Egypt: Day 2

“Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.” – Sara Ahmed


Rev. Lorenza Smith and I had a good first full day in Egypt (Tues. Sept 17).   After meeting with colleagues and talking with locals, we were ready to attempt to travel to El Minya, Egypt.  (A city 4 hours south of Cairo where 30 of the 85+ church attacks took place in August of 2013.)    Our first night (after striking out with many drivers) we met a man named Achmed outside our hotel who owned a nice car and committed to get us to Minya along with a translator.   We agreed to meet at 7:30am on Wednesday morning.

7:30 arrived bright and early.  After breakfast we met Achmed outside our hotel.  He was there and on time and ready to take us to Minya.  But we ran into a problem.   There was no translator in the car with him.   After some translation, Achmed informed us that his translator (who was his uncle) had slept in and was not able to join us on the trip to Minya.   Not knowing the state of the town (after the military invasion…see the last post), Lorenza and I tried to get Achmed to find a translator (for our safety and communication) but he was unable to get one that day.   After more broken communication we agreed to try again tomorrow and Achmed promised to find us a translator.    We went back to our hotel discouraged but still focused on the mission at hand.  

These were the times Rev. Smith taught me a lot about traveling light and trusting in God.

After discussing our choices together, Lorenza and I had our hotel bellman find us an English-speaking taxi driver (which was hit or miss due to the lack of tourism) so we could talk to him about traveling around Cairo to visit some sites affected by the protests and political fall out.  After waiting for about 30 more minutes our bellman introduced us to a driver named Muhammad.  And he spoke English!

After walking to his car and talking with him about our plan, Muhammad began telling us his view about the political landscape in Egypt.  Muhammad was a Sunni Muslim and favored the removal of President Mubarak in 2011 (although he thought Mubarak was an okay leader…just was in power too long).   After the election of President Morsi, he (like the majority of Egyptians) grew frustrated with the Morsi administration, the disorganized government, and growing extremist views.  He supported the removal of Morsi and the Army’s control of the interim government.  He was very honest (with coarse language) about how he felt about the current state of his nation and displayed a sadness towards the division it has caused so many people.  When it came to the USA.   He loves American people (maybe because we were in his taxi.  But he despised our Government and the Obama administration.)  His lecture on the political issues in Egypt lasted for about 30 minutes.

When we told him our plan to visit Minya and the burned churches he quickly understood the purpose behind our mission but just as quickly refused to take us to the town.   “I would love to get paid, feed my family, and take you to the place you want to go” he said firmly, “but my life, my family, and your life is more important than money.  I will not risk it… I am sorry.”   

It was shocking to hear him say this.   Not so much because he was refusing the money but it was the first time we heard it said in such a direct tone and point of view.   Would our lives be that much in danger visiting Minya and the burned churches?

After more heartfelt discussion about our faiths he agreed to take us around Cairo (and other secure local areas) and show us the places affected by the resent unrest.  He was excited to teach us the truth about Egypt and dispel the lies we hear from the media.   It was not our first plan for the day but we were on the road and could communicate nicely with the driver.   We were grateful for Muhammad’s honesty and willingness to teach us other points of views.

For the next 2 hours (constantly fighting the Cairo traffic) Mohammad took us around Cairo and showed us many sites relevant to the protests and demonstrations.  We saw barricaded squares, burned police buildings, political headquarters, attacked Mosques, etc.  Ramses Square was one site we visited.  (Read about it here.)  It was interesting to learn about the political fallout through a visual tour.   We even saw and heard the history of old sites such as the assassination location of President Sadat.

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After to citywide tour, Lorenza and I talked about visiting with Coptic Monks (in nearby monasteries) about their view on the political conflict and recent violence towards Christians.   We asked Muhammad if he could drive us to one of the monasteries (in-between Alexandria and Cairo) and he agreed to take to our location.  Being a taxi driver mainly tourists, Muhammad knew of the monasteries we were talking about located in Wadi Natrun desert.  One of the primary monasteries in Wadi Natron is called “Monastery of Saint Pishoy.”  I visited this monastery back in 2006 and knew a little about its history and location.   We decided to go there.  (It also is a place clergy and laity can go for spiritual retreat.)

