Cairo, Copts, Egypt, Pilgrimage, Sister Maria Shenouda, travel
A breakfast of foul again. Since it’s Friday, most of the sisters are fasting, but some come down for tea. We share photos, and I learn new words like “husband”, “wife”, “son”, “sister”. All the sisters are telling me how much they’ll miss me. And I will miss them. Probably more than they could imagine.
In January I felt completely included in my Breakthrough group – a “secular” group. I don’t believe anymore there is any such thing as “secular”. We all have differing degrees of awareness of God within us, and differing degrees of openness to giving God room in our lives. At any rate, this is my first time to feel overwhelmingly loved in, and to wholeheartedly want to belong to a Christian community. I think I’ve been learning over the years to forgive the weaknesses, discrepancies and hypocrisies I’ve encountered among Christians. But I’ve been unable to wholeheartedly embrace Christian groups. Perhaps it’s my culture as an educated Westerner. We have to qualify everything. We’re always hedging! How much do we want to really own the things we say we believe in and cherish? Where do I really stand with my fellow Christians? Are they my brothers and sisters?
I’ve always said in the past that I wouldn’t want to belong to a community. All I’ve seen of communes and communities is either their breakdown because of relationship problems, or the abuse of authority. But this community is a group that seems to work. It’s a group of people I’ve felt completely accepted by, and they have healed broken pieces of my soul. This community amazes me with their frank, unabashed, shameless love of Jesus. Just as it’s natural for them to tell me they love me, they are unashamed to talk about their love for Jesus. In fact, their faces take on a radiant expression as soon as they start talking about Jesus. In this community, I find I’m not embarrassed to hear this. In fact, I want to grow in this. I want to be more shameless about what is important to me. I am moved in a deeper way than I ever imagined possible to be included in this group. I will savor this and let this feeling of inclusion grow in my heart.
The sisters and staff here are asking me when I’ll come back. I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that it will be next year.
I share my photos with Sister Maria. She corrects some of my misperceptions about things I’ve experienced. When we get to the picture of St. Mary that Sister Amina sewed, Sister Maria tells me amazing things about some apparitions of Mary that she herself has seen. I’ve written more about this in the section about the faith of the sisters. Sister Maria is smashing even more of my Protestant convictions. It is really true that the more you talk to people of other backgrounds and faiths, you will be changed by these encounters. I think those who are open will be changed positively by conversing openly with others of different backgrounds who are also open.
It’s time for you to leave,” says Sr. Maria, just as I’m about to show her the last of the photos. “I’m so sorry we couldn’t show you more of Cairo, but it wasn’t possible with the situation we have now.”
I’m not sure what she means by “situation”.
It’s not very safe here for you in Cairo right now,” she explains. “We are concerned.”
I leave with Rohmy and Sr. Monika for the airport just after noon. Outside each mosque we pass, the imam’s sermon is being broadcast. Outside one mosque, I see that the road is blocked by people sitting on mats they’ve laid on the dirt road. But each voice I hear sounds angry to me. It’s a little scary.
Some of the nights, when the call to worship wakes me up, I’ve been thinking that the voice of the caller sounds strident, perhaps even angry. But I’ve been wrong so many times, I would never venture to claim what the caller feels. But it is a strong, commanding voice, and it does frighten me a little. When I hear the sisters or Marsa singing Christian worship songs in Arabic as they work, it sounds cheerful, and it lifts my soul.
The other day after classes, Reda, Emed, the school director and I were sitting in the courtyard, talking. We heard the call to worship, and I said, “I think they and we are praying to the same God.” They responded by telling me that if a Muslim becomes a Christian, the family will try and kill that person.
“What about educated people? Dentists, doctors, teachers? Would they kill a son, for example, if he became a Christian? I ask.
“No, but they would certainly shun him, and there would be no more contact for the rest of his life. That’s why it’s so hard for a Muslim to become a Christian. There are, however, many Muslims who secretly follow Jesus.”
It’s hard for me to accept the idea that most adherents of a religion would shun or even kill their own children if they convert to another religion. The nice Muslims I’ve met on my other trips to Egypt and Turkey? It just doesn’t fit. But then, the Muslims I’ve talked to are open-minded people, people who I imagine hold similar beliefs to mine, people who also are changed when they open themselves to people of different backgrounds and beliefs. They wouldn’t shun their children if they converted, would they? The thought makes me shudder. Oh, well, leave it. I’m an outsider, with little personal knowledge of the Muslim world. I do know a lot more now about a certain Coptic community. These are my thoughts as we continue on to the airport.
Sister Monika asks if I’ve left the lyrics to the song “You Raise Me Up” in the dining room. I have. “Do you have the song with you?” she asks. “Could I hear it again?” I do. I take out my cell phone and play the song for Rohmy and her. I tell her about the Breakthrough group I went to in January and how healing that was for me. I tell her that being at the Salam Center has also been healing for me. She understands my English, and she smiles.
We arrive, and I have to part from my brother and sister in Christ. I only hope I can be as courageous as they are, in living my faith. I pray for their safety and for the safety of their community.
I go into the airport, greet the check-in agent in Arabic, and tell him I love Egypt. He smiles and says, “I hope we will see you here again.” I wander around the duty-free shops. My heart is burning with gratitude for this country, and for the community I’ve been living with for the past two weeks.
I buy a pair of earrings in one of the duty-free shops. On the receipt, the sales clerk signs her name “Mary”. I know that Muslims are also called “Mary”, but this clerk hasn’t covered her hair. I take a chance with this nice young woman.
“Are you a Copt?” I ask. Yes, she is. I tell her a little about what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks. I tell her my only regret is that the sisters were unable to find another CD from the Christian music group “Better Life” for me. I ask Mary, “Do you know this group?”
Her eyes light up. “Oh, yes! In my car I have a CD in my car I listen to and sing along with all the time on my way to and from work. I love them!”
“Do you think they might sell any of their CDs in the airport?” I doubt this very much, but I did once see CDs from the Australian Christian group “Hillsong” in the Melbourne duty-free shop.
“No, I’m sure they won’t have any. I wish so much I could help you. If I could, I’d go myself and get you a CD, but there aren’t any here.”
We finish our transaction. “God bless you,” she says to me.
At the gate I start talking to a mother and daughter. “Are you Copts?” I ask. They are. I tell them I’ve just spent two weeks with Coptic sisters. They are very interested. They tell me that the Coptic sisters in Egypt are well known for their good works and kind hearts.
I tell these women that I think the Copts are brave people.
“Yes, we are,” they say. “We’ve been through a lot.”