Sunday, July 3, 2011

Are Progressive Christian Agendas Prone to Materialism?

After many years of devotion to progressive causes, I have come to an uneasy realization...

My conception of helping my neighbor is materialistic and idolatrous.

You see, ever since I went to college, I have been passionately politically aware. And in large part due to my understanding of Jesus, I have bought into the idea that as a Christian I should devote myself wholeheartedly to political causes that promise to the meet the physical needs of vulnerable people.

Now don't worry, I still totally believe that Jesus calls us to care for the vulnerable. In fact, there is simply no arguing with the fact that followers of Christ are called to feed the hungry. The story of the feeding 5,000 in John 6 certainly demonstrates Jesus' commitment to providing for the physical needs of hungry people. But this story also reminds us of something else.

After feeding the 5,000, Jesus speaks to the crowd about why he came into the world, which is to give the world two kinds of bread: physical and spiritual. We all know what physical bread is. Spiritual bread, on the other hand, is Jesus himself. And we partake in Spiritual bread when we join Christ in relationship.

We might be surprised that of the two Jesus said that the spiritual bread is the greater. Because while physical bread spoils and at best satisfies the body for a while, it is ultimately insufficient to provide life. Only spiritual bread truly lasts. Only spiritual bread can bring true fulfillment.

Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die
. John 6:49-50

So where does this connect with what I was saying earlier about materialism in progressive Christian politics? Only this:

The main promise of many progressive Christian agendas seems to be: If only we could raise everyone's physical standard of living... if only we could get the whole world three meals and a decent house, then everything would be okay. This gospel may sound appealing, but it is by definition a materialistic gospel, because the hope it offers is in material well-being.

The problem with this mindset is that it's a lie. After all, plenty of people with very high standards of living are completely miserable. Because what they have materially cannot compensate for what they lack spiritually.

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
John 6:27

And so I have come reconsider how much faith I should put in sharing physical bread, and whether this is really the primary calling of the Christian life. And I have come to believe that while sharing physical bread with my neighbor is an essential part of discipleship, it should not distract from or replace offering my neighbor spiritual bread.

Perhaps humanitarian-minded Christians like myself need to remember what it is that that truly satisfies.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I Sing Then

Friday morning, after worship and coffee hour I helped to do the dishes. I worked alongside a refugee from Sudan. We talked about normal things- dishes, tea, church. And we talked about less mundane things- the revolution in Egypt, his home in the Sudan. When we were finished he said to me

“Maybe one day (here he paused) we can go to my country together. I sing then. I sing then. Because there has been war in my country for 10 years. 15 years. But my God, He can stop this war. And He can bring peace. And then, anybody can go there. Yes, God is great.”

I am humbled.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Recent Events in Egypt, Church, and School

I just happened to exit the underground metro right next to a church. I was supposed to wait here and call my friend, whom I was planning to meet in about 10 minutes. Instead I quickly crossed the street, caught a cab and had the driver take me to our meeting place. I had been planning on a leisurely walk ,however, next to the church there was a small group of protesters. Given that there was an occurrence of violence the night before, I thought I should just move on from the area.

Although we have both had a few experiences such as this, mostly things here are going on as normal for us. Church still meets and worships, kids and teachers are getting ready for school again. People want change, but they also want normal life. And so there seems to be a kind of ebb and flow throughout the country. We make normal plans with the understanding that our plans could change and that is OK.

Changes at Church
In St. Andrew's church life, May is a month of movement. People are finishing up their work, so they can take the summer off. Many people here leave the country for the summer. Already, congregation members are making plans and getting ready. Also congregation members who have finished their work in Egypt have left, returning to their home countries. And more are getting ready to go. Thus is the life of an international congregation. We are brought together in Christ. We stay together and share in community. For some this community is simply a place to worship, for others this community serves as an extended family. We enjoy each other while we can, and then we go our separate ways. I guess this is the story of life, but it’s accelerated in this community.