After getting on the highway to Alexandria we realized something was not right with Muhammed’s car.   Most cars were traveling around 90mph or faster on the highway.  We on the other hand were only driving 35mph and fully driving on the righthand shoulder.  (When we were stuck in traffic we did not realize his car could not exceed a certain speed limit.)  Muhammad did not mention this issue and for the most part we were embarrassed to ask.  However, after some time had passed he made a comment about his car issues.   To be honest I was afraid we were going to breakdown in the middle of the desert but Muhammad’s car kept chuggin’ along!  During the drive Muhammad spoke about his family, his muslim faith, and the differences between righteous Muslims and hypocritical Muslims.   For example, when we got lost he asked a person on the street for directions.  After what seemed to be a tense conversation he looked at us and said “What a bad Muslim, he is not righteous.”  When asked why, he said, “Because he wanted money for his help…a good muslim would offer to help someone in need without any type of [reward].”   At another point, he referred to the extreme Islamic radical groups (referring to the Muslim Brotherhood) as “terrible people” who taint the name of the faith.  To us, despite his aggressive personality, he seemed to be a Muslim and person of faith who cared deeply for all people and concerned about the future of Egypt.  He referred to Christians and Muslims, particularly in Egypt, as close relatives like “siblings or cousins.”

Now, it would normally only take around 1 hour to get to Wadi Natrun however it took over 3 hours and we did not know the exact site of the monastery.   To make it worse, Wadi Naturn is also the home of one of the largest Egyptian prisons where many Brotherhood members were detained after the protests.   To say the least, it’s not a prime place to break down.   But luckily, after a few more directions and u-turns, Muhammad got us safely to the monastery!  Due to the time we quickly left the car to tour the facility and Muhammad stayed by his car to smoke on a cigarette.

IMG_2919Saint Pishoy monastery is one of the most visited monasteries in the country and the shrine of Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria who passed away in 2012.  I remembered a lot about the history in 2006 but it was fun to tour without a group and wander the grounds.  Monk Claudius greeted us at the main door and allowed us to walk freely around the property.   Lorenza and visited the original chapels and quietly observed the school groups touring the building.   Its hard to image this Christian community has been around for 1000’s of years in the middle of the desert.   Quietly but steadily serving the church.

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The Monk and Muhammed by the entrance.
The Monk and Muhammed by the entrance.

After visiting the living quarters and Pope Shenouda’s shrine we decided to look around outside and headed for the main exit. Unbeknownst to us our Taxi driver Muhammad had entered the monastery and started talking with Fr. Claudius at the entrance.  As we walked up to the men we realized they were drinking tea and having a deep conversation about faith.   It was a humbling site to see.  As unintentionally as it might have been we left Muhammad in the parking lot once we arrived. Somehow, Fr. Claudius invited Muhammad to enter the gates and share tea with him while they waited for us to return.  Here we are (two ministers) looking for a story of solidarity and we were too focused on the touring the campus and missing out on conversation.  While we were acting as good tourists, the monk and Muhammad lived out right in front of us what it means to live in solidarity and compassion.  Once we met back up Muhammad helped translate our conversation with Fr. Claudius who invited us to drink more tea in the public living room.

Drinking tea and sharing life with Coptic Monk, Rev. Smith, and Muhammed our driver.
Drinking tea and sharing life with Coptic Monk, Rev. Smith, and Muhammed our driver

There, drinking tea, each one of us shared about our ministerial jobs, denominations, faiths, and theological training.   At that moment I realized that the story we were searching for was not for us to create but to quietly find right under our noses (and surprisingly our teacups) through our our Taxi driver. These are stories of hope and love that aren’t being told. Surprising stories.  There, in the middle of the Wadi desert, sharing tea with one another was a Coptic, Muslim, Episcopalian, and Methodist.  It seems like an intro of a joke.  But just think, that was a Muslim and Christian sharing tea at a time when it was really stressful and churches were being burned. Lorenza and I were handed an English/Arabic Bible turned to Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

It seems so simple but why is it hard for us to live like this more often?


It was an interesting a beautiful conversation.  While we use the word “Coptic” to describe the Christians in Egypt, it was there we were reminded that the word simply means “Egyptian” in the native language.  There is no division based on religion.  In Egypt, so many people have a sense of unity and pride between the two faiths.  Drinking tea our friends were begging us to consider: Even in severe differences that probably are life and death to many people, how can you live with the other or your enemy or your neighbor that you don’t like or you don’t agree with?  In Egypt, you get to see the most beautiful side of that, and they do it well sometimes.  But you also see the violent side of that decision.  The monk and our taxi driver reminded Lorenza and I of this: In the end most people strive with loving your neighbor.  What we would like to challenge is the images promulgated by media and extremists that such love is impossible.  We like to think it is possible. Christ said it was possible.  Christ made it possible.


