Category Archives: Reflections

August Update

Monastery at Wadi el Natrun
Monastery at Wadi el Natrun
The chapel where Pope Shenouda is buried.
The chapel where Pope Shenouda is buried.

 

August 22, 2014

We are well on our way through August and, Insh’allah through the worst of the summer months.  Temps of 40C are common these days, and without a bit of A/C helping us along, I wonder how we would survive. 

So, here’s a bit of an update on things as they are….as of today.   Jane and I have now completed 10 months of a 14 month assignment as interim Country Representatives for MCC in Egypt and while thoughts of our return home begin to occupy more of our time, the work between now and the time we leave includes:

  • Welcoming 10 incoming people, including 4 SALTers, 4 Service Workers, and our replacements. This welcome includes setting up language training and doing an orientation and then getting them placed into their assignments.  After that, we cross our fingers and hope that everything  goes reasonably well.  It seldom happens….
  • A financial review of the full Egypt program that will happen shortly after that;
  • A visit from the MCC head office of staff from two departments. This usually means itinerating them through projects in which they are directly involved;
  • Regional meetings in Sarajevo, Bosnia, at which we brag about all the great things happening in Egypt;
  • A possible learning tour of church-related people coming through the Middle East…another week gone;
  • A full-on program review of the MCC Egypt program;
  • Orientation for the new Country Representatives who, as of very recently, were identified (hemdililah!)
  • Inserted in there somewhere are various deadlines for reports, proposals and other administrative work.

If we are still alive by early December, we then start our journey home via Indonesia, to re-acquaint ourselves with our dear ones there, before we arrive home, Insh’allah, on December 22nd, in time to share family celebrations and light a Christmas Eve candle in our home church.

We are not unhappy that our final months in Egypt will be busy.  Time will certainly not drag.  It will be a departure from recent months, where our workload was much lighter.  We will also get some satisfaction in seeing the results of a lot of planning work to re-build a stronger service worker (SW) presence in the country once again.  For those of you who are interested, MCC’s program in Egypt consists of two significant program “streams”:  (i) a service worker presence where we place SALTers (one year placements)  and SWers (three year placements) into seconded placements, and (ii) a funding component, where we provide funds for work being done by our local agency partners.  Our partners in Egypt are all church-based:  Orthodox, Evangelical and Anglican.  Before the revolutions of the past three years, the two streams occupied a good balance of both.  Since July, 2013, that balance was disrupted and many service workers and SALTers ended their terms early (mostly no fault of their own), and so our time here has been spent on (i) monitoring funded projects, and (ii) working to restore the personnel part of the program.  All of this takes time, but as of the end of August, the absence of service workers in Egypt comes to a dramatic end.

Egypt has provided us with many profound and unique blessings.  I will name only a couple. 

We have learned much about a Christian church that, sadly, our insular, even colonialist, Western Christian world knows little about.  The Christian churches here, particularly the Coptic Orthodox Church, is a church that has learned to endure….for millennia.  Whether it was the persecutions of Romans, or one regime or another, this church has been a religious “fixture” of the Middle East since the time of Mark, the gospel writer.  For those who know their church history, Egypt, along with the rest of North Africa, also formed a very integral part of theological development of the early church….Origen and Augustine being but two of the early Christian theologians.   Alexandria was known to be one of the great centres of Christian thought until about 650 CE, and Egypt was also the founder of monasticism that gained much currency in Europe later on.  We have also learned how much of Old Testament/Torah writings and theology were influenced by Pharaonic religious thought.   We have been humbled, and even saddened, by our lack of knowledge and appreciation of the Coptic Orthodox story.  The story of the Christian church, since the time of Christ, has many sad stories—this is one of them.  Nevertheless, we have opportunities in this age to make amends, and, thanks be to God, that is happening.

The other great blessing that bears mentioning is the relationship that we, as foreign MCCers, have with our Egyptian staff.  The last time we were with MCC, it did not hire local staff at all (it was seen as a service arm of the North American churches and its job was to put North American volunteers into service).  Praise God that has changed.  While the original mandate (of placing service workers) remains, we now also hire local people to work within MCC programs, particularly MCC offices.  All “national staff”, as we call them, are located in our office doing administrative and support work.  They are all dedicated, honest and committed workers, fully engaged in the mission of MCC here.  They are true colleagues; they are the institutional memory of MCC in Egypt; they are a “window” into Egyptian culture for us.  They do strategically important work for our programs.  Without them, we would be “toast”.  Jane and I often reflect on how lucky we have been to be able to work along-side them.

We have been a bit remiss in our communications the past few months…we admire others who are faithful in posting stories and pictures on Facebook…and we probably won’t be writing much more in the coming, much busier, months but we appreciate knowing that our church family and friends are keeping us in their prayers.  Sometimes we are very homesick and other times we are just plain worn out by the heat but overall we are very grateful for this experience and have no regrets.    We read the weekly and mid-weekly bulletins and blogs and Facebook posts and manage to keep in touch that way.  Blessings to you all as you head back to school and other fall routines, and as you move towards Advent and Christmas when we hope to be with you again.

