Tag Archives: Refugees

Where love comes to life – address to LCA Victoria/Tasmania District

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.

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African Refugees in Egypt

Dear friends

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.

140811 Refugees with AHLC p44 – Egypt Today – 2014-July



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Streams in the desert – World Prayer Day address 2014

Streams in the desert: reflections on Egypt, John 4:1-26 and Isaiah 35:1-3
PD5Before 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?

How can one meet more Muslims following the teachings of Jesus seriously than Christians in Egypt? What does that mean?PD2

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.PD92

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.

It is interesting to note that Egypt is one of the most water poor countries in the world. Thanks to a new dam being built on the Nile in Ethiopia, Egypt will soon receive 50% less water every year.PD94 PD93

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 themPD95.

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

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Lessons from an African refugee school

May 2013 Journal_Page_01Part of the process of returning back home from volunteering overseas is trying to put all the pieces of ourselves back together. I have previously written about the lessons I have taken from this experience and below is a link to an article I wrote for DAN. It raises some interesting points that I hope some take up in conversation with me.

Article from Dialogue Australiasia Journal May 2013

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A simple and desperate hope in the Unseen

CaptureSermon delivered on 11th August at IGWA 2013

(Please note the context of this sermon – authored by a recently returned cross-cultural worker coming to terms with being back home. It is not my usual exegetical style and it is quite an emotional piece for this writer. I was tempted not to post this but I think it worthwhile just in case others may be in a similar boat)

You have to forgive me – I’m still getting used to this country called Australia. The last sermon I gave was actually at a little Sudanese refugee church near our house in Maadi, Egypt, and I was working with a translator. Please pick me up if I instinctively pause after each sentence for the translator to repeat my thoughts in Arabic or if I attempt to communicate in my broken Arabic.

My text today is taken from the lectionary. I’m a Lutheran by trade and one of things I like about our worship is that when you use the lectionary the text chooses you. You don’t go looking for a text to support what you want to say – the text is waiting for you to delve into it, probe the corners, bring light to the unseen.

One of the other great things about it is that it connects us with many brother and sisters across the world, in the catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and other denominations which focus on the same reading each Sunday in turn.

But this is all well and good. Things aren’t easy when you reach a weekend when the lectionaries have slight differences between them and you end up starting a sermon on the wrong passage.

For years I have had a nokia phone but to be fair mine was a little more up market to my wife’s phone. Robyn still doggedly requests a monochrome phone that does no more than make calls and texts. Within 3 weeks of arriving back in Australia I had an iPhone and an iPad in my hand given to me as essential tools of the trade as a school principal. But as I installed my bible software on my iPhone and got used to where things were I made a mistake with the reading that was set down for today. Three times actually. So to be honest, this message is really about the sermon I’m not giving and why. There is a constant theme running through all of these passages – as we will see.

I almost leapt for joy when I thought that one of the texts set down for today was from the opening of Ecclesiastes, the one where we read “meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless. I have seen everything under the sun and it is all a meaningless chasing after the wind”.

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun…it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1)

Why would I want to talk about this?  Robyn and I sometimes talk about our Cairo experience as like being in an abusive marriage. We fell in love too young, didn’t ask the right questions and when we hurt we thought it was our fault and deep down we thought they loved us so that meant the way we were treated was ok.

Cairo took a great deal out of us. Don’t mistake me – we don’t for one second regret our time in Cairo but there is a need for us to be honest about cross cultural work. We have seen what happens to those that go into it without a sound theology and a sound faith and the right heart. Everything seems so meaningless. At the end of our first year in Cairo working with refugee teachers, pastors and doctors we had not made 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.

“All streams run to the ocean but it is never full…” (Ecclesiastes 1)

As I stand before you I don’t have anything figured out fully. I do feel a fair percentage of the time that things are pretty meaningless. Robyn and I spent our life savings and the funds of others to serve a people that took everything we had and more without gratitude. We worked beside people who were living very comfortable lifestyles all the while takings funds from churches who thought they were doing good work. I lectured students who were less interested in submitting to the word of God as they were in beating others into submission using the word of God for their own monetary and status gains.

We get back to Australia and see that a cup of coffee costs what feeding 20 primary school students at my refugee school does. 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?

“it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1)

As I have said to some of you, many people talk to us and say 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 there now that the poo has hit the fan and tanks are in the streets” Well, perhaps we would be if we didn’t have friends living and working there that may be increased danger and 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 refugees leave, and they are left alone.

Right now I love Ecclesiastes. But alas I had the wrong lectionary reading.

So I again attempted to use my iPad to get the verse for this week and I landed at Luke 12:22-34

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? (Luke 12:22-26)

I have to be honest. Right now I can’t stand this verse. Yes I am feeling a little down about things but hearing such trite comments as ‘do not worry’ does not. And I have heard my fair share of things from various quarters. People say “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 African Hope we had 6 volunteers pulling 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.