Success at School
In April the StARS Children's Education program received great news! 13 of our 8th graders have passed their exams and can move on to secondary (high) school. This is a wonderful achievement for the students and for the school. Last year, only 3 students graduated 8th grade and this year we feared the cancellations in January and February would really hurt their studies. Instead these amazing students, who have weathered so much in life already, beat the odds again and achieved beyond expectations! We are so proud of them!

Just for a little perspective; finishing 8th grade in the Sudanese curriculum is not as easy as it in the U.S. Homework, classwork, previous exams- none of this counts in the end. It all comes down to a series of exams. This would be something like needing to pass the SAT to graduate 8th grade. The students take one exam per subject. The scores for each student are tallied and if the total exam is high enough, the student passes. For those students who have passed, they now have a primary school certificate. That, in and of itself is a great achievement for many students. Furthermore, they can now continue in secondary school at St. Andrew's.

I recently spent a couple of weeks gathering information about the students in our Adult Education classes. I was amazed that we had students with all sorts of previous education. I was specifically surprised by large numbers of two groups; people who have a master's degree and people who have never been to school, not even kindergarten. Overall, I think most of our Adult students have a primary school education only. This reminded me how important all of our school programs are!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Welcome to the "New Egypt!"

Graffiti on a wall across from our apartment

“We had elections a few weeks ago.” I was catching up with an Egyptian friend of mine. She filled me in on the past few weeks here while she helped me clean our apartment. “And for the first time in my life, I voted!” She said this with a huge smile.

I do not know the exact age of my friend, but I suspect her to be in her 60's or 70's. She expressed with such joy, the newness of going vote confidently. This is what I see all around me in Egypt. The streets have less trash. Everything has a fresh coat of paint. And people are expressing something I had not heard much of in our short time here before: hope.

A huge sign with pictures from the protests. We have seen this in almost every metro (subway) stop. I love the little girl on the right!

Here's a close up of her.
This sign is posted by the elevators in our apartment building. I'm told it reminds people to be thankful to God for all things, to thank the young people for cleaning up trash from the streets, and to keep the streets clean by not throwing trash and not spitting.
Paul with what we call "Egypt Trees".  They have always painted the trees here but they are usually white, now they are the colors of the flag,. Symbols of national pride are everywhere.

The crescent and the cross, a symbol of tolerance, painted together on a wall. And even the electrical box on the right is painted like the flag!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Return to Egypt

We are happy to announce we will be redeployed to Egypt! We will travel on March 31. Our schedules for the first day are already full so we should be quite busy. But we will take time to update you before too much time passes.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Rest of the Story

Sunday morning Peter picked us up at our apartment. As we walked out of the building, we said goodbye to the men who were standing guard on our steps. These were the same men who had held vigil all night, still holding their weapons: knives, sticks, or pipes. Some of them were people we knew, others were men we had not met before.

Along the drive we marveled at how Cairo had changed. Almost all of the streets were blocked off with large tree branches, police barricades, fires in buckets, dumpsters, all kinds of things. We couldn't drive more than two minutes without needing to stop at a road block. At each road block, we identified ourselves to the men who were there. These were other “neighborhood watch” groups, guarding their own areas. After we identified ourselves, they would move the obstructing object and we would drive on, down to the next group of men. These men were practically the only people out.

Never have we seen Cairo so empty. Never have we seen the roads or buildings so clearly. There has always been a never ending stream of people, cars, donkey carts, and bicycles. These things are too colorful for us to have really noticed the backdrop. Cairo looked run down.

We left for the airport at noon on Sunday. Our flight was early Monday morning, but because there was a curfew preventing people from being out from 3pm to 8am we had to go very, very early. The airport was packed with people. In our terminal, the duty free shop and a coffee shop were the only places open. All other stores had run out of food and goods. What the two remaining stores did not have is water. (Egypt is a country where you can drink the water, but if you are not accustom to it you will undoubtedly become sick.) I am sure this was frightening for all of the tourists who were stuck waiting. We came prepared. We had all brought along food to share. Our group of 10 people ate the entire kilo of cheese between dinner and breakfast! We “slept” on the floor. Mostly I think we just lay there to pass the time.

