Sunday, December 5, 2010

Belly Button Lessons

Last week in the 8th grade class, the textbook mentioned the umbilical cord. This seemed to be a new term for all of the students. So I found myself explaining the function of the umbilical cord and the way it is cut after a baby is born. This led to another new term: the belly button. I wished I could just raise my shirt and show mine, as often an image is the quickest way to explain something, but obviously that would be inappropriate, so I settled for describing it in words.

As we were talking, a girl in the class had this look on her face, clearly she had just had some kind of revelation. She raised her hand and when I called on her she said, “Teacher, boys have a belly button too?” At this most of the boys ducked their heads, looking down at their stomachs, thinking about their own belly buttons I guess. Some of the girls quietly snickered, but most politely listened as I assured her that yes, we all have a belly button.

This experience in class really has me curious. How could she not know that boys have belly buttons? Maybe she doesn't have a brother or a father. Maybe she's never watched TV. But really, has she never ever seen a little boy without his shirt? Or, maybe upon learning something new, she forgot something she had once known. Another possibility though is that she does have a father or brother but they all live in extreme modesty. This idea of extreme modesty is very interesting to me.

Perhaps more applicable for me, it reminds me that I can not assume the kids in my classes have knowledge or exposure to things I would have by their age. Also, there are topics where they have seen and understand so much more than I ever will. Part of my job is figuring out these differences. Even though I am the one called “teacher”, on my good days we share and learn from each other.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pictures of Work and Play

As part of a church gathering in October, we visited Islamic Cairo. Here we are inside Al-Azhar Mosque. This mosque was originally built in AD 970. We had our picture taken by the mihrab . In every mosque you will find a mihrab, a niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.

Paul and some church members, Daniel, Mark, and Nazli are standing outside of Al-Azhar Mosque.

Paul and Pastor Peter. Behind them is a picture of the St. Andrew's church building.

There are several congregations that meet at St. Andrew's. Here Paul is guest preaching at one of the Sudanese congregations. Next to him is the interpreter who did a great job interpreting Paul's sermon.

These children attend school at St. Andrew's, one of the programs run by St. Andrew's Refugee Services. The blue buildings are classrooms. Stephanie teaches some of the older children in this picture.

We finally made it Egypt's top tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza. They are huge! We went with a visiting pastor from the states, Susan. Thanks Susan!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sweet Victory

Every now and then in life you have one of those moments of triumph. One of those moments where you, a humble human being have the opportunity to show the world just what you're made of, and you're made of good, tough stuff that can handle anything. A few days ago I had one of these moments.

I was on my home on the metro. The car was fairly busy and there were many of us standing. As we approached a stop a woman left her seat to walk to the door and another woman took her place. In the seat the first woman had left a hair pin. The second woman handed it to me, to hand to the first.

I knew I had to act quickly. I reached out and tapped her on the shoulder. No response! What to do? I tried again and she continued to walk away from me. I can not overstate the pressure I was under at this moment. I felt completely unprepared and incapable of dealing with the situation. And then, before I even realized what was happening, before my brain had time to to think about what my body was doing, out of my mouth came the words “min fudlik” (“please”). Miracle of miracles, I came up with an appropriate Arabic word!

Even better, I said the exact right word and said it clearly enough that she had understood! She heard me. She stopped walking, and turned around. Success! If ever there was a moment in life I wanted to do a fist pump, this was it. (But I held it in).

In the end, the hair pin was not hers and I handed it back to the other woman. But that doesn't really matter. What matters is that I communicated. In Arabic! Maybe it was a small triumph and not really a life changing kind of thing. Min fudlik is about as basic as it gets. But you have to start somewhere. And it felt good.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Part 1: An Encounter with the Ancient Church of Cairo...The Coptic Church

Over the past few weeks we've begun to form some wonderful friendships. We've especially enjoyed getting to know some of our Egyptian friends, some of who are Christians. Most Egyptian Christians call themselves Coptics, (Coptic originally simply meant Egyptian), and belong to what's called the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Sometimes we Americans imagine that Christianity is essentially a western religion, and that the middle east is essentially a non-Christian region. But the truth is that Christianity was born in the middle east, and though it's no longer its major religion, there has been a rich and continuous Christian presence in the region for almost 2000 years. Christianity has been in Egypt almost since Christianity began. The Coptic Church attributes its founding to St Mark (the one who wrote the gospel), who is said to have evangelized Egypt within the first few decades after Jesus' crucifixion!

Recently one of our Egyptian friends invited us to an event at Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. As we walked to the church, our friend told us that St Mark's is the seat of the current Coptic pope, Pope Shenouda III. St Mark's was built in the 1970's, which is actually quite new for Cairo standards. We arrived early and walked inside the gate, where many hundreds of people were socializing. We looked up and saw the cathedral, which is as beautiful as it is vast. It seats over 7,000!