Watching the monk and taxi driver speak about the faith was an experience I will never forget. During the cadence of the conversation we could see them shaking their heads in agreement, then after awhile disagreeing with what was being discussed.   Sometimes it seemed awkward.  But in the end they peacefully let the issue go instead of focusing on the traditions that divide. After Muhammad and the monk finished their tea they hugged and proudly posed for photographs together.  Before sunset we loaded back into the 35mph taxi and slowly drove back to Cairo just like we came.  But something changed while we were in the desert.  This trip, however it plays out, is not for me to create.

Inside the 35mph taxi.
Inside the 35mph taxi.

Driving back to the city, we kept wondering, what could be accomplished in this world if we drank more tea with our enemies?

Tomorrow was our last full day in Egypt.  Would Achmed arrive (with a translator) and make it into Minya?  It was not up to us to decide.  We could only hope and go with what was given to us.

Egypt: Day 1

Each of us is now a part of the resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.” – 1 Corinthians 12:13

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 5.26.01 PMIn August of 2013 I was working at Camp Capers in Waring, Texas.   One afternoon, after I finished facilitating the Ropes Course, I saw a news feed on the camp computer about the violence taking place in Egypt.  (The Egyptian people were protesting the newly elected President Morsi, and Muslim Brotherhood supporter, for his actions toward moderate Muslims and Christians.  When the protests led to his removal from power by the Army, which supported the people, the Brotherhood retaliated by burning churches and taking over mosques.  When the Army countered the Brotherhood…extreme violence broke out in the streets.)  After reading this…I was moved in many ways.  In 2006, I visited Egypt with Duke Professor Dr. Warren Smith for his class about Early Alexandrian Christianity.   During our trip we visited the desert monasteries to meet Coptic Monks, Coptic Churches, local attractions, the city of Alexandria, the Pope’s weekly Bible Study, and Mount Sinai.   It was an amazing trip (and a catalyst to my homeless experience in 2012.)  I will post some photos of the 2006 trip in the next few days.  So, when I saw Egypt flipped upside down and the death toll rising I was eager to learn about what was truly happening in the country I fell in love with 7 years ago.  (To learn more about the Egyptian conflict look here or online.)

The night of the news I contacted Rev. Lorenza Smith (a Methodist pastor who for the last 3 years has lived among the homeless under the stars) to see if she would be interested in a pilgrimage to Egypt to learn more about the violence, visit a few of the burned churches (there were a total of 80), and show solidarity to the Coptic people.   After some planning and schedule shifts we were able to go to the country for one week in Mid September.  (Look at my Facebook Timeline in September/October 2013.)

Fr. Antonious & Rev. Gavin

The Saturday and Sunday before we left, I went with Lorenza and a friend to share life with the priests, sisters, and parishioners of St. Anthony the Great Coptic Orthodox Church in Bulverde, Texas.   We thought we should meet some people connected to Egypt before we flew to a country in turmoil that we knew little about!   It was a wonderful experience.   On Saturday we meet with a wonderful nun who lives in the convent and was from Egypt.  She graciously told us her testimony, led a tour of the local church, and gave us contacts in Egypt that we might find helpful.   Before we left, she invited us to worship the next day…but warned us the service might be long!  The next day we attended the service at 8:00am and it did not get out until 12pm! She was right…it was long.  A four hour service!   Despite it length, it was a huge blessing to both Lorenza and me.  We IMG_2621first witnessed a baptism of a young child, then prayed the morning liturgy with the nuns, read the Palms, prayed more, sang, read more scripture, sang, heard a sermon, witnessed Holy Communion, and then got sprayed with water at the end.   (At the end of each Coptic service the priest sprinkles/throws water on everyone in attendance as he exits during the blessing.)   After our anointing of holy water we ate lunch with the parishioners, learned more issues about Egypt, then left for the airport.  The first thing I learned is that the Coptic Church does not take intentional community for granted!  Even if it takes you 5 hours.  What a blessing!)  Lorenza wrote the following about our visit.