Monday morning our flight was a no-go. Not to worry, we had reservations on a second flight in the afternoon, just in case. Unfortunately, we would not make it onto that flight either. This was, apparently, a time when holding a ticket for a flight was no guarantee. As a group we had to choose; spend another night at the airport or go back into Cairo, to a place that had so far been quieter than ours. We were out of food and water so we chose to return to Cairo.

We arrived at 2:30 and I went with a coworker to the grocery store. There was a shockingly long line. We had 30 minutes before curfew, so I got in line right away while she picked up food for the group. This particular store was out of basic goods like bread, fruits, and vegetables. Later I learned that this was not the case in most parts of town. Even though I waited in line for the whole 30 minutes we did not make it to the front before 3pm. We finished as quickly as we could and returned to our housing. The rest of the day and most importantly, the night, was quiet with only a few sounds of gunshots or tanks rolling by. Despite the quiet of the night, I still felt afraid. This was a sad realization for me because I really loved living in Cairo.

Tuesday, February 1st we flew out of Cairo, courtesy of the US Embassy. We spent the night in Istanbul, a beautiful city, then we flew back to the US. Currently, we are in St. Paul, MN. We have been well cared for here by the ELCA and by surrounding churches. We are willing to return to Egypt, if the ELCA and seminary deem it possible. If we do not return, we will go somewhere else for Paul to finish internship. We will put out an update when we find out where we'll be headed next.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Saturday, January 29

The next day, Saturday, was a big day for us. This was the day Paul's parents were to leave, the day we tried to get money out of multiple ATM machines only to find they were all out of service, and the day that police were no where to be seen.

After our failed attempt to withdraw money, we went to stock up on food. Could the stores run out of food? Would the employees stop showing up to open the stores? How long would our money last? Paul's parents helped us to stock up. Paul's dad insisted we buy an entire kilogram (over two pounds) of gouda cheese. At noon we said goodbye to Paul's parents. They gave us all of their Egyptian Pounds, hugged us and got into a taxi. From there we could only hope that they would be able to depart. We had heard that all planes had been grounded, but the US Embassy encouraged them to try anyway. In the end, they were on one of two flights that departed for Europe on Saturday. We did not have cell phone or internet service, but we did continue to watch the news on the TV. We knew that, like Friday, Tahrir Square and other parts of downtown swelled with people protesting.
Not long after that we began to hear stories of looting. Apparently with the lack of police, looters were going to the neighborhoods of the wealthy and expats. Already, some of the major stores had been broken into and their merchandise stolen overnight. At about 3 in the afternoon, I looked out on the balcony and my heart sank. I saw men, several dozen of them, standing on the door to our apartment building. They were holding sticks, lead pipes, and knives. Some of them were standing in the street, yelling at those who were standing on our stairs. I ran inside and told Paul what I had seen.
We ran next door to our neighbor’s apartment. I had actually never seen them, but Paul had met them once and told me there was a young woman who teaches English and lives with her parents and other family. So, we went to their door and the English teacher answered. After we introduced ourselves and told them what we had seen she told us, “Do not worry. They are men from our building and they are there to protect us from the looters.”
We live in a big apartment building, it has over 20 floors, and the other buildings by us are like ours, so there are a lot of men to protect us. This gave us some comfort. We returned to our apartment and after about 20 minutes someone knocked on our door. It was our neighbor. She handed us a pitcher and said “Orange juice. Do not worry, they will keep us safe.”
Such kindness in the midst of such anxiety and chaos, but also typical Egyptian hospitality.
That night, there was a lot of noise. Firecrackers, gunshots, whistles, men yelling, and on one occasion, women screaming from a nearby building. We learned we could recognize some gunfire from firecrackers by the rhythm. I remember one point Paul was on the phone with Michelle, updating them again on our situation when he abruptly broke off the conversation with, “Michelle, I hear a lot of gunfire really close to us. I will call you back.”
At one point we woke up in the night to very loud cries from the men downstairs, “Teleta Arabaya.” This means three cars. There was a whole message about these three cars, but our Arabic is not good enough to pick it out. The cries about the three cars began to our left. But the men were passing the message down, and the yelling moved down the block, below us, and then to our right. After a minute, someone from the local mosque, to the right of us, made an announcement over the loudspeaker to the whole community about the three cars.
At another time, we awoke to men yelling “Mustashfa!” This is the word for hospital. We crept out on our balcony, on our bellies because there was still gunfire, to see what was happening, because the hospital is just across the street from us. We saw lots of men had climbed up on the hospital wall, looking out into the complex. After some time and some yelling, they gave up what they were looking for and dropped back onto our street. Sure enough, when they dropped off the wall, we saw a man go running through the hospital field.
These groups protecting their homes became known as neighborhood watch groups. Throughout the city people had organized themselves. In many cases they organized themselves so that they protected in shifts, some sleeping at home while others were outside. When they were successful at catching looters, they were turned in to the army, who arrested them.
The last time we talked with Peter on the phone he told us we were going to leave. In the morning, he would pick us up in his car and we would go to the airport. So we packed our second bag and two carry on bags, unsure of what would happen or if we might return.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Protests Spread