We are, as many of you have experienced yourself, experiencing some form of culture shock. I find myself feeling more unsafe walking home in the dark from my school in the suburbs of Melbourne than I did walking home after lectures in Cairo. I see men walking near Robyn as a threat and I still suspect that the salad that I am about to eat will probably give me stomach issues later on.

I worked at the school in Cairo until 5pm on the day we left and took phone calls in the taxi on the way to the airport. We spent 4 days in South Africa to give us a break and then arrived back in Adelaide. We spent a week at home, a week in Melbourne trying to find a house, a week back at home while I prepared to give a presentation at a national religious educator conference and then I started as a principal of a lovely little Christian school in the suburbs of Melbourne. We left Cairo on the 14th of June and I started as principal of the school officially on the 15th of July.

I am tired. I am burnt out. I am weary. I am hurting. I have very little left to give.

But for some reason I get out of bed and go to my job and do my best to love the staff and students in my learning community. I’m here giving workshops and talking to you now when part of me honestly wants to be a few minutes down the road having a coffee or perhaps next door still sleeping.

God has a sense of humour. My school in Cairo had about 15 different African nations represented in the staff and students and another 15 nations in the volunteers. I was looking forward to having a break from the problems of working with a migrant/refugee community

At my school in Melbourne I just enrolled students from 7 different nations for 2014. Nice going God.

You find Lutheran schools in two places – Lutheran heartlands or new housing divisions where there is demand. My church doesn’t plant schools where the population can’t afford it. The one exception is probably my school. It serves a low income area of Melbourne that has seen wave and wave of migrant groups come through. At the same time the only 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 migrant/refugee community needs a leader.

This isn’t what a wanted. Robyn and I needed time to recover. We wanted to move into the Adelaide Hills, Robyn would do some study and I would settle into a small country school to find ourselves and figure out how to live in Australia. God had different ideas.

I applied for and missed out on several other teaching jobs. The job I ended up with was the one that I didn’t apply for and didn’t even know existed.

Some tell me this is all proof that God had a plan for us. This is all evidence that he had a specific plan for you they say. But this does nothing to comfort me. Good hearted Christians who quote “Do not worry” to me do nothing but rub salt into some very raw wounds.

I find myself leaving long hours and stressful work in Cairo to long hours and stressful work in Melbourne. I was away from my family and friends in Cairo and I am away from my family and friends in Melbourne. Was that part of God’s plan too? That I am away from the people I love again? Is it God’s plan that people exist in suffering communities around the world each day?

It seems of often that when something good happens we like to say simple things like this. What do we do when things don’t go so well? Is that not part of God’s plan, suggesting that he is a very selective God, doling out goodness to the faithful? We have to dig deeper in to what God is doing instead of just offering single sentences in an attempt to comfort others.

I can see that our work now in Melbourne brings good things to those in our new community. In my state of mind however – that doesn’t make me feel better.

So I finally figured out my lectionary problems and got the verse I meant to talk about and it is this from Luke 11:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Luke 11:32-34)

I was blessed to spend the last few days in retreat with a group of principals with the Jesuit brothers in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. The Jesuit brothers and sisters are a truly amazing group who seek to always care for other people. Service is a cornerstone to their faith. The brother there told us a story.

There was a Christian community in the 17th century that had no priest and they were in a very isolated area. An elderly brother agreed to come and visit the community. The trip would be very arduous and it would take days of walking. At the time he was to leave he became very ill, so ill that he could not leave his bed. He called a young monk to him, gave him his sermon and sent him on his way to preach in his place.

After a long tiring journey the monk arrived with sermon in hand ready to give the congregation the sermon on behalf of the elderly sick monk.

The community gathered from all around ready to hear this sermon. They sat and waited. The young monk opened the sermon and found a sermon contained in a single word – the single word was ‘other’.

As Father Michael Himes mentioned in his lecture I showed during my workshop – “the meaning of life is self-gift. The act of giving one’s life to another in service”

A colleague of mine wrote of this passage from Luke:

Jesus is not telling us to sell our possessions and give to the poor? Ok –here we go again – taking what Jesus said and watering it down to fit our comfortable Western lifestyle! But, it simply does not make sense though, to interpret this literally.  We cannot dispute the free gift … saved by grace … message. That is indelibly plastered across the whole of the New Testament, so we can be confident that Jesus is not giving us a conflicting story here. Perhaps the problem then is this … the “don’t have to do anything” formula to earn God’s favour too easily gets twisted to become … “there is nothing that we should do in response to God’s love for us”. Perhaps Jesus is reminding us, that we demonstrate that we have a life in Him, only when we reflect a response of love and care for those around us. Through and in Him, we should automatically look beyond ourselves and share what we have in order to enhance the well-being of others.

