beirut American James Ragland Stands By His Troubled School
By Mary Davis Suro, People Magazine, July 1982
While searching for some documentation to keep ICE off my back, should it come to that (birth certificates from 60+ years ago hide themselves well), my wife came across two pages torn from a July 1982 issue of People Magazine. Mouseitbe was the neighborhood where I grew up, and while I never regarded it as a “Palestinian stronghold of West Beirut”, maybe it became that after I left in 1974. July 1982 was the month and year Sherry and I were married. Somehow, my mom and dad managed to make it to the wedding (an armed convoy escort to the airport was involved). Here is a side of their Beirut I never experienced. My memories are gauzy, idealized fantasies of what once was, and will never again be. For the people who lived through this, ugly scars remain. The ghosts of this war have never stopped haunting the living, including my now 95-year old father. Including old friends who cannot let time bury old grievances — and there were many — even after nearly 30 years. Here then, is a snapshot in time of the hell my parents lived through. It is imperfect, as were they. I have taken the liberty to correct some spelling and a few factual errors, but this is the article and photographs as they appeared, once upon a time…
— Monsieur Jacques d’Nalgar, 16 avril 2020 de l’ère commune
In the Palestinian stronghold of West Beirut, the streets of the Mouseitbe 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 guerillas according to their 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 Mouseitbe a frightening place for a child. Now it is a nightmare.
For the past 27 years the children of Mouseitbe 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 anti-aircraft 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 doctors and nurses, Ragland has transformed the school into a clinic for the wounded and a shelter for some 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 was apparently 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 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, Oklahoma, the son of schoolteachers, Ragland earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma [Jacques: actually, it was arch-rival Oklahoma State University, probably still known then as Oklahoma A&M — he later earned a PhD 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 with his wife, Leola, and their first two children, James, now 33, and Rebecca, 31. Their younger kids, Jacques, 26, and Stephen, 23, were born in Beirut. [Jacques: I was the only child born in Beirut, my younger brother was born, I think, in Fort Worth.] 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 [Jacques: I went back for a final visit during the summer of 1978], 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.”
All photos scanned and modified from the original article. The first photo is credited to Laurent Maous (Gamma-Liaison), and the other two are credited to Robin Moyer, with this caption:
“Only when you see war on a personal level do you realize the horror,” says Ragland. Above, he finds a moment for contemplation in the school chapel.
Postscript (18 avril 2020 de l’ère commune) — a July 26, 1982 letter in response to the article above:
As a veteran of two wars whose military career spanned more than 21 years, I considered myself inured to the suffering of noncombatants on the battlefield as well as to the anguish and futility to be seen in their faces. I was wrong. Your picture of a gaunt and tormented James Ragland, the Baptist missionary in Beirut, made me do something I thought I had forgotten how to do. It made me cry.
Lt. Col. Hellmut Meyer, Ret.
Pacific Grove, Calif.
My father was abducted from our home in June of 1986. Mother decided that Burhan and I should leave to Canada. As word came to Dr and Mrs Ragland that we were leaving, they decided to come and pay us a visit to say their goodbyes along with dear Ms Wingo. At the time, friends were scared to come and see us in our apartment as abductions were very prevalent in our area. But not our dear principal and his wife. At the end of their visit, we asked Dr Ragland to say a prayer for our dad and the family and he kindly did. I shall never forget his kind words. Thank you for your contributions in our lives, Dr and Mrs Ragland.
Thank you for your comment Alhan. Your brother Burhan and I have become online friends over the years (some of his wonderful calligraphy is here on Levantium) and he has told me not only the tragic story of your father, but also your fascinating family connections with the Baha’i faith. I have seen photographs of your grandfather! Thanks again for writing.