“Before leaving for Cairo, Egypt today my colleague, Gavin Rogers, and I worshiped at St. Antony the Great Coptic Orthodox Church in San Antonio, TX. Blessed to witness a baptism, and visit with a wonderful faith community. At their meal, several people shared their stories of family and loved ones in Egypt, and sending us off in prayer. Driving to Houston now to catch our evening flight to Cairo, Egypt. Continuing to do nothing, but communicate the love of God –by being present, listening and learning. Please keep us in prayer!”

Rev. Gavin & Rev. Lorenza driving to airport.

We were off the airport.  Our mission was to two fold: 1. to live in solidarity with the people (equally with Muslim and Christians) and show them they have not been forgotten.    2. to find stories of hope and love not being told in the media.   Here is what I wrote back in September to my friends and family about the trip.

As friends and partners in Christ, I wanted to write and ask you for your thoughts and prayers for a pilgrimage I will be taking with my friend Rev. Lorenza Smith this next week.  On Sunday I will be flying to Cairo, Egypt to meet with different Coptic Christian leaders and Professors who are facing many trials during the increased violence around their country.   We will be living among the people and visiting churches that have been attacked or seen acts of violence. We will also be meeting with Muslims who also have been victims of violence by various radical groups. During our journey we will also be visiting the Coptic Slum “Garbage City” and visit with the poorest of poor in Egypt.  Pray that Rev. Smith and I can connect with the right people and witness God’s grace through Christian community, solidarity, and non-violence.  My prayers go deep for all of you and the continued work you all do for the Gospel and Christ’s Church.

After Lorenza and I arrived in Cairo we checked into the Hilton Ramses hotel around 10pm on Sept 16th.   The government and General Sisi created a curfew and military lockdown that started at 11pm and ended at 6am.  (Which is much a much different Cairo that is usually open and busy until 3-4am.)  And, I am not going to lie.  It is an unnerving feeling driving though the streets and seeing tank after tank guarding the city (and two tanks, soldiers, and street barbwire guarding our hotel) and having to go through security checkpoints to enter our hotel.  Here is what I posted about my arrival:  “Cairo. Tanks. And travels. The security in Cairo is very strict (with good reason). The Army guards many places at night for the protection of citizens and visitors. All have been kind. At one of our hotels we had to check through security every time we entered.” 



The first morning we decided to get a taxi and try to visit St. Marks Coptic Cathedral (The headquarters of the church and office of the Pope and Bishops.)  The San Antonio priests told us to visit the office/church because they might help us locate the communities affected the by the journey.  After we got into a taxi, I told him (in English) where we needed to go to St. Mark’s Cathedral…and we were off to fight the Cairo traffic and smog!  The driver seemed to know a little of what I was saying but we were on our way.  After about 30 minutes of driving I realized we were not going the right direction.  Come to find out, the driver spoke no English and only heard me say “Coptic Church.”   So after another hour of asking people for directions they pointed our taxi in the direction of the “main large cathedral of the Coptic Church.”  We seemed to be heading the the right direction.  (You have to realize that 90% of the 85 million Egyptians are Muslim so they don’t really know where the Christian churches are located other than a few in Old Cairo that are famous for tourists.  So it was a fun challenge to find the place.)  After we found directions to “the large church” we started to drive through the Zabaleen district of Cairo.  Better known as “Garage City.”   I have been there before back in 2006 and I remembered its not on the way to St. Marks.  (The Zabaleens are a Coptic Community that lives in deep poverty by collecting the trash around town and taking it back to their homes to sort and recycle. Please read about this situation in wikipedia and/or other sites: is home to the largest Coptic church/amphitheater but not St. Marks…however we were glad we got to visit and experience what life is like for this Coptic Community. (And I would return later.)  Garage City is one of the few Egyptian neighborhoods that is almost 100% Christians.  After some more translations with the people at the Zabaleen Church we got the correct directions to St. Marks.   Off we went.

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Outside the walls of St. Mark’s Cathedral and Coptic Office

Once we arrived at the Coptic “Vatican” in Cairo, we had to go through security (which had tanks!) and try to meet with the English speaking secretary so we could schedule a meeting with a Bishop or the Pope.  After meeting with an official, we were told all key leadership were out-of-town and told about the dangers of traveling to burned churches.  Which was not surprising when you consider how many places the leadership had care for since the attacks.  But it was a bummer to realize we missed talking with the Pope and Bishops.   It was then Rev. Lorenza taught me a good lesson….”our ‘plans’ and ‘our planning’ are not important to the success of the trip…we just go with the changes, trust in the people we do meet, and get out of the way so God can show us the right relationships to focus on.”