The event we were going to was called a Bible study but it's kind of like an advise call-in. For this event, hundreds of people send in letters requesting advice, insight, or blessing from the Pope. The Pope then reads and answers some of these letters, and then gives a sermon about a topic of his choice.

We walked into the Cathedral, which seemed to be about full. It's walls were adorned with gorgeous mosaics, paintings, and stain-glassed windows depicting Jesus, the saints, and other religious symbols. A man ushered us towards an area where there were headphones connected to the seats so that we could listen to an English translation. In the front of the Cathedral, on one side, sat dozens of priests, monks and bishops, all of them dressed in black robes, and all of them with great long beards. On the other side, there was a youth choir. A crowd of thousands waited in nervous excitement for the arrival of the Pope, who would be entering through one of the side doors. The choir finished a song. Suddenly, the side doors opened, the assembly jumped to there feet and began to cheer, and a chant echoed through the Cathedral, “Baba, Baba, Baba, Shenouda....”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

We were afraid of you

“Mrs., we were afraid of you.” That is what an 8th grade girl told me (Stephanie) after the second day of class. “We were afraid of you, but now we see that you are good.” I think she was talking about their difficulty understanding my American accent. I didn’t tell her, but I could say the same thing to them. At first, I was afraid of them. I was afraid they would misbehave, they wouldn’t understand me, and they wouldn’t be interested.  Now I see that they are good.

This is what I have been doing with my time. I have begun volunteering at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS). StARS is a nonprofit organization run by the church (St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo) that serves refugees in the area. A word about the organization:
St. Andrew’s Refugee Services was founded over 30 years ago. Today StARS provides programming to refugees from 32 different countries, inluding Sudan, Iraq, and Somalia.  Services provided include education for children and adults, legal assistance for those seeking resettlement, and fair trade products made by the refugee community. StARS programming today serves almost 1,200 refugees each week.
To see pictures and read more about us, visit 
So what do I do? I help with the children’s education program. Refugee children usually cannot attend public schools in Cairo, so we run a complete school at the St. Andrew’s campus spanning from 1st grade through high school. Since most of our students are from Sudan, we teach the Sudanese curriculum. I am teaching 8th grade Nutrition and Health, 7th grade Science, and 7th grade Nutrition and Health. As I teach, Paul continues to learn about leading the church, and we grow more and more confident in our new life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Saqqara Pyramids

A few weeks ago, Pastor Peter, his wife Michele, and their boys took us to visit our first pyramids. We went to an area outside of Cairo called Saqqara. It is a huge site with many pyramids, tombs, and other ruins. Here are a few pictures.

We are next to the first pyramid built in Egypt. It was built in 2650 B.C.

We went inside a different pyramid. This is the "stairway" we used to get in and out.

Here's Steph inside a pyramid! She's under a doorway and the wall above her is covered hieroglyphics.

Paul and Alex under a ruin covered in hieroglyphics.

Inside Teti's pyramid, this carving and  paint is about 4,300 years old.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Faith and Identity

One of the wonderful aspects of being in another country is that it gives us a window into another reality, that is the same in some ways, but very different in others. One of the surprising differences I've encountered in Cairo is the overtness in which people embrace their religious identity.

Of course Egypt is 90 % Muslim, and so the sights and sounds of Islam are all around, from the call to prayer, to the distinctive way in which Muslims dress. To be honest, this part hasn't been so surprising. The surprising thing is that the Christian community are equally distinctive in the way they self identify. Because the indigenous Christian community is only about 10% of the population, I expected to encounter a subtle Christian community that would blend in with the population in general. Instead, I've found that Christians in Cairo are very public in the way they self-identify. They wear crosses, they dress differently, and their churches are tall and grandiose. And so in many obvious ways, people in Egypt embrace the distinctiveness of who they are.

Conversely, for many people in America, especially those under 40, the idea of publicly embracing one's religious identity is somewhat of a tricky issue. Many in this age group are weary of being too rigid in the way they identity with religion. And in many ways, rightfully so. History has witnessed countless examples in which passionate religious groups have caused great destruction, (i..e. The Crusades, the wars of the reformation, etc...) And so they say things like, “I'm spiritual but not religious.” or “I'm Christian, I guess.” For some in this mindset, to even self-identify too strongly with a religion is to engage in bigotry.

