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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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IMG_4137_2Here is an article about the 2 trips to Egypt with Rev. Lorenza Smith and Matthew Aragones.   The article was written by Sharon Sheridan of the Episcopal News Source. I am grateful to God for everyone who supported the trip!  God is Good.

http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2013/11/26/traveler-finds-coptic-christians-loving-their-neighbors-despite-attacks/

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.)

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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!”

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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.” 

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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: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zabbaleen.Zabaleen 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.

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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.

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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,
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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!

Egypt 2013

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Egypt 2013

This past month I was able to visit the country of Egypt with my good friends Rev. Lorenza Smith and Matthew Aragones. It has taken me awhile to debrief the trip but I am going to post during the next two weeks about the two trips and a day by day (or close to it) account of what we accomplished. God is Good. We went to Egypt to be in solidarity with the Coptic Christians and all citizens affected by the events of this past Fall.

FLI

Here is an article my good friend Lindy wrote for Focus on the Family’s Leadership Institute.   My prayers are with them as they change their program to better meet the needs of current college students.

http://www.focusleadership.org/News/alumni-feature-gavin-rogers-fall-2002

The Park Family

306634_346373338733230_518184779_nThere are certain couples that come into your life (or your church life) that understand what it means to live in grace, understanding, and love. John and Darleen Park are one of those couples. Here is part of their story.

John Park, Jr. was a Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church for over 32 years. He served as the Recreation Pastor, then Married Adults Pastor, then Associate Pastor. He was the only Pastoral Staff member who served with head pastor’s Buckner Fanning, Charlie Johnson, and Les Hollon. He was loved by everyone at TBC for his dedicated and consistent service to the Gospel. At the beginning of 2012, John was diagnosed with brain cancer. After 6 months of living out his wonderful life on earth with dignity, he passed away on July 2, 2012.

Before writing this post, I met and had lunch with Darleen Park to talk about their life together. She was very kind to reflect on so many personal details that were still raw in her memories. She is an amazing woman full of strength and courage. Darleen and I met at the French Sandwich Cafe, a local hole in the wall dive, where John and Darleen would regularly frequent for lunch dates. It is a great place. The restaurant serves french food and is owned by a wonderful Asian family that has been in business for many years. “It is one of those lucky finds,” Darleen said about the place, “John and I Ioved meeting here for lunch.” The day we met was also Valentines Day and the day after their 26th anniversary of their first date at the San Antonio Rodeo. It all seemed fitting despite the tenderness of the moment. It will be a Valentines Day I will always cherish.

John Park, Jr was born on August 1, 1956 to the parents John and Kathy Park in San Antonio, Texas. The Parks were members of Trinity Baptist and John, Jr. was active in the youth group and church life. Trinity was and always has been his home church. After graduating Baylor University with a BS in Education/Recreation (John and I had the same degree from Baylor…SicEm!) John made his way back to San Antonio after serving in small ministry jobs around Texas. He eventually got a job at Trinity Baptist when Associate Pastor Don McLendon asked John to head the Ruble Center ministry in 1980. At the time, the Ruble Center was being transformed from an old elementary school into Trinity’s first community center. John had the privilege to help design and program for the new building. While in full operation, the Ruble Center hosted community GED classes, women’s ministry events, recreational opportunities, community outreach, and Young Adult Sunday School. (Later on…John would use his experience to help design Trinity’s 3rd Campus, TriPoint Center for Life in 2009.)

John was a newly married man when he came to Trinity. Life was as “good as it gets” being a young adult in his 20’s. He married his high school sweetheart, had a degree from Baylor, had a pastoral job at San Antonio’s largest Baptist Church, and soon would have his first son, John Park, III in 1982. 422880_10150646885658980_1131347242_nNothing seemed to be going wrong, then life made a major turn amid all the new change in his life. A few years into his marriage, the relationship began to fall apart and become extremely challenging. John, now an ordained Baptist minister working with young adults, was committed to make his marriage work…but over time it was becoming harder and harder to salvage his marriage. John, more than anything, wanted to properly care for his young son JPIII. Nothing was more important than his son. Since his job was to support young married couples, this problem could have quickly derailed his ministry at TBC. However, the compassion and understanding he received from his boss, Pastor Buckner Fanning, made it clear to John Park that if he honors God, his job, and his family (even during a divorce) that “the church was behind him.” Darleen said, “It was during this broken time in his life that John learned to show genuine compassion and pastoral care to the congregation Once he was shown that love…he used it for good to show to others.” Soon after his separation, John and his first wife finalized the divorce and he found himself a single dad raising his first son. Life moves fast…but “God always seems to have a plan.”

