Jessica Morse worked for the United States Agency for International Development for the better part of four years, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Iraq during historical times. In her words: "I was in Iraq for the constitutional referendum. I was there when they voted in their government. I was still there in 2006 for the mosque bombing, which enflamed the insurgency. I left right before the surge." During the interview, she shares how people's lives were transformed, talks of God's powerful protection, and explains how she came out from the war zone "unscathed." She also shares how the Bible helped bring comfort, healing, and inspiration.
Why were you in Iraq?
Initially, I went to Iraq to document foreign aid, to see how individual lives were transformed by US government money. Case by case, it was really impressive. We were able to help pull women out of poverty, put children in school, and provide jobs with USAID funded programs. Next, I launched a program that aimed to build and professionalize the Iraqi civil service.
What types of transformations did you see?
I saw agricultural programs helping people. I watched businessmen, many of whom were displaced refugees, come back and, through our small business grant program, start their own businesses. I saw community centers providing basic resources, including “office” space, so carpenters and sewers and tailors could use their skills to restart industry.
How neat to see lives transformed! You probably had many opportunities to turn to the Bible. Would you share how the Bible helped you?
I used the Bible in different ways. The Bible really helped connect me to local Iraqis. I was there during a difficult time when a lot of people were suffering. We were living in a war zone, and many of my Iraqi colleagues were losing friends and relatives. I found myself comforting people in distress. The beginning of the Bible proved quite helpful as the story of Abraham is the same story in the Koran.
I often cited this story when talking with my colleagues. Hagar had been kicked out (at Sarah's request and to Abraham's remorse) and found herself in the most desperate situation. She was in the desert, the wilderness, thinking her son Ishmael would die; in fact, she put him away from her so she wouldn't have to see him die. And then, God saved them.
In that moment when everything seemed so bleak, God protected them. Ishmael became the father of a great nation, their nation. So I would tell them that these current troubles were "Hagar moments." Although the situation looked grim, God was sending his angels to watch over, save, and preserve each one of us. That story resonated for me and for them and provided comfort.
How else did you use the Bible?
I definitely used it in emergency situations. There was one passage that stuck out to me: "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper" (Isa 54:17 KJV). I had spent three weeks in northern Iraq driving around on business. One day, I was sitting in the car, and I read this passage. It just resonated with me -- the promise of God's protection. I thought about the concept of loving our enemies. The more I prayed, the more I realized that when we love our enemies, we don't have enemies. Since God is powerfully protecting each of us, then nothing can harm us. If nothing can harm us, then we can't have enemies. As a result, no harm can come to us. We're already completely protected by God.
About an hour later, I was in a difficult situation. A suspected car bomb had come into the parking lot where I was. There was cross-fire, and it was all pretty dramatic. But I wasn't afraid, concerned, or apprehensive. Of course, I did what I was supposed to do. When the security person told me to run, I ran. They secured the car. We were all safe. It was such a wonderful testament of the promise I had just read in the Bible. It became a powerful reminder for me in tense situations.
There must have been many tense situations during your time there. How did you respond to living in a war zone?
One of my colleagues had witnessed a pretty horrible thing and was traumatized. I talked with her about the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I found it amazing that before they walk into the fire, the three Hebrews tell Nebuchadnezzar, "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it…. But even if he does not … we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up" (Dan 3:17-18 NIV).
In the midst of such horrible events, it's often tempting to ask the question, "Why does this happen?" How do you correlate what you're seeing -- all the evidence of a destructive war zone -- with God who is a loving and protective God? What this story showed me is that, even if we don't see evidence of God around us, we're still not going to worship anything else; we at least know what God is NOT. It reminded me that I should not waste time and thought trying to understand what God is not. I need to focus my energy on understanding what God IS.
The Hebrew men were not going to worship another god. It looked fairly hopeless, but they emerged without the "smell of fire" (3:27) and with a much more powerful understanding of what God IS.
So when the temptation arises to say, "Why, God?," I've realized that I just need to work harder to understand what God is and how God works. It's no time to throw in the towel. There's a saying that was often used -- "God-willing" -- to explain that whatever happened, even if it was destructive and horrible, was God's will. I found myself constantly contradicting this and knowing that God's will for His children is always good. I was healed of being traumatized. I came out of the war zone unscathed.
That's a powerful testament to God's loving presence! How did the Bible affect your everyday, non-emergency work?
I loved the story of Moses. It emphasized the importance of pausing or stopping to hear and wait on God. When Moses saw the burning bush that wasn't burning, he stopped … and then God talked to him. What if Moses hadn't stopped? Would he have heard God's voice?
This was a good analogy for me. When we stop what we're doing, we can hear and see God. When I was over in Iraq, it was easy to get caught up in the bustle of the intense work environment. So it was a good reminder to stop and acknowledge God, listen, and see evidence of God -- no matter how busy the schedule gets. That's kind of what Moses was doing at the bush: pausing to witness God.
How did you get into this line of work?
I started doing international development as an intern in college, empowering women of Nepal by teaching them how to be trekking guides. It's a great program. Then I worked for Save the Children in Ethiopia. USAID then hired me to work on international relations. I was initially supposed to be a writer. When asked, I told them I was not interested in working in Iraq, but I ended up writing about Iraqi issues and international development work. When the need arose, I filled in for an information officer in Baghdad, which turned into a year, and then turned into four years.
How did you feel to be a part of history?
I feel like I learned really important lessons regarding my career and US foreign policy. As a result, after my return, I worked for the State Department and managed the foreign assistance that we gave to Iraq. That motivated me to go to graduate school and study international security. It was a fascinating experience to be there and to watch history unfold.