We feel incredibly humbled to have seen and experienced all that we have been able to over the past week. Our caveat as we begin is that we are not journalists, nor are we long-term missionaries who have walked with the church here through its years of struggle and its recent years of revolution(s). We’ve tried to listen well but inevitably our perceptions are limited, and honestly even our internet is weak so we aren’t fact-checking every statistic you’ll see below. So if you are interested in what God is up to in Egypt, do read the links we’ll include here, to Egyptians who can tell the story much better than we can. Here are a few things that have given us cause for hope:
- The Synod of the Nile: It has been so encouraging to see the work of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt. The church in Egypt is of course very old—tradition dates it back to the gospel writer Mark preaching the gospel to Alexandria. The Coptic Church has bravely and faithfully transferred the faith through centuries of persecution and resistance. But a fresh wind came with a remarkable band of Presbyterian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries. They built hospitals, started schools, strengthened farming, and planted churches. We spent a day at the offices of the Synod of the Nile learning about their work today, and were incredibly impressed by the creativity of those we met. They are advocating and educating people about the dangers of female genital mutilation, which we heard is still occurring for 88% of girls here. They are working hard at both ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. This article by Tharwat Wahba, “From the Elite to the Street,” chronicles insightfully the movement away from high-level teas between imams and bishops and toward, for example, concrete partnership in service projects between ordinary Muslim and Christian teens. It was also deeply moving to meet a pastor whose church and home had been burnt to the ground during the worst of the uprisings a year and a half ago, and to hear of the work he is doing now at the synod level to strategize for church planting and renewal throughout the nation.
- The Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo (ETSC): How many seminaries can say they began on a boat? (see photo above) When the seminary began in 1864, Christians were not allowed to own land, so in a clever move, they held classes on a boat! This was pedagogically brilliant as well. The students took classes in the morning in their boat, and then went out into villages and towns along the Nile to preach and teach what they’d learned that afternoon. Today they have a lovely campus (if a bit too close for our ear-comfort to the kennels where 140 German Shepherds, government drug-dogs, bed down noisily each night, but that’s not really the main point…), and they are equipping pastors to serve in Egypt and even a few to go to Sudan, Iraq, and elsewhere. It is estimated that there are 12 million Christians in Egypt, yet 11 million of them have no church, Coptic or otherwise. At least 6,000 villages have been identified as having Christians who would like a church but currently have none. The seminary is engaging distance learning tools and innovative research tools to prioritize the most strategic placement of newly minted pastors. The entrepreneurial, collegial, and hopeful spirit around the seminary was incredibly encouraging to us.
- The Center of Love for Children with Special Needs: We were so, so blessed to be able to see the work going on here. Children are being extravagantly loved, and the vision and dedication of its founder, Rebecca Atallah, was remarkable to see. We were also pleased to hear how much the staff has appreciated the teams InterVarsity has sent to serve here over many years. (Check out the summer missions opportunity here, especially if you are or know a Physical or Speech Therapy major.) The center is located in Mokattam, a hill just outside (really within) Cairo where 30,000 people live as sorters of Cairo’s garbage. A confluence of streams of NGO, church, and para-church efforts has meant that Mokattam is not the depressing place one might assume it would be when one hears that it is a ‘garbage village.’ Though it doesn’t smell great and its people are certainly poor, the mood in the streets is one of energetic industry. Donkeys and trucks were hustling trash from one sorting area to another, with drivers shouting, “You are welcome!” to us as they passed. Perhaps most remarkably, we met several young adults who had grown up there and chosen to stay, serving as teachers at the Center or as deacons for the many ministries of the Coptic Church. The church’s location in the caves was amazing.
- The Bible Society: We were privileged to meet Ramez Atallah, who has served as the president of the International Bible Society’s Egypt division for many years. Under his leadership the organization had expanded its capacity enormously. They have worked within the strictures of the government in creative ways. For example, it is illegal to give away religious literature, so they sell everything, very cheaply. And it really sells! Egyptians love to read and have huge, well-attended book fairs, where the Bible Society sells thousands of Bibles in every conceivable format, from slim single-gospel volumes to attractively illustrated children’s Bibles. We loved visiting their Bible World floor, an impressive hands-on museum where children learn about how the Bible has been preserved and published over centuries.