In the mid 1980’s, John found himself dating again…and boy did John date around! He once told me that me must have had 50 dates with great Christian women (many from TBC…another act of grace by his head pastor!), but they never seemed to last much past the first date. John once said smiling to me that “his reluctance to never go on date #2 made many of the girls pursue him even more.” He was a true but genuine ladies man. Even in the dating life…God seemed to have his hand in John’s life.

JPD1Darleen Prewitt was new to San Antonio. She came to Texas from Oklahoma to attend The University of Texas in Austin. After graduation, she began graduate work at UT Health Science Center to become a nurse. Daughter of a military chaplain, she wanted to find a good church home and found that home at Trinity Baptist. This “Oklahoma Longhorn” quickly became involved with the young adults ministry and joined the Women’s Volleyball Team at TBC…quickly becoming the captain. One day she received a call from John…assuming “he was letting her know of a change in the volleyball schedule”…but instead, he was asking her out on a date to the San Antonio Rodeo. It was a slick move by the TBC ladies man.

Being a good ole country girl, she accepted the offer! That week they went to see Michael Martin Murphy (who surprisingly looks a lot like JP.), and they attended the livestock show in the Freeman Center. After the lovely date, John quickly knew he wanted to take this beyond his usual first date, and he began to seriously pursue Darleen. Four months later they were married on June 20, 1987. “We even had to wait longer to get married because of other family wedding commitments that were planned for over a year…we were ready and eager to hitch up and get married,” Darleen said. It was true love…like a “wildfire” according to M.M. Murphey.

Once married, John and Darleen loved spending time at John’s family ranch in Blanco, TX. Both Darleen and John were country folks through and through. Darleen told me over lunch, “We did not have a cabin there. So John, being such a resourceful man, turned a small goat house into our bedroom by lifting the roof and using sliding doors as the window and door. One night while sleeping, we noticed the family horse standing over our bed, I guess the horse did not get the memo about the change! That is the kind of life we lived…simple, fun, and laid back. We loved spending that kind of time together. The time we spent at the family ranch was one of the happiest moments of our lives.” I understand John’s love for his ranch. My family’s ranch means more to me than even my hometown. It’s a place of retreat, nature, and family memories. It’s amazing that an old goats barn and a small amount of land can be so holy….but somehow it becomes just that…holy ground.

292439_10150877647732294_2065250544_nThe family kept growing. In 1991, John and Darleen gave birth to their son Dakota Richard. Soon after, in 1992, they had their daughter Amber Kay. They began being involved more and more as parents at TBC…helping with sports teams and children events… but they were ready for one more child. In the year 2000, they had another child, Sawyer Dillon. It has been a joy serving their children at Trinity Baptist. Dakota was a graduating senior when I arrived here in the summer of 2010. He now attends Baylor (like his dad) and is a member of the Baylor Wake Boarding Team. Amber attended camp with us one more year and now is attending college in San Antonio. Sawyer is currently a sixth grader and participates in Upward Basketball. He’s a solid player. (Even though my team beat his team three weeks ago! Hey, a man has to brag!) However, I am afraid he will beat my team next time. IMG_1551He has gotten better! 🙂 My favorite memory with Sawyer was taking him to a vintage Luche Libre Mexican Wrestling match in South San Antonio. It was like the Jack Black movie, Nacho Libre. We had a blast watching those amateur wrestlers fake hit each other. We both like the crazy and random experiences in life. So…we get along well to say the least.

