This is my second call as a pastor. My first was in the suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin, where I was the associate pastor. Needless to say, this tiny church in the heart of downtown Cairo, Egypt, is a different context. But at both Peace and St. Andrew’s one of the things I love about being a pastor is that no day is the same. I can’t give a specific run down about what every day looks like, but yesterday was one of those particularly rich days, so let me share a little bit about it.
When I arrived at the gate after Arabic class, the guards invited me for a Pepsi (which most Egyptians pronounce Bebsi). I treasure this time as time to practice Arabic, watch the comings and goings, and get to know the guards a little better. I sat down in the green plastic chair and chatted a bit in my very broken Arabic. Soon, the Nuer service was done and the children, finished with Sunday School, were running around the courtyard. Usually, only one guard is there at a time, but because the other two were working on a project, all three were there yesterday. The one who was technically on guard duty at the time, a man even shorter than me, who is about 60 and has a smile that lights up his face, stopped a few before they made it to the gate and sent them running back toward the main courtyard. I can finally partake in a bit of the joking and tried to remember the word for angry that I had learned that morning. I pulled out my book to look it up, and then pointed to him, with a huge smile on my face, and said it. He laughed and said, la, la, la, and then pointed and said the word for happy. We all laughed and laughed.
When he heard me say that we went to Saqqara on Saturday, he got very excited and said that his daughter goes to University near Saqqara. I now have the words for daughter and son and was able to learn a little bit about his family. One of the other guards, who has been practicing his English, took my vocabulary book and we started practicing, me sounding out the Arabic, and often, him correcting my pronunciation. We laugh a lot when I practice Arabic with him because I don’t think my Minnesota born and bred throat will ever be able to correctly make the sounds Egyptians make so easily. Sounds that sound beautiful when they make them are ugly and/or non-existent coming from me.
While we sat, drinking our Pepsi, engaged in a make-shift Arabic tutoring session, people began to leave to head home after the Nuer service. I’ve been meeting for a weekly Bible study with the Nuer women. The Bible stories come alive in new ways as they share their insights and questions. They have taught me a few words of Nuer, one of them the greeting, “male mi guaa,” which can be used for something like “how are you?” and “God bless you.” As I stood up to greet them, I was caught up in their firm embraces, with “males” exchanged, along with a few words of Arabic and English. I got to meet several of their children, which was a delight.
And this was all before I had made it more than three steps beyond the gate.
Eventually, I finished my Pepsi and figured I better head up to my office. I wasn’t there long before I was invited for lunch with the StARS Psycho-social and RLAP (Resettlement and Legal Aid Program) staff who had an inservice in the morning. I came down and some of the staff were standing next to the front door. “Don’t be alarmed,” the property manager said, “it’s really raining.” We stood at the door, watching the rain fall, waiting for the meeting to end. When it was clear they were finished, she poked her head in and said, “It’s raining.” Several people, American, Canadian, South Sudanese, and Egyptian, ran for the door. “I haven’t seen rain in a year!” one said. “It smells so good!” said another. They stretched out their hands and lifted their faces to the sky to try to catch the last few drops of what was actually a decent rain storm. Justin even said he heard thunder from our apartment!
Lunch was catered by an awesome Iraqi restaurant. The food was wonderful–a variety of vegetables stuffed with seasoned rice, a sort of patty stuffed with ground beef and potato, and rice with chicken. Even though our property is not that big, I rarely see some of the RLAP and PS staff since they are in a different building. It was good to sit, chat, and catch up with them. To hear a little bit about what they’re working on and what’s been happening in their worlds. Everyone is always busy and there is certainly more to do than we can ever accomplish. But it is an honor to work alongside people who are so dedicated, compassionate, and passionate about the work they do.
When I got back to my office, I checked my email to see an e-mail from a congregation in the States who has had a connection with St. Andrew’s in the past looking to reconnect. I finished the bulletin for the Sunday evening service, gave the guard in charge of trash removal the money he needed for the garbage man, and chatted a bit with the woman who is using the other desk in my office for a few weeks until there is space for her in the StARS office, as well as the property manager and Medical Focal Point physician before they finished up their work for the day.
I went down to start setting up for the Sunday evening service. Soon, a couple who came last week for the first time arrived. I chatted with them a bit and learned that he was an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, who worked primarily at Luxor. We chatted a bit about Luxor, in an anticipation of our upcoming trip, as I set up candles and got things arranged for the service.
St. Andrew’s is a ecumenical and international congregation. There are members from South Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Canada, Egypt, and the US. I am often reminded of the beauty in the diversity of the Body of Christ, but also how small (and fragile) the world is. One of our Filipino members learned last week that her cousin and his 3 year old had been killed by the Typhoon in the Philippines, and she was anxiously awaiting news about his wife and 7 year old. She told me last night that they had given up the search for them when they had not located their bodies at a mass grave site. In this little community, we grieve together, pray together, and give lots of hugs to this sister whom we love so dearly and is grieving so deeply. We also prayed for friends and family undergoing treatment for cancer, heart disease, and mental health issues. We prayed for forgiveness. We gathered around the Table for communion and were fed and nourished by the body and blood of Christ.
I caught a taxi home after the service and gave him directions (in Arabic) to our apartment. When he turned the corner, it looked like a carnival was happening down the street. As we got closer, I realized there were lights strung up all around the church across the street for a wedding. It was quite a spectacle, with strings crossing the street and running above the sidewalk for several yards. Flashing colors and twirling stars made for a joyous wedding scene. Later, we heard the joyous ululations coming from women guests as the bride and groom came out of the church.
Not every day is like this, but each day brings its own joys and challenges. And that is what I love. Having the privilege of sitting with people in the midst of the joys and sorrows, in the shadow of the cross and in the rays of resurrection. Learning and sharing stories about life in all of its ups and downs.
For all of the ways I catch glimpses of God at work in this place, I give thanks. For the ways that communities form and the world grows smaller, I am grateful. For shared laughter and tears, for prayers lifted up in many languages, and the ways that we come together from many places to this particular place at this particular time. It’s good work if you can get it.