An article I wrote back in May about my wonderful school here in Melbourne.
Category Archives: Articles, Presentations and Sermons
What follows is my address given at the Sunshine Christian School Graduation Service on Thursday 10th December 2015.
What a year it has been. So much has happened. So much has been taught. And let’s be honest, so much has probably been forgotten too!
To the parents of our graduating grade 6 class, I’m sure it feels like only yesterday you saw your child walk through our front gate for the first time. To our parents that brought their children to us in Prep at the start of the year, your child is only 6 years away from this evening. The advice I’m sure the parents of our graduating class would give you is this: “cherish these days for they will not last forever.”
This is the third time I have stood before our community at our graduation service and I thank God for the privilege and honour of serving this community. I thank the staff, parents, council and students for their continued support. A successful school is built on the strong relationship between students, parents and staff. We are indeed blessed by the richness of the relationships in our community.
I would like to particularly acknowledge the parents who volunteered with us this year. Whether it was leading a craft group, helping with garden club, hearing students read, covering books, making costumes, helping with events and excursions, assisting at morning teas, prep transition days, mother day and father’s day stall – your work has had a wonderful impact on our community and I thank you for this service. The school will hold be a special event for our volunteer parents early next year to acknowledge their service. Can we please acknowledge our parent volunteers with applause.
The school has experienced yet another successful year. Camps to Weekaway and Ballarat were wonderful. Music has been learnt and our walls have groaned from wonderful art. We have run and jumped our way through PE. We have read book after book. We have done sum after sum. We have programmed Bee-Bots. We have all experienced success and explored our God given gifts. There have been successes for all of us.
Tonight is a joyous occasion but also one that brings a small measure of sadness. In addition to farewelling out Grade 6 class, we say goodbye to other families as they moving out of the region. To the families leaving us this year, we wish you God’s richest blessings as you settle into new homes and schools. Thank you for blessing us with your time in our community.
And so, the time comes for the Principal to offer a few words of advice to the young men and women of the Grade 6 class.
On my desk, underneath a pile of paperwork, next to the Lego models, next to the ‘Mr Happy’ coffee cup and behind the book I’m currently reading, you will find a poem written by William Henley titled ‘Invictus’. Some of the parents here may know this poem quite well through being forced to study it at High School perhaps.
I will not read the entire poem, but will offer two verses:
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Grade 6, you are old enough to know now that life is not always a pleasant road. The marks you have received this year have come not from sitting around but from diligent, and hard work. The relationships you have with your fellow classmates, I know full well, came with their fair share of arguments, hurtful statements and needed forgiveness.
The poem I read reminds me of one of Mrs Klammer’s favourite things – the ocean. I too have a great love for the ocean and for the skies too. Humankind seems to have the land under our control but try as we might, the power of the wind and the waves cannot be controlled by human hands. The ocean is a constant reminder that God is indeed sovereign and in control.
The poem finishes with the line, “I am the captain of my ship, the master of my soul. “
The temptation of young people is to believe that they alone have the power to control the destiny of their life. I speak from experience – I too was young once. Perhaps some of you know already that you may be the captain of your ship, but the ocean you sail on and the wind that rages, are beyond your control.
We all sail a ship on God’s ocean, blown by a wind of God’s making. He was the one who crafted your ship – a ship that contains the special gifts and talents that you have. Your ship is like no other on the ocean because God made you unique, special and precious.
As you leave our little community, don’t go sailing alone. Sail in the knowledge that your friends, family and God, sail with you and will support you.
As our reading from Philippians reminds us “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Isaiah tells us today “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defence he has become my salvation.”
Be the captain of your ship. Have great courage. There is a large world out there that needs people who care deeply about others. Go where God needs his people to work. Do not choose a path that is easy and brings reward for you only. Seek always to place the needs of others above your own.
Remember always that God is your strength and he will be faithful to you through the storms of life. The land, the skies and the ocean are his.
May the creator God, who was with in the beginning, has walked with you at school, and now goes with you to High School, remind you frequently of his grace, mercy and deep love.
Please find a link to the slides I used today below.
Thanks for attending.
Lord God, the greatest of all Teachers
Bless all in this school as we seek to end our year with the grace you so generously provide.
We give thanks for the students the staff, the school council, the families and all who have contributed to this successful and joy filled year.
