September 11, 2001: the date alone generates strong reactions — whether of fear, patriotism, hatred or grief — in the minds of nearly all Americans. Fifteen years after the event itself, amid a war on terror and the current fight against ISIS, it’s clear that 9/11 was a pivotal moment for the United States of America.
For development worker, Baylor grad and recent Wheaton chapel speaker Jeremy Courtney, however, Sept. 11 was more just than a national or historical turning point. It was also a personal crossroads.
“After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, our country became extremely polarized in how we thought about our Muslim neighbors,” Courtney told The Record.
“While I still had a lot to do personally in this regard, … I think the conflict itself and wanting to swim upstream against that conflict, bigotry, hatred, drew me to the Middle East in an effort to create something different, to bring something more beautiful.”
What did that “something more beautiful” look like? At first, it looked like Courtney and his wife moving to Turkey to do mission work, where they stayed for three years. Today, it takes the form of the Preemptive Love Coalition.
Founded in 2007 by Courtney and his wife Jessica, the Preemptive Love Coalition fosters peace and growth in places of conflict and destruction through programs which provide medical care, business grants, food and other supplies to people in conflict zones across the Middle East.
PLC’s roots came from Courtney’s objection to the mindset that permeated the nation after the September 11 attacks, one that he characterized as “either you’re with us or against us.” It was in that context of a “scared and fearful” post-9/11 U.S. that he began asking questions.
“Does following Jesus have anything to say to this? Does Jesus saying ‘love your enemies’ have anything to say to this moment?” Courtney wondered. “What if we’re not supposed to be the preemptive war coalition — what if the way of Jesus is actually the preemptive love coalition?” This became the inspiration behind PLC.
Today, PLC operates 11 aid centers in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Iran. The emergence of ISIS in 2014 shifted the organization’s focus from emergency medical surgeries to holistic community development as it tried to provide for the millions of people displaced by ISIS violence who “landed on [their] doorstep in need of food and water and shelter and clothing and every imaginable human thing that people need to stay alive,” Courtney said.
Their model is simple, yet highly transformative for the violent setting in which PLC works.
“Instead of running away from violence, we run towards the violence,” Courtney said. “[We] serve the communities and stick with them to the point where they’re standing on their own feet. We’re not giving handouts; we’re giving economic empowerment grants so they can pay their own rent, put food on their own tables, and get their kids back in school.”
As ISIS continues its fight for an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria — or, more closely translated, an Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, which includes the entire Middle Eastern Levant region — PLC is in the middle of a battle that the whole world is watching.
“A lot of the other aid organizations left years ago,” Courtney said. “We’re here and nobody else is.”
PLC’s goal of serving people in conflict zones where no one else dares to go includes Mosul, Iraq, where Iraqi and Kurdish military units are currently trying to dislodge the ISIS forces which have controlled the city since 2014.
“We are tracking the military, embedded with [them] as they liberate town by town, village by village on their way to Mosul’s city center,” Courtney said. “Every time they liberate a village, we’re doing our best to get to that village and serve the people who are fleeing the violence.”
The nature of PLC’s mission puts those who adhere to it into situations of real, immediate danger. This past June, PLC made national news when two of their trucks, stocked with 100,000 pounds of food for Iraqis fleeing ISIS in the city of Fallujah, fell under the fire of U.S. bombs as they launched airstrikes on nearby ISIS convoys. In Kirkuk, Iraq, just last week, several Iraqi college students supported by PLC lived through an ISIS attack on the city, some students hiding beneath their beds as ISIS officers sat on top in order to survive.
Though no one was harmed in either situation, the Fallujah and Kirkuk stories are simply snapshots of the immense force of the violence against which Courtney and PLC work every day. This is the setting into which the organization seeks to introduce open understanding and love as a model for peace in the face of terror.
Courtney seeks to foster open, informed conversation as a path to peace and change in the Middle East. Muslims, he emphasizes, are not “inherently allergic” to talking about Christianity in the way that many Americans believe they are. “Nothing could be farther from the truth,” he said. Courtney sees receptive, neighborly discussion as integral to the mission of PLC and to his own role as a Christian in the Middle East.
“I think the issue is not whether or not we’re talking about our faith but how we’re talking about our faith,” Courtney said. “It’s whether we hold space for [Muslims] to talk about their faith and have the capacity to do that in a respectful way that really honors one another and doesn’t come to the table with a kind of self-righteousness that’s off-putting and offensive.”
While PLC is not a missionary organization, Courtney calls it a distinctively “faith-based” one. His own Christian faith informs the work that he does, yet different faiths inform the work that others at Preemptive Love do alongside him. To Courtney, this is all part of an “arms-open approach” which aims for growth rather than destruction or division.
“We encourage everyone to bring their whole self, including all their faith beliefs, to the table … so that we can have a robust, respectful place to inform one another and shape one another,” Courtney said.
This begs the question: in a place where violent combat is far more visible than tolerant exchange, what has been the response to this model?
Loving preemptively, according to Courtney, is about loving in the face of any reaction rather than in order to beget a certain response.
“The act of incarnation is more about me emptying myself than about them receiving that emptying,” he said. “Jesus actually gets killed in the act of emptying himself. He is fully rejected in his act of trying to love the other, and we don’t call that failure.”
From Courtney’s arrival in Turkey as a mission worker to his work today as the president of PLC, his understanding of “missions” has evolved significantly. Preemptive love, for Courtney and those who work alongside him, is more than a name for an organization: it is a posture of life which characterizes the way in which all human beings are viewed — including himself.
“I came into the Middle East subconsciously believing that if I could just line up the pieces correctly, if I could just learn the language more fully or say the right things, that I would be able to change the human heart,” Courtney said. “I’ve relinquished the idea that it’s my job to change the human heart. … [Instead], it’s about loving others out of a posture of humility with this thing we call preemptive love, and trusting change to God.”