As a pastor during the 90’s, 00’s, and 10’s, John witnessed Trinity Baptist Church go from about 6,000 members to about 1000 members on an average Sunday. The changes at Trinity were dramatic to put things lightly. After the retirement of head pastor,Buckner Fanning, and the relocation of many San Antonio residents to the North Side, the church went through some very hard years full of quarrels and fighting. Many of the pastoral staff and laity were leaving the church over bitter reasoning and misunderstanding about others at TBC. Some of the issues were natural changes that happen in the life of a church, some were political, some gossip, and some a mixture of all three. But John…he remained true to his calling, his church, and his family. He was the consistent presence for many who remained attached at Trinity. “Apart from his gift of pastoral care, (one he had developed was hospital visitation…visit after visit), consistency is what made him such a powerful presence at Trinity,” Darleen told me with assurance. It just proves to me that even without the pulpit, the microphone, or head pastor title…an associate minister can be just as effective and influential as the preacher. Despite all the political battles for power and people’s desire to find a source of blame in every problem at Trinity, John never allowed himself to be “labeled or defined a certain way by others around him” Darleen said. “I think that is what kept him sane and level headed all through those years.” 394019_924742107254_1578948178_nI was told once not to be worried how people define you, because when they do, they limit themselves…so it’s their problem. I think John would agree with that statement. Trinity is now becoming peaceful again. One of my favorite memories of John was when we invited Buckner Fanning back to TBC to speak to our students during Sunday School. It was a precious moment of remembrance, love, and God’s grace. A Sunday morning and learning experience this young pastor will never forget. When we live in grace and understanding…we all have the ability to come back to life. Both individually and communally.

Apart from his family and personal faith, John found solace and peace when he needed a break from life’s “busyness” through his love for country music. For years John would dabble in his own music and play for his church, friends, and family.

He loved the music of Willie Nelson and Johnny Bush (who was a member at TBC and writer of the song “Whiskey River“). John played many of the old country classics and gospel songs he grew up listening to on the radio or in church. In 1999, he hooked up with good friends Dean, Steve, and Glen and formed the “Crooked Toe Band.” They quickly became a hit around San Antonio! They would play around at local taverns, restaurants, and events…not to mention TBC’s Rodeo Sunday, year after year. I will never forget the last time John and his band sang “This Little Light of Mine” at Trinity’s Rodeo Sunday in 2012. The song was a healing moment for all who attended.

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Wine Country Trip 2012

In 2008, John was diagnosed with skin cancer. It was a nerve racking time for both Darleen, himself, and the family…but they pushed though the treatment and came out okay. During that time they learned to grow both as a couple and a family. “At the time we were so focused on our careers and work that we often would neglect to find time in the present…like many of us commonly do. The irony is that both of us knew better because of our professions. I had been a Hospice Care provider for years, and we both knew about the reality of death and the fragile nature of human life,” Darleen reflected. John and Darleen had a common game plan before the cancer scare: Work hard at their jobs, serve people, take care of business, and plan to live to retirement where they can then spend quality time together. Many of us have the same life plan. “It’s human nature,” Darleen reminded me, “but cancer changed that in both John and me.” (Darleen battled with a cancer earlier in the decade and dealt with many of the same feelings…but her form was easily treated.) During this journey, they both became more dedicated to seize the day and every family opportunity. However, the reality of death seemed still so far away. In 2012, like many who face cancer, John’s cancer returned quickly and aggressively…which shocked both his family, his church, and himself. She, the doctors, and John both learned that the cancer was very aggressive and would most likely take John’s life within the year. “Being a hospice nurse and having the knowledge of a hospice care provider is both a blessing and a curse,” Darleen admitted. “I believe in God’s healing power [both through divine means and medical measures], but the nature of healing is not a special equation. God is the ultimate authority of our lives.” In his last months on this Earth, John lived out his life with dignity, peace, and the understanding of God’s will. “I have never witnesses anything like it,” Darleen said, “John had total assurance in God’s plan and was determined to make good memories until the end.” Ed Nelson, TBC’s Church Administrator, once told our pastoral staff about John’s willingness to make memories during his sickness. Ed recommended to him that “making memories that last” was the most important thing to do when faced with such daunting news and the reality of death. I love that advice. Darleen said the same thing at our lunch together.

