Streams in the desert: reflections on Egypt, John 4:1-26 and Isaiah 35:1-3
Before I commence my address I wish to say that I am humbled today by the presence of representatives of the Egyptian Coptic Church. A church that has suffered persecution over nearly two millennia, a church that welcomed me into their country, a church that can teach us a great deal about the God. Ahalan wa sahalan – Shookran gazeelan (Translated from Arabic: you are most welcome, thank you greatly)
The Egyptian Copts say we must worship God in the church, the Muslim in the mosque. It sounds a little bit like the Samaritan woman who asked Jesus “I know the Samaritans believe this and the Jews that, Jesus, which one is right?” Who is right? The Egyptian Christian or the Egyptian Muslim?
Why was it that the hospitality I received in churches in the poorest areas of Egypt was the warmest?
My Egyptian friend John* said ‘This is the first time in history that the Egyptian people have been free’. How is it that this only occurred in 2011?
Why was my wife not able to walk down the streets of Cairo for fear of verbal and physical abuse because of her gender? Something not restricted to pale skinned white women.
How was it that a foreigner in the land of Egypt discovered what tear gas feels like when he was just trying to renew his visa? (It doesn’t taste great – especially as the Egyptian police are using expired surplus US gas currently!)
Why is it that I know what it feels like to teach an African refugee child one day and have them die from malaria the next?
How can an Egyptian hospital refuse to administer saline solution to a woman suffering from food poisoning because she is poor and allow her to die as a result?
My pastor in Egypt, the Anglican Reverend Paul Gordon Chandler wrote the following in his book ‘Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road’
‘“(A culturally Muslim man who follows the teachings of Jesus) once spoke with a Muslim peasant who noted that Jesus was very hospitable – after all, he said, didn’t Jesus make sure there were a lot of leftovers when he fed the 5,000? (The Christ following but culturally Muslim man’s) spontaneous response was to thank this simple, “uneducated” Muslim man for giving him a new perspective on the life of Jesus, as he had never thought about Jesus’ miracle in those terms before.’”
Why was it that even in the most conservative areas in Cairo, I was welcomed to a Mosque?
I was walking down the back streets of Old Cairo with a friend of mine when we were greeted by a local man who invited us to see his mosque. We followed him through narrow streets, markets and goat herds. When we entered, we found the most beautiful mosque I had seen. The interior was littered with lush palm trees and flowers. It was an oasis from the dusty and noisy streets.
At the end of our first year in Cairo working with refugee and Egyptian teachers, pastors and doctors we had not made any progress. The practice of all three groups was the same as it was when we arrived. It felt like all we had done was have an expensive and disappointing holiday. After all, we had left our careers to spend our entire life savings to serve those in need.
Egypt isn’t all about the below photos and you don’t get to ride a Camel at the Pyramids every day.
It looks more like this.
We got back to Australia and saw that a cup of coffee costs what feeding 20 primary school students at my refugee school did. We hear of a looming refugee crises in our country after leaving a country that actually has a refugee crises, as a poor country tries to house perhaps up to 4 million refugees in their borders. I read in the paper the day after Rudd became our Prime Minister again – “Rudd defeats Gillard in bloody coup”. Really?
When we returned to Australia it was just after the second revolution had broken out (It occurred 5 days after we left). Many people talked to us and said one of two things. “Wow, Egypt, that must have been amazing!” As if we had been working as young professionals in London or Paris on a gap year. Or the other, “Gee, you must be glad to be out of there now that the poo has hit the fan and tanks are in the streets again.” Well, perhaps we would be if we didn’t have friends living and working there that may be in increased danger. If we didn’t know that as the Egyptian government refuses to fulfil its UN obligations, every time the country becomes unstable, key workers with the refugee and the poor leave, and they are left alone.
People said “It is great that you are home and I’m sure God has things in control.” Yes he does. He is God after all but what I do know is when I arrived at my school we had 6 volunteers doing hours at the school in crucial roles. Now I know there are 2 and there haven’t been any refugees able to fill those roles.
God may have things under control but I know what is happening to refugees on the street. I know the fear that the Christian community feels in Egypt right now. I know the problems of the Egyptian families who want education, employment, healthcare and a fair justice system. This is being denied to them.
In Egypt there are those who, despite all, keep going. James* was our ever patient and wonderful Arabic teacher. His family is Coptic. When I told him what I was doing in Egypt, he insisted he come and help translate at the refugee Bible college. James had an interesting time in university. Due to corruption, his professor of English had a PhD but could not speak and write English. As a result, the exercises and assignments James had to complete were flawed. James was required to write incorrect English in order to pass in this professor’s class. James passed with distinction after spending endless hours figuring out exactly what elements of English the professor had incorrect and reproducing those mistakes in his work. In order to make sure he knew English, James watched every English language film he could find and read every book in English he could find. His English is extraordinary. A month ago, through Facebook I learnt his brother was killed. Egyptians fear that their internet is being monitored and thus don’t write some things online so James has not told me the full story. I suspect the death of James’ brother was not accidental.
