It’s apparent that no matter where you go on this earth, its occupants are relatively similar. People are people, and few know this better than Jeremy and Jessica Courtney. As we shared Chinese food at a restaurant in Northern Iraq it became clear that these Texans relocated to the region because of their genuine love of people. The Courtneys have a unique ability to look past the fear and cultural stigmas that would prevent most from seeing likeness in another.
Jeremy and Jessica run Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), an organization dedicated to combatting fear with acts of love. After moving to Iraq in 2007, they founded PLC to provide life-saving heart surgeries to children impacted by violence and war. (The organization’s motto is “Healing hearts across enemy lines—starting with our own.”) In the wake of ISIS’ terror, PLC began administering emergency relief and aid to displaced Iraqi families. Now a global movement of peacemakers, Preemptive Love Coalition transforms conflict into opportunities for reconciliation. By building bridges and seeking reconciliation in one of the world’s most difficult places, Jeremy and Jessica Courtney teach us what it means to love first, and to love anyway.
How and why did you end up in Iraq?
Jeremy: September 11th . Jessica and I were at a point in our lives where we questioned everything: we were right out of college, in a new marriage, in new professional opportunities, and starting graduate school. Then [the terrorist attacks of] September 11th happened, and we started to ask big questions like, “What kind of people do we want to be?” and “What will move us?” We’re both from Texas…and in Texas, we were confronted with two types of people: the “retaliators” (those who favored bombing Afghanistan into a parking lot); then a smaller minority that started to ponder the idea of “love.” Our church community started to ask even harder questions like, “What would it look like to really love our enemies and respond like Jesus?”
[At a time when] Muslims in America were being discriminated against because of their looks or clothing, we began to turn our face towards the Middle East, where these “enemies” lived. Our feet followed upon learning more about poverty, globalization, and American imperialism. Our first move was to Turkey, which seemed radical to our friends back home. We found that it was actually pretty Western and democratic. Istanbul eventually became our launchpad as the Iraq war started to take place in our own backyard. As we watched Iraq fall into utter chaos, we began hearing horror stories of bloodletting. There was a lot of displacement going on and Christians, Kurds, and Arabs were fleeing Iraq. We watched this conflict start playing out and it wasn’t a world away anymore. It slowly started to hit us in a way that compelled us to want to be a part of it. Since we were already in the neighborhood, regionally speaking, it wasn’t that much of a mental or emotional leap of faith to cross one more border. We moved out of the desire to dare to see if we could make a difference by loving our enemies.
How has living and raising children in Iraq shifted your perception of the country?
Jessica: From the beginning, we had the desire to love people: to be with those who had been harmed by both civil and American wars. It was impossible to not go. There had been so much war and so much brokenness. I think we changed in the process—in the moving here, in the sitting and the listening. It changed us. It also changed our American friends. People continue to say, “Why would you want to take your kids to a place like that?” But looking back on ten years, seeing the people [our kids] have become, I’m so grateful that they have had this opportunity to dwell and really know the faces of the Iraqis.
Jeremy: Iraq is a country full of beautiful people that have been subjected to violence for a really long time. As an American, if you want to step into a place like Iraq in a way that honors the people and does right by them, you have to let go of this idea that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys—a perspective my family has had to wrestle with. The next step is to realize that even as you begin to serve the people of Iraq, the simple paradigm of “good guy versus bad guy” just doesn’t work.
If you’re trying to come in from the outside, you can’t assume the mentality that your people are the heroes coming to save the day, and at the same time do right by the people that you’re trying to serve. That will inherently lead to an aborted kind of effort. You have to come in with a humility that says, “I’m here to listen, and I’m here to learn.” Not, “I’m here to solve problems.”
What is the hardest thing that your family has faced in the past ten years?
Jeremy: A very acute betrayal from inside our closest friendship here in Iraq, with a local guy. The man was so close; we called him “brother,” my kids called him “uncle,” for many years. He protected us and cared for us, and simultaneously seemed to also be working against us. A series of events resulted in him feeling threatened, losing his cool, and conspiring against us. He ultimately attacked us. We were both arrested; I was put in jail. He broke into our home, stole our truck, and turned the government against us. He brought legal accusations of harboring and engaging in terrorism and human trafficking. We were followed, our lives threatened, our passports confiscated, and we faced a possible deportation. All these troubles came from our “friend.” After it all unfolded, we lived out of a place of fear and paranoia for so long afterwards; it was by far the hardest season of our life here.