We stand before you a community greatly blessed by many cultures, languages and nationalities. What a gift indeed it is Lord to come together as the body of Christ and celebrate as one community.
We affirm all the positive moments, of insight, of the excitement of learning, of accomplishment, of creativity, of laughter, of a sense of community.
We recognise the times of struggle, of difficult work, the tinge of sadness that comes with farewelling staff, students and families. We ask that all who come into our community go out in the way you taught us, to pass the good news to all. May we always be grateful for the time we have had together as part of the school community.
As we leave for the summer break May we take with us the knowledge that you will keep us all in your embrace so we may rest and be restored.
Assure us of your presence as we can continue in the ongoing teaching and learning of your love expressed most profoundly in the sacrifice of your precious son Jesus.
By T Brennen (Leaning heavily on a resource provided byhttps://educationforjustice.org/)
Wow. Here we are again. It seems like only yesterday that we were joined here to close our 2013 school year. It seems that it was only a few days ago that I nervously participated in my first Sunshine Christian School graduation service. To the parents of our graduating grade 6 class, I’m sure it feels like only yesterday you saw your child walk through our front gate for the first time.
Again I have the privilege to address the community of Sunshine Christian School as its principal. This is not something I take for granted. It was again an honour to serve the community in this capacity. I thank the staff, parents, council and students for their continued support. A successful school is built on the strong relationship between students, parents and staff. We are indeed blessed by the richness of the relationships in our community.
The school has experienced yet another successful year. Camps to Weekaway and Canberra were wonderful. Music has been learnt and our walls have groaned from wonderful art. We have run and jumped our way through PE. We have read book after book. We have done sum after sum. We have all experienced success and explored our God given gifts. While I often joking tell off students and teachers for having fun while learning, it has personally brought me great joy to see all of our students develop.
Tonight is a joyous occasion but also one that brings a small measure of sadness. In addition to farewelling out Grade 6 class, we say goodbye to other families as they moving out of the region. To the families leaving us this year, we wish you God’s richest blessings as you settle into new homes and schools. Thank you for blessing us with your support and for joining with us to educate your children.
To the graduating class of 2014, I would like to share a few words of wisdom.
There once lived a great philosopher. He is indeed a very wise man. A man of many friends and a man of great joy. He is a deep thinker indeed. A man who enjoys the sweetness of life. His name…is Winnie the Pooh.
As I child I greatly enjoyed the stories of Winnie the Pooh and his friends Piglet, Eeyore and Rabbit. I am not ashamed that I still enjoy these wonderful stories and as I reread some of Pooh’s adventures this week something he said struck me deeply.
As we say goodbye this evening, Pooh Bear says “How lucky we are to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
We are indeed blessed to have shared in this learning journey together as a school community as you have grown from little Preps to young adults.
The readings we heard earlier contain a clear message for you. It is a call for us all to be bearers of Good News to the world. For us to be people who will bring the love of Christ to life in our words and deeds.
My favourite saying of Pooh is this:
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
In front of you Grade 6 is a period of great change. This is not something that should be feared but one that should be celebrated. You have the opportunity to experience new things, meet new people and discover new talents.
In the spirit of the great philosopher, Winnie the Pooh, don’t stay in your own corner of the forest and wait for people and experiences come to you.
Have great courage. There is a large world out there that needs people who care deeply about others. Who are willing to leave their forest to share the good news of God’s love for us.
May the creator God, who was with in the beginning, has walked with you at school, and now goes with you to High School, remind you frequently of his grace, mercy and deep love.
What follows is a rough account of a presentation I gave at a regional gathering of Lutherans recently. I suspect you will find errors in the text – please forgive them! I have been asked to make this available rather quickly and thus I beg your forgiveness in this area.
I have thrown out some challenging questions towards the end. Please engage with the questions I ask. I have no easy answers and I do not hold my life up as an example of what we should be doing. Send reactions and feedback my way.
I recommend Dr Jenning’s piece (http://goo.gl/wdErGq) for further reading on issues of finances and Lutheran schooling in Australia.
Where love comes to life
I would like to tell you the stories of 3 men – Stephen, Duan and Charlie. (All names in this piece have been changed to protect identities)
Stephen is Egyptian. His family is Coptic Christian.
