Thursday afternoon, Sarah and I boarded a train that we prayed was the right one. We didn't know precisely where we were going, we couldn't pronounce the name of the town, we didn't know what stop to get off at, we just barely made out the arabic to know what platform our train was at, and the train was full of Egyptian men commuting home to the delta at the end of the week. Good times!
When we realized we didn't know what the station would look like, we called Nassif. Nassif is the pastor of the evangelical church in minya-el-qamh, and he was the one who had invited us down to this village in the Nile Delta to speak at the "meeting" (worship service) for university-age youth. Nassif promised he would 'missed-call' us when the train was pulling into the station so we would know to get off. Well, we came to what we thought was probably the station, but no call. We asked a man at the door and he told us this was "minyelgomeh"--which sounded suspiciously like the Upper Egypt version of where we wanted to go. We made one more quick call and discovered we were in the right place and we jumped off as the train was beginning to move. And that's just the beginning of the excitement!
Nassif met us on the platform (after a few minutes of us wondering if we got off in the wrong place!) and walked us through the dirt streets of the village to the church. We turned a corner and saw a huge church building with lots of crosses...but it's the Coptic Orthodox church. We turned into a non-descript doorway that led into a ground-floor flat. It turns out that the evangelical church uses this flat--with a room for a sanctuary, a room for Sunday school, a room for prayer meetings, and a small library--for all its worship, meetings and business because their school and land and church were confiscated under Nasser. You see, the Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt set up schools, and then churches. So churches often used the school building as a worship facility as well. Several decades ago, the Presbyterian church transferred most of the properties to the newly-independent Synod of the Nile of the Coptic Evangelical Church of Egypt (then the Evangelical Presbyterian Church). And then, when abd-el-Nasser came to power, foreigners (especially Christians) were kicked out and a lot of church property was confiscated and church schools were nationalized, becoming government schools. This is what happened in Minya-el-qamh (which, by the way, means something like "land of wheat" and is in the area of Goshen, where the Hebrews stayed while they were in Egypt. There are several traditional biblical sites in the area.). The Evangelical church lost its school and its worship space...and with it, quite a lot of members. The Orthodox church came in and built two large buildings. At one time, all the Christians in the town (about 1/4 of the population) were Evangelical. No longer...primarily because there is no place. One of Nassif's goals is to get money and permission to build a school with a worship space so that some of the families that aren't worshipping or participating will come back to the church.
Anyway, Sarah and I learned all this from Nassif in the prayer-meeting room. Then we heard strains of singing coming from around the corner, and that told us that the women's meeting was starting. So...into the little sanctuary we went. It has movable pews (nice) and the room can hold about 60 people if it's packed to the gills with no room for breathing or fidgeting. Apparently Sunday worship normally has 60 people in attendance. The women's meeting on Thursday night had 11 women and one preteen girl. They read Scripture, prayed a LOT, sang even more, and Nassif preached something about Abigail and Jezebel...in Arabic, so I don't know exactly what he said. After the service, there was snack time: pound cake, date cookies, seven up. yum!
Before the "youth" service--the university aged youth, that is--we had a dinner of fuul and tameyya sandwiches as we met the young adults. And then we were off and running again! The service began (at 7.15--a little late because of our dinner) with a lot of singing--maybe 5 or 6 songs, each introduced (and possibly explained?) by one of the young men. There were several prayers offered, more singing, a psalm read one verse at a time around the room, more singing, more praying, and then....da da da daaaaa!! Me. I spoke to the group of about 17 people aged 17-25-ish (plus one mom) about how Abram and Sarai had their names changed to Abraham and Sarah as signs of their relationship with God, and how Peter became Satan temporarily but was still in relationship with God, and that the wonderful thing about God's covenant with us is that God promises always to be in that relationship--even when we make mistakes we still have the privilege of talking to and listening to God. Then Sarah talked about prayer--when, where, how, what, and why we pray, and about how prayer can help us maintain that relationship we have with God. She talked a lot about listening, too....because who likes to have a friend who only talks about themselves? If Jesus is our friend and Lord, we have to listen as well as speak. She also talked about being bold in our prayer, because we have nothing to hide and nothing to fear--only a God who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. It was a good talk.