Jessica: And the kids knew about most of it. They still very much love that man and his family. They often ask, “When will things ever get better?” They still long for closure. Just a few weeks ago my daughter said, “Mommy, I wonder what it would be like to see this guy again,” and I said, “Yeah, I think about that a lot too. If you did see him what do you think you would do?” She said, “I don’t know, maybe I would just turn around and walk away or maybe I would just hug him.” Even as terrible as it was and all he did against us, there’s a part of [the kids] that longs for reconciliation and seeks to forgive him. I don’t think that would be possible if they didn’t grow up here, if we lived our life in any other way. They understand that a person can do bad things and not ultimately be a completely terrible person. That’s made it easier for them to accept that he made a bad decision, and they can still have hope that there’s still something good that could come out of it.
Do you think your children would be different had they been raised in the States?
Jessica: In most neighborhoods and communities in America, everyone is so similar. It can become like a fishbowl where everyone is echoing what the other one is saying. I think my kids have been fortunate—they have gotten to see the way different people live around the world. People from all different cultures live here, and my kids have to decide for themselves, in their hearts and in their minds, what they are going to think about them.
It seems that your God is a more of a “daring to love” God as opposed to the “how do I get saved?” God that many Americans worship. I imagine our readers hearing your story and wondering if they too should move to Iraq to experience this daring, loving God.
Jessica: Yes, everyone could move to Iraq…technically. But I think what we have experienced here can be experienced in America. We do have different cultures in America, but you have to be willing to walk out of your culture in order to engage another culture. We must decide to go out into a new community, then meet and accept people who are different from us. We cannot be afraid of how it will affect our family or how it might change our children. So often in America, we want to raise our children behind fences—to make sure they become exactly how we envisioned. Yet, if we give them the opportunity to meet other people, to hear from other cultures, to hear other ideas…they will become more of the person who God wants them to be.
Your journey in Iraq started with a “yes.” That is a powerful idea because we are all challenged with the idea of failure; it’s more comfortable to just say, “no.” After all this time, do you still say yes?
Jeremy: The more you have to lose the more you start saying “no.” The more institutionalized you become, the more you start relying on systems, processes, and teams. When we started Preemptive Love, we became more responsible for other people and it’s harder to keep that founding ethos of saying “yes” like we did when we were nothing and had nothing to lose. No, we don’t always say “yes.” But there’s something really pure, beautiful, and naive about those founding days of the organization and our family that we never want to lose. In some ways we’re always sort of reaching back to the past trying to make sure that we don’t lose sight of that kernel of kindness that got us started on this journey in the first place.
What would you say is the best move for America going forward?
Jeremy: To give a perspective from our good Muslim friends, “America should become known again for delivering medicine, food, education, development, kindness, love, compassion and charity to people all over the world.” Airdrops instead of airstrikes: that is at least something no one here can fault America for.
So, the best move for the face of America? Currently, we know that food is not getting to fifty thousand Fallujah women and children. The American government would say, “Well, they’re all ISIS anyway.” If they are in Fallujah they may be moms of ISIS or they may be babies of ISIS. We are saying, “They are still people.” Can we dare to feed [them]? People are starving to death because of some arrangement with ISIS and their government. I ask, as a man with a wife and kids, what would I want American aid to look like? I would want them to come in and feed me. I would want someone to dare undertaking an airdrop of food—so that even if ISIS might get the food, there is a possibility we could get the food as well. Finally, I’d wonder, “Who is going to break the flow of violence?” “Who is going to absorb the violence into themselves and not reciprocate it onto others?” That’s the raw Jesus story.
How would you advise us as Christians in the Western world to reach out to our Iraqi brothers and sisters who have gone through so much—not only persecution—but fleeing and trying to figure out life in a different country?
Jeremy: I think the key for a lot of us is acknowledging our fears. American society right now seems to be very polarized along the lines of fear. The things that we are afraid of most seem to drive a lot of our politics and a lot of our church affiliations. We are divided along the lines of what we don’t want to see happen, and not asking what kind of people we want to be. Fears such as terrorism and immigration: “What if they come and take my job?” “What if they blow up my family?” “What if they cut my head off?” “I don’t want to befriend a Muslim and find out that they were lying to me all along and kidnap, or possibly, kill me?” We should list our fears; we should know them. Then we have to make a commitment to be the kind of people who will love anyway. To love first: embark on a preemptive love, where you say, “I’m going to love you before you do anything to love me.”
In America, we’re not really encouraged to walk toward the danger. We’re encouraged to run away from our fears, and we’re certainly not encouraged to dare to love in the hardest places.
In Iraq, we have fears and we are afraid fairly regularly. Yet, we’ve decided we want to be the kind of people who look at our fears and enemies and decide to love anyway.
To support the efforts of PLC in Iraq, visit preemptivelove.org.
This interview appears in Nations Journal Vol. 2. For more interviews and stories like this, order your copy today.