The first thing I remember about Friday morning was surprise. We had no cell phone service and no internet. It was surprising just how cut off we felt from the rest of the world. We did have an antique (literally) phone that worked through the land line, which was not shut off. We could call people locally through that.

This was supposed to be Paul's parents' last day in Cairo. So in the morning we did what everyone does on their last day, we went souvenir shopping. There were not many people out on the streets, but they were by no means empty. And the shops were open. When we saw our first protesters they went marching along an overpass that crossed the street we were on. They were chanting loudly, but walking peacefully. It took about a minute for them to pass. Later, at lunch, Paul's father came to me after looking at the TV and said, “Wow, they really came out for this today.” He was referring to the news showing downtown filling with people.

Before long we were back at home, glued to the news. People had filled the downtown areas, especially Tahrir Square, the place where Paul and his parents had been just last week to see the museum. At some  point, I remember reports the police were using tear gas. Then I remember reports that the police were firing rubber bullets at protesters. We could go out on our balcony and could see smoke from downtown. Soon it was dark. Down the street from us we could hear a lot of commotion.  Then from somewhere close, we started to hear gunfire. And we could hear a big crowd of people. The TVs were showing videos of the protesters trying to push police trucks into the Nile. Reports were that the people had become very angry with the police. Then, down the street, we could see the crowd we had been hearing, illuminated by a fire. Our local police station, and the trees surrounding it began to burn. We could see throngs of people running around it, throwing things at the building. We had begun to regularly update our boss Peter, and we called him once again.

It is difficult to explain why the people would attack the police. There could be many reasons. Whatever the reason, Friday night, the people of our community expressed their anger as a powerful group. I remember as went to bed that night Paul said, “If I were a police man I just wouldn't show up to work tomorrow.” With this thought in our heads, listening to the protests continuing on our street, we tried to sleep.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ramping Up...

How to define such a historic moment for Egypt? I don't imagine we can in any complete way, but here's a description of our experiences of the first few days of protests. We'll share more stories soon.

The first of the large protests was scheduled for a Tuesday which the government was calling “Police  Appreciate Day.” A few days before this we were actually (ironically) on vacation with my parents several hours to the south of Cairo. Our first hint that this could be big was from our tour guide who told us that he was getting countless facebook messages from his friends encouraging him to join a big anti-government protest for an event that the people were renaming“Police Brutality Day.”

We arrived back in Cairo from our vacation Tuesday morning. When we arrived at the train station our driver loaded us into his van, but then he said that we needed to wait a minute so that a police car could escort us back to our place. Our driver assured us that this was normal, but Stephanie and I new that it was not, because we had never heard of or seen such a practice before. But we arrived back in our apartment easily enough,. The protests on Tuesday were very large indeed.