In 2011, the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down in response to the Arab spring uprising in his country. This took place at a place called Tahrir (freedom) square and both Stephen and his brothers participated in the protests against the wishes on their parents. This is the same place that your speaker tonight discovered what tear gas tastes and feels like.
There are 87 million people living in Egypt and as my friend Ibrahim said to me, this is the first time in recorded history that the Egyptian people had been free. From the time of the Pharaohs, they had been ruled by dictators.
When you apply for a visa in Egypt you have to supply your religion on the official form. So you carry a card as an Egyptian citizen or a visa if you are a foreigner which states your religion. When you greet someone you have the choice ‘Salam alykuem’ (peace be with you) which is considered a Muslim greeting or Sabah alcher (good morning), which is considered Christian (because you aren’t using ‘salam alykuem’!). You proclaim your religion immediately with your greeting.
Unlike the west where we consider it impolite to talk about religion, politics or sex – in Egyptian society these are fair topics. One day I was talking to a Taxi driver who had 9 children – he asked why I didn’t have any children. I said in my less than perfect Arabic that my wife and I were not planning to. He then pointed at this crotch and asked sincerely ‘andak mushkilla?’ which translated means ‘do you have a problem?’ Reproductive problems are very much fair game for taxi conversation in Egypt.
Stephen went to a government run high school and he told me great stories of the ineptitude of his teachers. Teachers in Egypt are paid less than $100 per month by the government. How do they make a living? Many refuse to teach the content during the day and then run night tutoring sessions at a great profit. Current estimates suggest that following the chaos of the revolution and on the back of years of mismanagement, half the Egyptian population is illiterate. Perhaps only 25% of women are literate in Egypt.
Stephen had an interesting time in university. Due to corruption, his professor of English had a PhD but could not read, write or speak English. As a result, the exercises and assignments Stephen had to complete were flawed. Stephen would be required to write incorrect English in order to pass in this professor’s class. Stephen passed with distinction after spending endless hours figuring out exactly what elements of English the professor had incorrect. Stephen then helped his classmates pass by teaching them these skills. In order to make sure he knew English, he watched every English language film he could find and read every book in English he could find. His English is extraordinary.
Egyptians are having a very rough time at the moment. The week that my wife and I arrived in Egypt an elderly Egyptian woman died from food poisoning as the hospital refused to admit her because she had no money. Work is scarce – with tourism representing 13% of the country’s GDP. The tourist industry in Aswan, in the deep south of the country, is currently running at 4% of what it once was.
Some are trying to use religion to divide the people but as one of my good Egyptian taxi driving friends said: ‘Muslimeen behab allah, messaen behab all. Koolo eizeen schokel, akl, modrassa wa mostespha. Mushkilla eh?.’ (‘Muslims love God, Christians love God. We all want a job, food, schools and hospitals. What is the problem?’)
When Stephen learnt that I was lecturing at a Bible college for Sudanese refugees and after hearing their stories, he started volunteering to translate at this college. He heard the need and wanted to help. After I left Egypt I was very happy to hear he became the head administrator of the college and has begun studying alongside the African refugees in order to become a pastor himself. This is truly amazing. The hatred between Egyptians and Sudanese runs very deep.
Not that long ago through Facebook I learnt that Stephen’s brother was killed. Stephen’s brother was actively involved with protests against Mubarack and then the Morsi regime. Egyptians fear that their internet is being watched and thus don’t write some things online. But I have a pretty good idea about what happened to Stephen’s brother.
Stephen is choosing each day to live a different life. He has given up a good salary teaching Arabic to foreigners in order to teach God’s word to refugee pastors and to train refugee teachers.
Duan is Ugandan and has the brightest and most sincere smile I have ever seen.
Duan’s story is quite interesting. He speaks 7 languages. When I asked him how he learnt French his answer was. “It wasn’t too hard. I had some friends from Congo who liked soccer and so we played soccer in French”.
English is Duan’s sixth language. His schooling took place under a tree. He sat in the dirt with another 50 or so young people and learnt language from an elder. The elder would write a word in the dirt and Duan would copy it in the dirt. The teacher would return after seeing the other 50 students check it and issue another word.
He is now the director of African Hope Learning Centre (AHLC), having begun as a technical assistant, becoming a primary school teacher, then primary headmaster and now director.
