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.