As Christians we know this through the living example of Christ whose service for the other brought forgiveness, mercy, justice and compassion.

And this is what gives me a reason to keep doing what I am doing when everything else in the world is telling me to stop. The work we do, the work we all pray for, give finances to, it brings us to the edge of ourselves and stretches us to extremes. If our centre is our own talk and belief in ourselves rather than belief in the other we will run into trouble. We will end up at the end of the road.

As Jesus said, humanity cannot live by bread, what humans create, but need the word of God to sustain us.

The lectionary always sets down an epistle reading to go with the gospel, OT and psalm. Today’s is from the 11th chapter of Hebrews. I just want to share the opening.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.  (Hebrews 11:1-3)

This is God’s business – making the seen from the unseen. Bringing meaning to the meaningless. Life to the desert and we go on. Of making this newly returned and worn out missionary purpose, comfort and direction. Not through focusing me inward but focussing me outward – to serve others.

Amongst my brokenness I am longing for a better country. A country where community is intact and not destroyed. A country where we welcome all. A country where serving is the norm. But that is not my reality it is not your reality. I long for our churches to be welcoming.

My grandfather once said to me. Tom, I can fix your problems with the church. All you need to do is get rid of all the sinners and you will have the perfect church. While it was a joke there is something quite profound in there.

As we turn to communion, this most precious event, we enter into an act where God does something unseen with the seen. He does something with bread and wine and blesses us through it.

My spiritual father Martin Luther would often say (loosely paraphrased!) ‘If you are tired, if you doubt your worthiness, if you feel God is far away, if you feel like everything is meaningless then come. Because here God is in a solid form to build faith.’

Take his body and blood, receive assurance, be empowered. In communion the unseen becomes seen, God is doing something beyond our perception. He is giving us a purse that never wears out and the strength to keep doing as he did, love his children.

What sustains me know and what got me out of bed this morning is a simple and desperate hope in the unseen. A faith which allows me despite what all I have seen and felt, despite how hopeless things appear, a faith in a God who is working for the other. My response is to do the same – live my life in service to the other. It isn’t a complicated message. As Cathy said so well last night, the markers for our life are loving God and loving others.

So my brothers and sisters, go, and life a life in service to others empowered by a God who does the same.

Know that amongst the seeming meaninglessness of it all – there can be found a God who is diligently serving the other beside us. Willing us on to live lives in sacrifice to others just as he does.

The blessing of almighty God, father son and holy spirit be with us now and forever. Amen.

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An article written for the Lutheran Principal’s Association September 2013

???????????????????????????????Your school exists contrary to local laws, your deputy principal has been missing for 3 months, you have 2 weeks to raise $40,000 to keep the education for 450 refugee students going, parents complain that you don’t beat children, and your best teachers would barely pass grade 7 in Australia.

Welcome to my life of the last 18 months as principal of African Hope Learning Centre for refugees, Cairo, Egypt. Things are certainly different as I settle back into leading a Lutheran primary school on the outskirts of Melbourne but these 3 lessons I hold onto from experience.

Teacher quality

As my school in Cairo was under-resourc ed and had an annual budget of less than $120,000 finding good quality staff was very difficult and the students often suffered as a result. I had a few good teachers who did some amazing work with nothing but a blackboard and a class of students. I try to invest as much time as I can into developing teachers in my new school as I know they are the school’s biggest asset. Good resourcing can hide poor teaching practice if not done well. 


My wife and I drew no salary while in Cairo and thus survived on our savings and through the assistance of friends and our church. In such a situation you learn a great deal about yourself and others. You see people who are deeply committed to serving others and others who simply enjoy a lifestyle free of accountability. Are we in Lutheran education because of the perks, or because we believe in the vital ministry it provides? What is our motivation as leaders in this system? Would we do this work even if we were not getting paid?

???????????????????????????????Which Jesus?

The Middle Eastern author Kahlil Gibran writes. ‘Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth meets Jesus of the Christian in a garden among the hills of Lebanon. And they talk long; each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away saying to Jesus of the Christian, “My friend, I fear we shall never, never agree.”’. Working in a multidenominational and multi-faith environment challenges your worldview. I met Muslims who were closer to following Christ’s teaching than many of the Christians I met. As Lutheran schools we need to look at what image of Christ we are projecting. Are we introducing families to Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus of LEA?


Thomas Brennen is now Principal of Sunshine Christian School, a small Lutheran primary school in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne. More than 70% of the students are from ESL backgrounds and some current students were refugees in Cairo prior to arriving in Australia. You can read more about Thomas’ time in Cairo (elsewhere on this blog!)



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