Driver-for-hire Affir “Raffi” Hovhanessian heads north out of Beirut and follows the coast, past shirtless men casting their lines into the Mediterranean. Raffi is taking visitors to Byblos, an ancient city that’s been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. He takes pride in showing off points of interest like this across Lebanon.
Raffi spends most of his time chauffeuring, yet it was never his intended career. He owned a successful toy store in Lebanon until his ailing mother became really sick. When Raffi paid for her medical care, he lost everything and had to close the business.
That led to sitting around the house and falling into depression. Aware of Raffi’s love of driving, a friend pointed him to a local taxi company seeking drivers. Raffi, who speaks four languages, easily got the job.
One day, the office received a request for an English-speaking driver, Raffi was the only one qualified. So his boss dispatched him to the airport, where he picked up a church planter newly relocated from the U.S. The passenger—Matt Hattabaugh—turned out to be a friendly and curious customer. The men connected on that ride, and Hattabaugh, asking for Raffi’s phone number, suggested, “Let’s talk more.”
As the two became friends, Raffi would share about his Armenian heritage, and Hattabaugh would discuss the Bible and the Holy Land. Initially hired to take the church planter’s team out into the remote Beqaa Valley, Raffi eventually joined the volunteer efforts there to aid struggling Lebanese and Syrian refugees. This included spiritual help in the form of In Touch Messengers.
At a church service, Raffi witnessed something eye-opening: He saw a sick woman healed and immediately understood it had happened only because Jesus is the Son of God. Raffi repented and prayed for salvation.
The move was costly. Family members didn’t understand the decision. A prominent Armenian political party, in which Raffi was heavily involved, turned its back on him. For a time, many friends abandoned him.
Eventually Raffi realized that had he not suffered the devastating loss of his business, he might never have met either Hattabaugh or, possibly, the Lord Himself. Now, Raffi has started his own driving service. This not only provides the opportunity to show his country’s beauty to guests from around the world but is also helping him inch closer to being debt-free. And some of his relationships are mending, with former friends showing a willingness to listen as he shares the gospel.
Following two years of growth in the Lord, Raffi was invited back to the Beqaa Valley church, not as a driver but to preach his first sermon. As he prepared to give the message “Jesus as Friend,” nervousness mounted. Raffi walked to the front, stood at the pulpit, and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw Hattabaugh sitting in the front row, smiling. Raffi relaxed and began telling the people how Jesus found and befriended him right when he needed it most.
Photography by Ben Rollins