We boarded a train in Cairo on the way to Lower Egypt. It was the Fall of 2003. The associate youth pastor and I (the trusty intern!) were responsible for taking the fifteen students that ranged in age from 11-13 to an orphanage in what was billed as a “Mini-Mission Trip.” We were also accompanied by two mothers, who graciously came to help out with the meals. My anxiety level was higher than usual, as I looked at each one of the students imagining having to tell their parents that something tragic had happened to them. It was my job to keep them safe, whatever that meant. We were on a train in Egypt, with only one of the mothers able to speak Arabic. Is that dangerous?
It wasn’t long before we had an episode. All the students had taken their seats in the first class seats of the train. (Remove any pictures from your mind of first class seats in airplanes. Think instead of first class as Tim Hortons compared to a street vendor.) The seats were dusty and might have been used by the last Pharaoh and family. One of the young Egyptian train workers was going by and dusting the top of each seat. When he got to one of our girls, he brushed a little lower then should have, touching her chest. One of the mothers spotted it, and shouted some Arabic, grabbed him by the arm, and took him to one of the tourist police posted just outside our train. (She had an older daughter that was constantly harassed by Egyptian men.) After this mother had calmed down, she asked an officer on the train (the government required that we had security with us when traveling) what would happen to the guy. He said they would either fill his stomach with air, causing a great degree of pain for days, or they would keep him in jail, and beat him on an occasional basis. Either way, the officer said, he wouldn’t do it again. That was for sure.
Now, looking back on this situation, especially in light of what has recently happened, I should have been grieved. What corruption and fear a normal Egyptian lives under without any rights or voice. That wasn’t my response. I felt safe. The power of the State was on the side of internationals, because they were on the side of tourist dollars and foreign investment. My anxiety on that trip eased. We were going to be alright.
It was the same reason why I felt safe there for the four years I lived in Cairo. I often told people that walking through downtown Cairo felt much safer than walking through downtown Dallas. There were many different cultural reasons for that, but a huge degree of it was criminals didn’t get a trial, a good attorney, or safety behind rules and protocol. They got punished and it hurt. This seemed to be a powerful deterrent. Crime was low. It allowed me to answer the first question that people always asked me about Egypt, “Is it safe?” in the affirmative and I was able to do my job there without fear.
Our ministry was to the expatriates (internationals there for whatever reason), and that is all the government allowed us to do. With over a million expatriates, there was plenty to focus on. (Our church was a couple thousand.) We tried to do it to the best of our ability, and as often is the case with ministry, there was more to do than we had time to do it. The regime provided us the safety and security to do it, and the stability for international businesses to have their people there in the first place. Plus, the American dollar went a long way, allowing certain luxuries that would be more difficult to afford at home.
Thinking back on it, in light of what has gone on, I realize that the voice of the oppressed is a hard one to hear, especially if their oppression is providing you some sort of benefit: safety, low prices, and cheap labor. But it wasn’t a conscious endorsement or celebration. It was just the way it was. It was similar to going to Starbucks and never wondering where they get their beans or what their buying habits have on those who harvest it in third world countries. Or never wondering how McDonalds could get there prices so low and how that was affecting people. As long as it doesn’t affect me, it becomes easy to be oblivious. There is plenty to do that keeps my mind and schedule occupied.
Now, there were a lot of people in our church who were reaching out in amazing ways and giving voice to the oppression and trying to be a solution. They were usually less involved in our church because they were with an organization trying to “heal the brokenhearted.” I wish I had made it more of a priority to listen and learn from them.
But the learning curve for me and the perspective change that has been going on in my thought world in the last couple of weeks centers on two general questions:
1) Do I choose comfort and safety over the risk and sacrifice it takes to give a voice and solution to the oppressed? (Do I even know who the oppressed are beyond what I might pick up in the newspaper?)
2) If suddenly all governmental protection and stability crumbled instantly, would my neighborhood protect my church because they see it as an asset, or would they simply let it be plundered?
As a minister, it seems like the answer to those two questions provides a healthy gauge on the missional outlook and practice of a church. Looking back over my time in Egypt, I don’t know if I answered those questions as I should have in practice. I identify with those in the gospel who ask for sight, and see things in completely new light when they are given it. I think I often suffer with blindness.
I do praise God that he is a light-giver. Right now there are many in Egypt who have answered those two questions well. I’ve been very excited from pictures of staff and members of the church I worked for standing alongside their neighbors, encouraging them, sharing meals with them, and protecting their neighborhoods with them. Reports from the largest evangelical Egyptian church shared that during the protests Christians formed a human chain around the Muslims to protect them while they pray. I don’t know what God is doing, but the potential ignites the imaginations of many with great excitement.
My prayer for the country of Egypt (and for me) is: ,
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. (Eph 4:12)”