He is assisted by deputy directors Jacques, James and Matthew. Jacques is from Congo and is a political refugee as all of the men in his family has been killed due to his father being involved with an opposing political party. James fled South Sudanese to avoid tribal warfare. Matthew was a Christian born in the Muslim north of Sudan. For a time, Matthew lived naked in the fields as he lost contact with his family.
The UN interacts officially with about 250,000 refugees in Egypt. Having worked with NGOs like MSF, refugee researchers, long term missionaries, I know the number of refugees currently living in Egypt is closer to 4 million. There is a major UN processing centre in Cairo which acts as a funnel for those hoping for resettlement elsewhere. However, the Egyptian government bars refugees from accessing healthcare, education and from working.
So African Hope offers education to 500 students from grade 1 to grade 11. Staff and students have a basic healthcare program including dental care, vaccinations, health education. The school also provides employment for more than 50 refugee teachers.
Over 20 African nations are represented in students and staff. From Sudan into the horn of Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, through down as far south as Uganda and Burundi, then west to Angola and up to Nigeria.
The goal of this illegal school is to provide an education to build the African community which is in sore need of doctors, engineers, teachers and business people. It is hoped that this education will allow students to define and build a positive future for their countries.
This of course is difficult. Finding the finances to run the school is very difficult in a very competitive global aid market.
AHLC is reliant on volunteers due to the low educational levels of teachers. Our refugee teachers would barely pass Grade 7 in Australia. While staff training can help, volunteers are essential to improve our student outcomes. That was why I was there – to provide staff training. Put simply – you cannot teach what you have not been taught. At one stage we could not teach maths because there was not a single person in the refugee community who knew maths beyond a grade 2 level.
I discovered this naively when I set some benchmarking tests for all the students and I discovered that not a single student in the school knew what a rectangle was. I discovered the reason why when I saw the look of confusion in the eyes of my maths teachers when I asked them what a rectangle was.
Duan first came to Cairo to work in a call centre on a very good salary. Duan chose to give up this lucrative salary to lead the education of 500 hundred young Africans. We pray that he can lead this school into a positive future that helps to build Africa.
Charlie is Australian.
Charlie was borne to Deli owning parents in the great wine country of McLaren Vale, South Australia. Charlie’s family are not really religious. He recalls a story of a rather tense moment and vigorous theological argument when Charlie’s mother stared down the priest who took issue with her demand to remove the promise ‘to obey’ from her marriage wows. There is also a rumour that Charlie’s grandfather tried to burn down a church after copping a hiding from the priest for being insolent during Sunday school.
Charlie’s parents were told, when he was a grade 1 student, that he would never learn to read and write at an adult level. “He should leave school as early as he can and get a trade”, his parents were told. Charlie was lucky to have parents who knew this was rubbish. He shifted schools but it was at that time that his parents started looking for a suitable high school with great teachers. They did not want this to happen again.
As it would happen, a new Lutheran school was opening in McLaren Vale, Tatachilla Lutheran College, the very year in which Charlie would commence high school. Charlie happened to be enrolled number 65 of 67 sof that first intake of students.
Charlie became a Christian through seeing the teachers at Tatachilla model a Christian life of service. As Charlie often says,
“I can’t pinpoint the moment that I became a Christian – I just felt an increasing belief that this stuff the pastor talked about in chapel was true because the teachers lived it. They didn’t just talk about it.”
Charlie found himself the first in his family to attend university. Not long after starting university, Charlie starting attending his local Lutheran church.
He was enjoying quite a successful opera singing career (a talent fostered by his teachers) when a vocal injury forced him to take 2 years off of professional singing. He had two options before him. With his passion for God, young people, sharing big ideas and music, he considered becoming a pastor in the Lutheran church or becoming a teacher. He chose the latter, studying education through Flinders University and through Australian Lutheran College. Charlie gained a job at a very prestigious Adelaide Lutheran school and began his teaching career there.
Around this time a nice young girl came into his life and it wasn’t too long before friendship turned into marriage.
Through the Lutheran Church, Charlie had the opportunity to discover that not all Lutheran schools were as nice and well resourced as his. He travelled to Papua New Guinea and the US on social justice trips. Charlie’s wife had for a long time had a passion to work with African refugees – specifically Sudanese women.
A flame burned a little brighter – a flame that was lit at a Lutheran school which emphasised active love for others. Charlie remembers his principal at Tatachilla, Richard Bruss, saying often “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”
So it came to be that Tom (or ‘Charlie’) and his wife left their comfortable lives in Adelaide to serve in Egypt.