Peter and Jane

Eating very well in Cairo!
Eating very well in Cairo!
Beautiful flowering shagara (tree) in Cairo.
Beautiful flowering shagara (tree) in Cairo.

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SO REMIND ME WHY WE ARE DOING THIS…

IMG_4976Some reflections at 6 months.

We are “retired”.  In the North American context, that usually means something.  Tending the garden.  Volunteering at some worthwhile charity, non-profit or church.  Some safe and comfortable travel.  Visiting the kids and spoiling the grandkids.  Enjoying the fruits of our labour and thrift.  Nothing terribly stressful.

So what on earth are we doing in Cairo, where the heat will, in the next few months, become oppressive, where the traffic is so bad that getting around is always a challenge, where crossing the street as a pedestrian means taking your life in your hands, where the air quality is so bad that one can get one’s hand dirty on a table top you dusted just the previous day—and that’s inside; where urban planning means that probably less than half of the buildings in this city of 20+million have no building permits.  What made us decide to leave a very comfortable and predictable living situation where we enjoyed seeing some of our grandkids growing up in front of our eyes, for noise, chaos and congestion?

Let me try and sort that out—both for ourselves and for any reader who may be wondering why we do something so demanding and so impulsive—so out-of-character with the stable, disciplined couple we think ourselves to be (and maybe you think us to be).

  • So maybe we are not as stable as we appear.  Maybe underneath that façade lurks a shared urgency and spirit of adventure that is not satisfied only with Maui, Bali, Cabo or Palm Springs.  Don’t get us wrong—we love those places, but we know from previous experiences that the world is not defined by them.  It is defined by realities much less pleasant than pina coladas, sunsets and sandy beaches.  Maybe this is our way of staying “in touch” with those realities.
  • Maybe this is our way of not getting stale, too comfortable, or insular.  I don’t say that to make others feel like they might be— there are lots of ways to avoid going stale–it is just OUR way of learning, of staying “fresh”, of expanding our horizons.
  • Maybe we just can’t help ourselves.  We grew up with families and churches that called us to serve and this is our way of doing it.  People find ways to serve in many ways at home and abroad.   As Christians, we don’t really see that as an option.  That is not how we were brought up.  Thanks, parents.
  • Maybe we just had the opportunity.  MCC had an urgent need and we happened along.  Things worked out on the home front to make it possible for us to go without significant difficulty….so far.  Jane and I truly placed this one in God’s hands and we interpreted how things worked out to be indicators that it was “meant to be”.  I don’t know what kind of hermeneutic that is, but that is how we interpreted it as God’s wish, and still do.

Now before I give the impression that this experience has been a real labour of hardship and sacrifice, I want to assure you that it has not been that way to date.  Quite apart from the times of wishing we were home with family and having things predictable, there are a multitude of reasons why we can point to this as a great way to do retirement.  Let me try a few.

  • We have been easily as healthy here as we have been at home.  Neither of us has been sick a day.  Indeed, my need for nasal help for allergies has disappeared.   Given Cairo’s air quality, that remains a complete mystery, but then, allergies still tend to be mysteries anyway.
  • We eat as good (maybe better) here than we do at home.  There is no shortage of good quality food available.
  • Learning?  Did I say something about learning?  Formal education could never replicate what we have learned in Egypt.  This is one amazing place in so many dimensions—political, religious, historical, context….it goes on and on.  We have had our assumptions and beliefs challenged on so many levels, it will take some time to sort it all out.  And that in only half a year.
  • Egyptians are fantastic people.  They have welcomed us.  They have exemplified a faith in and commitment to God from which we have much to learn.  We think as Mennonites our Anabaptist forebears have experienced suffering for their beliefs—and they have.  But they are not alone.  Coptic history is something that we should all know about.  Politically, the struggles now experienced by this country are riveting, real and honest.    What should one expect from Egyptians after decades where there has been no democracy?
  • The Middle East and North Africa are defined by turmoil, strife and suffering.  Egypt is no exception.  Muslims and Christians have trouble getting along.  Muslims and Muslims have an even harder time getting along.  We have come to view fundamentalism (of any religious persuasion) with deep suspicion.  Cairo is itself a city of displaced people…from Upper Egypt, from the Sudans, from Syria, from Eritrea and Ethiopia.
  • Did I mention Egyptian history?  Remember that when we talk about the Pharaonic period, we are talking about thousands of years, when we talk about the Christian period, it goes back to St. Mark, you know, the guy who wrote the first Gospel, and then it is followed by a millennium and a half of Islamic history.  We don’t understand this.  A hundred years for us is a long time.  In Egypt, a thousand years counts for something.  Anything less, is still a historic “baby”.
  • We work together with partners that truly understand what it means to serve people on the margins….villagers in Upper Egypt (a euphemism that is almost everywhere besides Cairo and Alexandria) where poverty is still the norm…..projects that work to improve the lot of women in a society caught in age-old traditions that continue to marginalize them.  Imagine a grown woman feeling proud that she can write her name on the page or on a blackboard!

It will be hard to imagine that we will return home unchanged.  That seems not possible (mafeesh moshkela!).  My hope is that we treat those changes as gifts that have enriched our lives.