My friend John’* is a travel guide. He speaks fluent English, German and French. He wanted to learn more about God and attended my lectures at Bible college. They say that the tourism industry in Egypt since the revolution has diminished to 10% of what is used to be. In Aswan, deep in the south of Egypt, a tourist hotspot, hotel vacancy runs at 96%. John now struggles to support himself and his hopes of getting married are gone.
Michael was my trusty driver whenever I needed one. He now drives a taxi to support his family after the foreign company he worked for pulled out due to security concerns.
My friend Paul* is an Egyptian man who I met in Adelaide before we left. My wife and I were invited to his wedding in Assuit as honoured guests. Paul fled persecution in Egypt and is now trying to get his family out to save them from the Muslim – Christian tensions in unpoliced upper Egypt.
My leadership team at the refugee school consisted of a Ugandan, a Congolese, and two Sudanese. They helped me run a school on an annual budget of 100K. On this we educated 550 kids and paid 50 staff. Over 20 African nations are represented in the student body. Two of my most favourite people, mama Helen and Aida managed to feed 550 people (plus visitors) each day on $50. As an Australian I hate class and position. Helen and Aida took great pride in bringing me a lunch every day and refusing them hurt them greatly. They took great pride knowing that they were looking after the principal of the school that educated their children.
Australia has a refugee problem? Egypt has a population of perhaps 87 million and is probably hosting another 4 million refugees from across Africa and the Middle East. I have no official and public position on refugees in Australia but I will say that perspective is important.
Below is a photo I took of the Nile in Aswan and I find it so poignant. You see a blue river, a small amount of greenery and stretches of desert beyond. In this case, it runs uninterrupted for hundreds of kilometres until it hits the Libyan border.
From Isaiah we read ‘The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy, they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.’ (35:1-3)
Streams in the desert – just like this picture. After my experience in Cairo I am not optimistic – but I am hopeful. They are two different things. In this picture there is some greenery, some growth, but not a lush forest.
As Christians we know where this hopefulness comes from – from the water provide by Christ whose service to others brought forgiveness, mercy, justice and compassion. It is a water that never leaves us thirsty.
And this is what gives me a reason to keep doing what I am doing now as a principal of a Lutheran school in the Western suburbs of Melbourne when everything else in the world is telling me to stop. This is God’s business – bringing hope to the hopeless. Bringing meaning to the meaningless. Life to the desert. Of giving me, a returned and worn out missionary, purpose, comfort and direction. And God does this, not through focussing me inward but focussing me outward – calling me to share God’s water with the world. To help the Samaritan, the Egyptian, the Australian – so that all know where hope comes from.
The left are pictures of the cave church in Cairo. Some Christians moved to Cairo to escape persecution and live on the rubbish tip. They live by recycling the refuse of the city and cause Cairo to have the highest recycling rate in the world. Building a church in Egypt is illegal (still) but they overcame this by carving churches into the hills above the tip. Here up to 100,000 people gather to pray for Egypt and the world. Pray for these Christians who worship in truth, they are called the Zabbaladeen – the rubbish people.
The photo below is of an evangelical church in upper Egypt– in a place no longer safe to travel to. Actually, it wasn’t safe when I travelled there I just didn’t tell my mother! I was asked to come and teach them. In Egypt you are either Muslim of the Sunni variety, Coptic Christian or Catholic. If you are outside of these groups you are in trouble. These young people are hated by Muslim, Coptic and Catholic alike. They have no pastors and no teachers. I have not met a group of people so dedicated to worshipping God and serving others. As they have no pastors, they saw me as their ‘abuna’, their spiritual father and were desperate for counsel. I sat and listened as person after person came to me with their precious stories. Please pray for them.
Please pray for the millions of refugees in Egypt for now they are Egyptian, pray for my Arabic teacher James and his grieving family, pray for Paul and his family who need protection, pray for the young Christians in Egypt wanting to diligently serve God. Pray that the thirsty would be thirsty no more.
My wife and I visited Mt Sinai on the Sinai peninsula. We climbed up from the parched desert floor but got lost. We didn’t see the sunrise from Sinai – we saw it from half way but we sat and drank tea beside the sign below.
Help for the needy. Please pray for the needy. Please not only pray, put seek to support those who work to build gushing rivers in Egypt.
Yabarakoo Allah (God bless you all)
*Name changed to protect identity