For the next two days one could avoid the reality of the protests if one wanted to, as they were confined to the downtown area around Tahrir square. On Wednesday, which was the day Stephanie took my parents to see the pyramids just outside of Cairo, I (Paul) got word that protests in Tahrir square were getting heated, and so I decided I needed to give them a call to warn them to avoid driving through downtown on their return journey. I heard Stephanie pick up and began to speak my warning, but was interrupted with...  “Paul, your mom is getting on a camel!!! Woo Hoo!!!”

This was not what I wanted to talk about. But the surreal truth of that moment was that Cairo existed in two worlds. One that was the same as always, and one that existed downtown that called for drastic change. But they arrived home safe, and Thursday was similar in it's split reality to Wednesday.

On Friday, the protests came to us all...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Back in the United States

Due to unrest in Egypt we have been evacuated. We are now back in the United States. Thanks for your continued prayers and well wished for us, and for the Middle East. We will share stories and updates as time goes on.

Paul and Steph

Friday, January 7, 2011

Struggles and Solidarity

I was stopped by the police as I was walking into our church compound for worship this morning. “What is your name?” I was a little nervous, I have never been stopped by them before.
“Stephanie,” I told him.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“The US.”
“The US?”
“Yes, I'm American.”
At this point, our usual gatekeeper came out and said something in Arabic and the officer told me I could go on in.

Some other members we questioned or had to show their ID's before entering. The increase in security is a result of a bombing that happened on New Years. The bombing was in Alexandria, a city a couple of hours away from us. In the bombing, 22 people were killed and many others were wounded as they were leaving a church service. In the aftermath there has been some protesting, some anger, a lot of sadness, and some solidarity between Christians and Muslims.

We should tell you that the violence here was aimed at Egyptians and not foreigners. Our everyday life has not been interrupted and we feel as safe as ever. Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones, or who feel uncertain about their safety now.

Last night was Coptic (Egyptian Christian) Christmas Eve. A woman at church told us the story of the Christmas Eve service her daughter attended. Inside the church it was packed. All of the seats were full and there were crowds of people standing. Outside the church, Muslim men stood guard. They were lined up along the outer gates and sides of the compound. These men were not paid, not security guards, they were everyday Egyptians, in a powerful display of solidarity with their Christian neighbors. Thanks be to God for this.

Let us join with the Egyptian people as we pray for healing and peace in this place.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy New Year!

To start things off, we'll go back to mid December, when the semester ended at school. We had a wonderful time of celebration! First we had a day of sports. The kids were all really into this. In this video you can see some of the children cheering for their team. "Mandella! Ohoh-ohoh."

The very last day of school was the closing ceremony. Students and their parents filled all of the seats and floor space of our Guild Hall. The students were given awards and performed dances. Here some of the children are in costume, performing a Sudanese wedding dance.

Before Christmas we spend some time preparing our worship space for the festivities. First, the congregation had a cleaning day. We came together to wipe away the layers of dust that inevitably covers everything in Cairo. In this picture Paul and some congregation members are working in the sanctuary. Then we had a decorating day. In addition to the usual Christmas decorations, we used the beauty of God's creation with a live Christmas tree and green leaves from the trees outside to spruced up our windows. For us living in the desert, green plants have become very, very beautiful indeed.

It is an interesting thing, celebrating Christmas in a country that doesn't. Unlike the US where stores and the media start reminding that it will soon be Christmas more than a month in advance, here it is mostly unnoticed. But still, Christmas in Cairo was wonderful. We had a beautiful Christmas Eve service with lots of hymns, some from the American tradition, some from other places. Paul attended a Christmas Day service for the Sudanese churches. The 3 hour service included lots of singing, preaching, and even baptisms.

Finally, we really celebrated New Year's in style. A church member lives in a very tall building. We joined her on her roof for a small party. We were on top of one of the tallest buildings in Cairo. We watched boats go along the Nile and the huge expanse of city lights. And then, it was New Year's and we were above all the fireworks. From up there, we could see them all around us. It was really amazing.