At 1pm we had a lunch meeting with a Egyptian professor named Dr. Mary Massoud from Ain Shams University (a contact though Lorenza).  She hosted us and two other ministers for a meal in her home.  She spoke of the conflict in Egypt with a deeply rooted understanding of the historical context.  She was an absolutely gracious host and wonderful cook!  Before the other ministers arrived Dr. Mary gave us tea and shared with us her Coptic heritage and information about the Coptic New Year “Nayrouz” the Copts just celebrated.  Dr. Mary’s family is a mix between Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Evangelical.

 Nayrouz is the name of the Coptic New Year.  The word means “radiant light.”

Christians in Egypt dates back to the 1st century to the Day of Pentecost, when those from Egypt who had gone to Jerusalem to worship, returned with the good news of Christ’s redemption [Acts 2:10].  Under the influence of St. Mark (who organized the Church in Egypt and established the first catechetical school), Christianity spread so fast that by the middle of the 3rd Century almost the whole country of Egypt had adopted Christianity.   This greatly displeased the Roman Emperor, who wanted his subjects to worship him.  Under Emperor Diocletian, persecution of Christians in Egypt became so inhuman that at any one time dozens of men were slain, along with their wives and children.  So harsh was the persecution that the Egyptian Church decided to date its calendar from the time Diocletian came to the throne , 11 September 284, calling it the Calendar of the Martyrs, in commemoration of those who had died for their faith.   According to this church calendar, we are now (Sept. 2013) at the beginning of the year 1729c.m.

The Feast of Nayrouz has been celebrated on 11 September, with guava, red dates, and pomegranates.  The redness symbolizes both the blood of Christ shed for humankind, and the blood of the faithful martyrs.  The witness of the guava symbolizes the white heart given by Christ to his followers.  Some churches, recalling the O.T. Feast of Trumpets, preach the 2nd Coming of Jesus at this feast.

Me, Fr. Belcher & Wife Anne, Dr. Mary

After we learned this story we were introduced to Fr. Rich Belser and his wife Anne to eat lunch.   They serve at All Saints Episcopal/Anglican Cathedral in Cairo.  (It was great to run into a fellow Episcopalians!)  We spoke more about the conflict in Egpyt, the roll of the US and Egyptian governments, the military, and the church response.  (More about all the politics in another post.) Overall it was a blessing to meet all of them and share life with locals.

After the lunch Lorenza and I went back to the hotel to plan our next two days and try to get into the city of El Minya, Egypt which took the lion’s share of church attacks.  (Read Minya Attack Article.)  Problem 1.  Most people told us that Minya was too dangerous to visit.  Problem 2.  The day we arrived, the Army had just taken over the city and blocked most roads into area in attempts remove the Muslim Brotherhood rule over Minya.  (Read Army Take Over Story.)  IMG_2710So, it was going to be an interesting next two days.   All we could do is pray and hope to find a driver who would take us to Minya. (The hotel tried to find a driver but they found nobody who would take us…even for more money.)    Therefore, Lorenza and I walked to streets, smoked Hookah, and talked with street children to relax and enjoy the neighborhood.  Later that evening after street food and smoke we met a man on the street named Achmed…who owned a car.   I decided to talk with him and see the best way we could make it to Minya.  After some broken communication, negotiations, and taking photos with the Army tanks at our hotel, he said he would take us into Minya and find us a translator to ride with us.   We planned to meet at 7:30am at our hotel the next morning!  We were off to Minya!   Hopefully the Army would play nice.   Time to smoke more Hookah.


After talking with Achmed and others on the street, Lorenza spent time with a child she met near the hotel (who surprised her with a Pepsi after she shared life with him).  He had so much joy on his face.   Here is what she said when the day was done:

I continue to hear stories from Egyptians, that Muslims and Christians live together in peace, it is the extreme agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood that is creating the violence. What I hear is that the media is not reporting accurately. The will of “the people” is aligned with the military. I will continue to listen and learn…We’ll be moving locations within Cairo… going to miss my new friend. Hope to make it into the Minya area tomorrow where churches, schools,
orphanages and other buildings were burnt.553673_10151938949707835_967937550_n

Once again, Lorenza reminded me the reason we were in Egypt.  To love and to listen to even the smallest of voices.    We went to bed praying for our journey to Minya.  Hopefully we would get there!