My work at the seminary took a frenzied turn two weeks ago as we ramped up for graduation 2006. I attended several functions including a cook-out, which gave the graduates one more chance to get together in a social setting before the graduation, a baccalaureate, and the graduation itself. I did a large amount of work on three PowerPoint presentations. They were primarily directed at a group of visitors from Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA who visited with us for several days. One was for their arrival, to familiarize them with Evangelical Theological Seminary (ETSC), another was for the graduation itself, and the last was to explain the future goals of ETSC (read: we need your contributions in order to carry out our future goals).
After I completed the presentations I helped out by shuttling the visitors around to Coptic Cairo, facilitating events with ETSC faculty and students, and by touring the Cave Churches of Moquattam. Fortunately, I had never visited the Cave Churches, so there was something new to see even for me.
The Cave Churches are in a section of Cairo called the Moquattam Hills, in a community commonly referred to as “Garbage City.” The Christians of Garbage City have a very unique ministry. They collect the garbage of Cairo, which is pervasive on the streets of the city, and return it to their homes where they sort out recyclable materials. Then they use the materials in many ways, from making trinkets that they sell to tourists, to shipping large amounts of metals to China, which are in turn used in the manufacture of electronics, some of which might wind up in our homes in America.
It is a huge operation that touches every member of the community. As we drove into the area, our guide told us that often times the residents of the communities fill the first floor of their apartments with garbage that they pick through, while they live in the floors above. Our guide assured us that while the homes look dilapidated, many of the citizens of Garbage City are quite well off. After all, they take things nobody wants and turn a profit out of it. It’s a pretty disgusting way to live, fraught with dangers and health risks I probably haven’t even begun to imagine; after all it was pretty much a garbage dump in the middle of a residential area. Later we saw the reason for this way of life.
We passed out of the community and through a gate. We noticed there was no more garbage in the streets or in the buildings. We had entered a compound that contains a Coptic Orthodox monastery and several Orthodox churches, which were built in caves deep within the hills. The sheer walls of the “hills” that stood on our left were covered with enormous carvings of Jesus and the apostles. I even saw the Ten Commandments carved in Arabic near the top of the cliff. Our bus wound around on the road as we looked up at the gigantic reliefs through our windows before we came to a sunken area in which sat a mosaic dome.
We bounded off the bus, and the first thing we noticed was the faint smell of garbage from the nearby Garbage City community, but I think we were all in such awe over what we were seeing that we didn’t really pay it much mind.
Behind and below the mosaic dome was the first cave church we would visit. Now, when I first heard the words “cave church” I was thinking of a bear cave, a room no larger than a McDonalds, what I saw was a space with arena seating. The space under the tons and tons of rock was enormous with thousands of seats. A Christian man in a floor-length robe spoke in Arabic about the origins of the church, but I couldn’t hear the translation. I am sure it was important so I’ll see if I can look it up and get back to you.
We visited another cave church that had even more seats. My friend, Brice told me that on the World Day of Prayer in 2005, this particular cave church held 20,000 people! There were several more smaller cave churches, but we didn’t have time to visit them all.
Now, back to the people of Garbage City. All those people that pick through the garbage to find recyclable materials donate a significant portion of their income to the Cave Churches and the monastery. At the same time they are working to reuse materials to be kinder to our environment, they are using the profits of their work to support these amazing places of worship. That’s faith! That’s a life in service to the church and to God if I have ever heard of one. Amazing.
I have begun to say goodbye to several of my friends even though I am not leaving for some time. Of course, since the graduation at ETSC, students I have gotten to know are dispersing to be pastors at various churches across the country. One of my closest friends is named Tukei and he is from Uganda. He graduated with a masters degree and has since returned to his home. I miss him greatly.
We did manage to have a party for Tukei before he left, and it was an amazing cross section of the cultures that are present in Cairo. The difference in cultures became really apparent when we were all “required” to sing a song. Tukei began with some very African-sounding Christian songs. Some were in English, some were in his native tongue.
Esther, who is from the Philippines, though she is Chinese by birth, followed Tukei. She sang a lilting Chinese song, and I never would have known it had she not told me, but it was a Christian song. It’s amazing how Christianity has been assimilated into so many different cultures in so many wonderful ways.
The Americans all joined together to sing “Father Abraham,” the campfire favorite. We also participated in a few songs led by a man from Sudan. My friend “Ramsis” from Iraq also sang a beautiful, though sad sounding Christian song, all in Arabic. The Egyptians rounded out the evening with some popular Egyptian songs.
At the end of the evening Tukei told us how much he appreciated us all getting together to see him off. The party was a surprise to him as my friend Brice kept him occupied while we gathered in Brice’s apartment, so I think he was genuinely surprised that we were honoring him. Tukei is now in Uganda, and will resume his position as pastor at his church.
I am also saying goodbye to several of my fellow YAV’s. We are having our “year-end” retreat this weekend because five members of our group are laving for America next week. They are all leaving early for several reasons. Some need to prepare to resume college, another has to get back and complete some requirements in order to begin teaching in the fall. I think a few are leaving simply because Cairo is a hard place to live and they have gotten to an unhealthy emotional state. Teri and I will also be leaving a little early, only because we don’t have much of a choice. Most of Cairo shuts down during July and August because it’s just too hot to work. Many Cairenes migrate to cooler temperatures in Alexandria or other coastal areas for several weeks. Also, most of our ex-pat support network is leaving for interpretation work in the U.S. So, we aren’t left with much of a choice. Our plane tickets were recently changed and confirmed for July 17th.
There’s one last thing that has had me really excited over the last several days. Once I got my web site up and running again, an Executive Producer at MSNBC contacted me. She told me she had seen my videos of the pyramids and wanted to use them on her show, “The Most with Alison Stewart.” She said she also wanted to interview me! I gave her my contact information by email and she called me yesterday to interview me. She asked me all kinds of questions and I was really nervous when I answered them. I hope my voice wasn’t too shaky. And then they aired the segment on yesterday’s show. What an amazing year this has been! Someday I hope I can see the segment.
Make sure to check out the new photos I have posted. They go along with this journal entry.
I hope all is well with you. Drop me an email, as I would love to hear from you. Take care.
Yours in Christ,