Reflection on a Middle East Pilgrimage, Part 2

Reflection on a Middle East Pilgrimage, Part 2

In March 2016, Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ led a delegation of church leaders to the Middle East to meet ministry partners there. Disciples Mission Fund and Week of Compassion support these partners and many others in the land where Jesus and the apostles first walked and where their descendants still live today.  The following is the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins’ second reflection on the trip.  The first is available here.

Egypt. One of the stepping off points for the Arab Spring – and for the disappointment that followed. Land of pharaohs and pyramids, of desert and of fertile Nile basin. Home to the most Christians of any Middle Eastern country. Ten percent of Egyptians are Christian.

That Jesus spent time in Egypt matters: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15 quoting Hosea 11:1) The Apostle Mark himself is said to have founded the church there. The Coptic Orthodox Pope traces his ecclesial lineage in an unbroken chain of laying on of hands to Mark.

On a recent Global Ministries trip, Disciples and United Church of Christ leaders visited Christian – and Muslim – partners in Egypt, partners who are witnessing for peace with justice, democracy, and God’s wholeness. My UCC colleague, John Dorhauer, has spoken movingly of our visit with the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

Our time with Christian partners was powerful. With the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), we met women freed from domestic oppression through the development of their marketable skills – and we bought their handiwork! We met children – children – whose work in factories has been made more humane and bearable. Each story involved inclusion on boards or committees as “elected” members. Capacity-building in democracy is part of the witness.

At dinner with CEOSS staff, I asked the woman in charge of micro loans to tell her favorite story of lives changed through our shared work there. She described a young woman, married and sent off to live with her husband’s family, but who returned home a year later, divorced and with a child. Now a burden to her own father, she almost lost hope. Then she noticed that the family land, along a highway, was perfectly placed to offer emergency gasoline to motorists running short of fuel before the next gas station.

With a small loan from CEOSS, she set up an emergency stop. Soon she noticed that the motorists sometimes had need of spare parts or small repairs as well. Another micro loan – plus the use of a room in her brother’s house as a small shop – set her up to expand her business. The young woman now (after a series of loans – each one paid off before receiving the next) not only supports herself but her whole extended family.

CEOSS gives micro loans to over 60,000 people, and has a goal by 2020 to reach 100,000. We are part of these life changing stories.

Our meeting that same day with Dr. Atef Gendy, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, highlighted a deeper kind of witness. Reflecting on the chaotic days of the Arab Spring and following, he said the Christian understanding of incarnation became real. In a world where extremism is just one leader or movement away from reality, Christians in Egypt understand that being the Body of Christ in the world is a solemn and courageous call. The cross is more than an Easter proclamation. It is a lived reality.

Even so, Christians are called, like Jesus, to live in the world now as we believe God wants the world to be. We should be salt. Egyptians, working to build a new society, want no part of a theology that places all hope in the end of time. Rather they feel called to work now for freedom and democracy, based on a vision of God-given dignity for all. Dr. Gendy said the Christian message of forgiveness: “Don’t hate back,” impressed moderate Muslim neighbors and helped forge a relationship of mutual commitment to a new day in Egypt.

These are our Global Ministries partners in God’s mission. May we have the courage to embody justice in our own settings as they do in theirs – and may we have the integrity to share God’s abundance as it has come to us, so that our partners’ challenges are lightened. “Out of Egypt, I called…”