What would you die for?
Working in Egypt caused me to come to terms with a willingness to die for a belief. I will not pretend like Egypt is anything like current situations in the Congo, Afghanistan or Iraq. Rarely did I feel my life was in true danger. However, as foreigners began being killed Robyn and I had to think about what was going to be line where we fled. Robyn spent a week at home at one stage as a public threat was made against foreign white women working for churches.
Living with a packed bag and $1000 USD under your pillow to buy your way out of a country changes your perspective. It brings a certain clarity to things. You think “am I willing to die in order to provide a service to those who need it?”
How much am I willing to personally suffer so that others don’t?
What is God’s will?
Few things annoy me more than people who try to give me comfort by saying that I don’t need to worry about those who are still in Egypt working with the refugee community or the refugees themselves. “God will look after them” or “God will rise up those to do what he needs done.” When I was working at African Hope there were more than 10 international volunteers – now there are two. I chose to leave and I left behind work that now goes mostly undone. That is something I need to deal with.
We live in a protected bubble here in Australia. Our faith, our worldview, our lives are all symptomatic of a society that lacks suffering. We choose to ignore the great pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters across the world.
As Christians in the west we have blindly followed a lie. Many believe that it is enough for us to have our faith in God and just live our lives as best we can. It is shameful that the lives of most Christians look no different to the lives of your average Australian – mortgage, shiny car, shiny kids, overseas holidays. Is that really what Christ taught us? Is that what God sacrificed his son for? So that we could live Christian flavoured lives hidden from seeing the suffering of others?
Experiences like mine change your perspective. So much so that I still think of money in different units. When I was working at African Hope, every $50 meant another day that I could afford to feed the 500 students at the school. At my current school, when I buy an iPad, I cannot help but know that for the cost of the iPad I could have fed 500 African refugees for about 2 and half school weeks.
I know what it is like to form a contingency plan for running out of money for the food program. You remove the meat from the dish, you remove the vegetable, you half the amount, you feed the youngest only and then as a last resort, you stop the meals. Thank God it didn’t ever get to a point where we had to stop meals.
Please don’t put me, or anyone else on a pedestal and say “I could never have done what you did”. It isn’t a case of can’t – what I did was not difficult. Anyone in this room could serve in this way usefully if they wanted to. Robyn and I made a choice to serve in Egypt. To simply say “I couldn’t do what you, Stephen our Duan did” is an excuse. An excuse so often used to justify inaction and to do nothing to help those in need.
The world is the way it is because we continually make choices that allow it to be so. It is humanity’s will that is causing the suffering the our world. This is not the will of our loving God who suffers with the oppressed.
What motivates you?
Why did a teacher and his wife from a nice Lutheran school in Adelaide go to Egypt and spend 35k of his own money and 10k of generous people’s money, to help people? Because there was a need. Robyn has always wanted to work with Sudanese refugees and the largest population of Sudanese outside of Sudan is in Cairo. Faith without works is dead. Nothing more than that. We went because there was a need we could meet. Within each of us, the Holy Spirit is working to bring us to love our neighbours as Christ taught us. We must choose to take this call or ignore it.
Moving to Melbourne was not really part of the Brennen’s plan after Egypt. But at the same time a Lutheran school leader with refugee and migrant experience comes home at the exact same time that the only Lutheran school in the country serving a significantly refugee/ new migrant/low income community needs a leader.
Sunshine Christian School is a lovely primary school in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Being principal there takes as much passion, perseverance and dedication and fortitude as working in Egypt did. The issues are different but the goal is the same – to nurture young people to serve God and his people.
Ask yourself – Would you get up tomorrow and do your job if you were not paid? Do you believe what you do each day is truly serving others as God would have you serve?
A great Lutheran social justice heritage
Lutherans have a great heritage to offer. I was in demand as a lecturer at a bible college in Egypt because Lutherans are known in Africa for having biblically centred and sound theology.
Ask many a Sudanese refugee about Lutherans and they see it as a word that represents comfort and support. This comes from their time in Lutheran run refugee camps.