What a difference of mentality between these two worlds. I'm still processing what these issues of religious identity mean, but here are a few of my initial thoughts. Distinctiveness can go too far, because radical distinctiveness can easily become hatred. On the other hand, there's definitely something to be said for confidently embracing who we are as religious people, not in an abrasive way that demands attention, but in a joyful way that inspires others.

And as we look at all of the remarkable people of history whom we admire- the Mandela's, the Picasso’s, etc... - what they have in common is they were not afraid to be who they were. And this is why they inspire us, because deep down, all of us want to be able to freely embrace who we are without fear or shame.

And so is there a way for people to embrace distinctive religious identities, beyond vagueness and halfheartedness, without also resorting to intolerance? I think so. I hope so.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Women's Car

In Cairo they have a great metro system which we use to get around. To go to church we ride towards downtown for about 20 minutes. If Paul and I are traveling together, we can ride on just about any car. However, there are a few cars reserved just for women and their children. When I ride in the women's car on the metro, I feel I am part of a special community.

You can laugh, I know its a funny notion. When we are moving along, I see women relaxing together in a way that I don't often see in public. Mothers sit and talk with each other about their children while their little ones sit on their laps, women who are seated will hold the filled to the brim shopping bags of the women who are left standing, and one time a woman next to me fell sound asleep. She rested her head on my shoulder until the train stopped. As we braked, she rocked onto the shoulder of the woman on the other side, then we started to go again and she rocked back to me. Recently, a woman who was fully covered- not just the normal hijab but with a headscarf, gloves, a veil over her face, everything- removed her veil as we started to go. Every time we stopped, she'd put it back in place should any man look into the car. But as a woman, I was allowed to see her face.

Maybe this unique feeling of community I get on the women's car will pass as it becomes more routine, but I hope not. For now, I look forward to my daily commute, my daily dose of Cairo's female community, relaxed and at ease.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our new church...

Two weeks ago we attended our first service at our new church home, St. Andrew's United Church of Cairo. Worship at St. Andrew's is on Friday, which is the beginning of the weekend and the primary day of prayer in Egypt and much of Muslim world. One of the blessings of St. Andrew's is the richness of diversity among the community. In this one worship service, there were at least 9 different nationalities represented! We met people from USA, Canada, Philippines, Sudan, Guinea, Nigeria, Finland, Ethiopia, and Egypt. This is such an exciting ministry! We especially enjoy Bible studies at St. Andrew's. It is great fun to take part in faith discussions among people of one faith and yet many different backgrounds and understandings of spirituality and life. Already we are learning much from this community.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Our First Language Teacher

Peter and his wife Michelle set us up with a beautiful new apartment, but it needed a little cleaning. We hired a local woman to help clean and her 6 year old daughter joined us. As Paul and I scrubbed the kitchen, while the little girl watched. After observing for awhile she began to help, or decided that we needed help. As we began to clean together, she started teaching us some basic Arabic words, like how to count from 1-10. It was really helpful! We were listening and repeating, and we kept finding dirty things and saying “yucky”. This was apparently a fun, new English word for her and she picked up on it quickly, even making a song... “yucky, yucky, yucky-yuck”. After a long time, I completed a small part of the kitchen and stood up and cheered. She pointed and said “Not yucky!” We were all happy.

Then she pointed all over the rest of the kitchen and said “Yucky. Yucky. Yucky. Yucky...”

Saturday, August 28, 2010

In The Beginning...

We have spent our first few days with Pastor Peter and his wife Michelle and their family of three boys as we get oriented to Cairo and over the jet lag. They have been wonderful and generous hosts and have begun to orient us to our surroundings. We have reached several small milestones in these first few days: first taxi ride, first trip to the grocery store, first time riding the metro rail. All of these things will eventually become routine, but in the beginning each one is challenging.

Also, Peter and Michelle have secured us an amazing apartment! The inside is great, but the part to write home about is the view from the balcony. From 7 floors up, we look down upon an orchard or garden. It is huge, so there are no other big buildings around us, which gives the feeling of complete privacy in a very large and busy city. This space also allows us an unobstructed view of the city to our west. Looking out, through some of the buildings, we can see the Nile River! Looking out further, if it is a clear day, we can see the Pyramids of Giza!


Flying in, it was immediately apparent just how enormous of a city Cairo is. Even from the vantage point of the plane, there were buildings as far as the eye could see. And everything was the color of sand. The roof tops were all the same color as the earth, which is a light yellow color that one would expect to find in the Sahara.

We arrived safely in Cairo after a long flight and were welcomed at the airport by Pastor Peter, who is Paul's supervisor. As we were driving we were staring at the sunset; set against a collage of countless sandy colored buildings. The sun was large and bright red and the sky was white. We took a moment to praise God for the wonder and variety of creation. We are humbled that we are allowed this experience.