It's interesting to speak to an Egyptian church because, of course, we had to be translated. Nassif stood with us and translated each sentence. Which means I had to stop after every sentence and let him translate. Which is something that really messes with your momentum, let me tell you! It was strange...especially since I didn't have any written notes (I'd preached the sermon twice and was really just excerpting and adapting from that) so I felt like I was repeating myself because I kept losing my train of thought while he was talking. But Sarah said I wasn't repetitive, so that's good.
After we spoke, we prayed and then there was more singing. Then a benediction from Nassif, and then more snack time--and it was 9pm! We'd been in there for nearly 2 hours. We spent some time talking with some of the young people, especially with a 17 year old young woman named Demmiana. She goes to the Secretarial College here at RCG--the one just downstairs. (that's right--she's one of the girls we push past and who swarm us constantly whenever we leave the building during school hours.) She takes the train up to Cairo every morning and home every evening, about an hour each way. She's a real sweetheart. She's actually Coptic Orthodox, but participates at the Evangelical church because those are her friends. also apparently the orthodox church is heavy into the guilt-and-shame thing and her self-esteem needs a boost, which she finds from her evangelical friends and pastor. She is probably one of the nicest people I've met in Egypt. Nassif says that his church is trying to show her the truth, and to build up her self-esteem and sense of herself as a good woman and a good believer. hmm.
From my experience in this village, I have a couple of interesting thoughts.
First about music: often we hear that missionaries did a lot of harm in the 18th and 19th centuries by bringing Western culture and Western forms of church and imposing them on people in other lands. I know that to be true in many places. One of the signs of this is often found in the music: Western hymns translated (or sometimes with locally written words) being sung in indigenous churches. I am here to tell you that this is not a problem in the Egyptian church...no no no. In fact, I recognized not a single tune out of the probably 15 songs I heard on Thursday evening. The music sounded decidedly Middle Eastern and fit the Arabic language well. It had that slide-y sound and modal flavor that is only found in the Middle East. I don't know enough Arabic to tell you what any of the songs were about, but people sang them with great fervor.
Second about the protestant/orthodox split in Egypt: Nassif is trying to teach Demmiana the "truth"...which seems like something that the Evangelical church probably doesn't have an exclusive hold on. I sincerely hope and pray that evangelicals don't see themselves as the only ones who know the truth, leaving the orthodox christians out in the cold. I know that's what the Orthodox think, but I hope the protestants are a little more open minded. However, it seems maybe not. It's dangerous when you need to start converting the other Christians, and I hope it doesn't come to that. (I learned while I was there, too, that evangelicals don't use the term "Christian" the same way everyone else does. "Christian" refers to the religion, but "believers" are the people who participate and whatnot. One can be Christian and not a believer.)
Third about the village church: wow. This was a vibrant church. Small, yes, but vibrant. On Friday they had a family day, with worship and a church picnic. They have worship on Sunday morning and evening, they have women's, high school, and university meetings (worship) on Thursdays. They normally have activities on Fridays. They have prayer groups. There are about 100 families that are members, according to Nassif, and 60 people come to each worship on Sunday, plus the mid-week services. For a church with basically no property, no home, this is amazing. They have experienced so much adversity, they are still persecuted in a subtle way (churches can't buy property or build anything without a permit, which is hard to get and takes a long time and often isn't granted; the orthodox church has come in and displayed its wealth and influence by building two large buildings, etc.), and yet they are thriving. In a town of 100,000, with only 20,000 Christians, they are a minority of a minority, but they love the Lord and it shows.
It was a great night. Sarah and I headed back to take a train at 10.15pm, which brought us back to Cairo at 11.25. oy! We had to turn around and be back at the station by 7 the next morning, so we were quick to get to bed when we got home. all in all, a wonderful experience. I hope I can go back to that church sometime.
I posted photos of this church on my yahoo photos page...check it out!