It has been written of our spiritual father, Martin Luther:
“[He argued that] God’s justice is a life-giving justice for all persons regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, social or economic status – a justice that should underpin human relationships and the education of future leaders in society. Indeed, he was among the first of his generation to protest business, banking, and religious practices that favoured the wealthy few and impoverished the many. And yet…Lutheran history is marked by the refusal to heed the ancient call to act with justice, exchanging that more difficult task for charitable endeavours or stoic silence in the face of oppression.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote :
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”
As Lutherans I think we are very good at the loving God bit and feeling saved. What we need to do is to commit more to the mystery and gospel imperative of loving others.
There are many choices we make as a church.
A choice we make at the moment is to allow our schools to exclude families on the basis of their economic status. I live with the knowledge that if I were born now my parents could not afford to send me to a Lutheran school – not on their income. My family situation is not unique. What might Luther say if he were here today and saw that our schools, that were first set up to serve Lutheran refugees newly arrived to Australia, now exclude refugees through their fee structures?
Could our church find new funding strategies to sustain and plant low fee schools in areas of great need in order to provide a Lutheran education to children that need it most?
Last year I met with a family who wanted to enrol their daughter at my school. Knowing that they were a practising Buddhist family I asked them why it was that they wanted to send their child to a Lutheran school. They said this:
“I don’t want my daughter to go to a public school. I know your school is a good school. You will not ignore her soul. You will teach her about God. You will teach her about duty to others. This will not happen at the other local schools”
According to the enrolment policies of most Lutheran schools we are required to give first preference to Lutherans and then practicing Christians. Had there been an abundance of enrolments in the previous categories this child would not be attending a Lutheran school. What do we make of this?
As a church we make the choice to pay our school principals an annual salary that alone would be enough to run African Hope Learning Centre for an entire year. My wage alone is more than enough to feed, educate and provide healthcare for more than 500 refugee students while also giving work for another 50 refugees. What does this information mean to us as schools of the church? How do we process it?
As we look at approving church budgets, how are we spending our money? Are we investing in supporting the oppressed and needy or perpetuating nice buildings with empty pews?
Could the current shortage of Lutheran pastors, teachers and leaders suggest that we have lost a culture of service to others that we once had?
Germaine Greer was educated in the Catholic schooling system. She writes:
“(The Catholic nuns) brought out the best in me and it needn’t have been brought out – it could have stayed right where it was. I could have married a stockbrocker and settled into a life of three cars and a carport. They made that impossible because I was hungry for something else”
This is what the Lutheran church did to me. It made me hunger for justice for all people. Are all of our Lutheran schools and churches encouraging this and making it central to their culture?
Our world is full of need and we must respond. A response more than turning away, throwing in a few dollars or praying for someone else to do it for us.
I don’t care how much money you make, what country you come from, what your religion is, what your qualifications are, what you have achieved or what others say about you. What I am most interested in, what I want you to show the world, is that you can love others amongst your own struggles, brokenness, grief and despair – because that is where love comes to life.
An article I wrote a little while back about Augustine and cross cultural ministry. I am far from an Augustinian scholar – so please send feedback my way.
Contained in occasional presentations and posts on this blog are my perspective on the experience of African refugees in Egypt. I have posted below another perspective – one that comes from a mainstream Egyptian population. I don’t necessarily support the views contained in the article but I do hope you will read it. It brings up some essential issues.
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
As I began to write this post my colleagues and I were trying to coax a collection of rather excited Year 1/2 students to succumb to sleep at their school sleepover. The seeming impossible achieved, the cool night air and quiet of the deserted schoolyard provides welcome respite.
I was blessed this year to have two pieces published in the Dialogue Australasia Journal – a publication of a wonderful organisation in this region which seeks to promote respectful, innovative, engaging and rigorous religious studies programs in schools across denominations and religions. The first of these articles you can find here and the most recent (and catalyst for this post) can be downloaded here.
The topic is contemplative spirituality in schools – one I have been journeying with for some time now. I have shared a great deal of this before and the article summarises the material I have been presenting at workshops over the last year or two.
As I say at the beginning of every workshop I give, ‘I’m terrible at stillness and silence but I know it is worthwhile.’ I’m not sure where to next. Moving into leadership of a primary school brings new priorities but the long weeks and stressful days reinforce the need for practices that assist my own wellbeing in order to support the wellbeing of my staff and students. Let’s see what happens.
Stealing contemplative moments with students – article in pdf form.