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I love my daddyy ♥ ♥ ♥ getting our beauty sleep

Despite the battle cancer was having on John’s body, they made great memories by going to the Gulf Coast as a family and having a romantic couples retreat in the wine country of California. His kids were wonderful and truly cared for there father during the last few months. Even in the small ways…like when Amber would take beauty naps with John during the afternoon when he grew tired…or when JPIII would carry the family dog into the bedroom to play with John. “Those last days will stay with me [and my family] forever” Darleen said. Lasting memories do not have to be grand. They can be found in the smallest acts of love.

Darleen and John lived out their Christian witness with grace and humility, always putting others before their self interest or promotion. Darleen reminded me that John considered himself “The Backdoor Pastor” because he always was looking after those who came in from the back and usually last. That’s good news… Jesus once told his followers,

In the re-creation of the world, when the Christ will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule…And not only you, but anyone who sacrifices home, family, friends..whatever—because of Me he will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention…eternal life. This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”

John always desired to be last. He lived his life in the Great Reversal…Not to gain any reward, but to claim God’s presence in his life with love and consistency. Since John’s passing, Darleen is committed to living the same way in her work with Hospice and with her family. All she aims to do now is to honor her God and her husbands life by doing all she can to love those around her. Some days are good and some days are bad…and often confesses that she “cannot figure out how to take the next breath” without her love. But Darleen reminded me that True Love is eternal and not temporary. When we have faith in Christ, our loves and friendships don’t remain here on earth but find hope in eternal life.

Darleen, who had to endure the life of a pastor during church corruption and collapse, is also one of my church heroes. Her life as a Hospice care provider has been just as ministerial as any clergy on paid staff (probably even more so!). With her clients, she offers tender care full of peace, love, and honesty. She treated John the same way…regardless of the doctors instructions “not to be his nurse.” But “of course I did sometimes…he needed me.” With her church she offers the example of a living sacrifice. She, like John, never attempted to lash back at members in the congregation that caused their family so much pain. “Trust me, there are days I wanted too! But I knew John’s heart and love for his church and understood the real reason he stayed, even when he could have easily left for a less stressful position.” Through her trails and journey with cancer, Darleen has taught me that love for your family, even church family, has to be patient in suffering because you only go through life once. It will get better.

John’s ministry and care for his church will remain with me forever. We were once at a Pastoral planning retreat and stuck in meetings that lasted all day. It was terribly boring and cumbersome. I was restless and needed to take a break from the circular conversations pastors have while gathered in the same room. During a break before we left the camp, John and I decided to go cliff jumping at one of his favorite camp swimming holes at Laity Lodge. When we climbed the large cliff to jump into the water, I became nervous and froze. It took me a while to jump…to teach myself that I was nervous about nothing…John leaped off the cliff and fell into the Blue Hole. After he rose safely, he said…”you just have to jump!” So I did. And loved the fall into the water. Sometimes despite our fears, we have to jump and take a leap of faith. John was never afraid to make those leaps of faith. Even in his last days.

Two days before John passed away, he was miraculously able to get up and move around after many days of being asleep or unconscious. Despite the difficulty of movement and speech, John seemed determined to take a trip around town with his family. It was a leap of faith. They asked him where he wanted to go and decided to drive by Trinity Baptist and get milk shakes. Once they got their drinks, John became aware of the moment…looked back at his family in his car and said “Cheers!” while lifting up his drink.

Goodbye was not an option for John.

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Therefore…I will end with a Cheers.

Cheers to John.
Cheers to Darleen.
Cheers to his family.

Cheers for a life well lived.

John, I leave people with this song.
“The Hammer Holds”

Word Cloud

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According to www.openbible.info in 2012 this is a Word Cloud that represents what people are giving up during the Lenten Season.   Is your fast somewhere on the above word cloud?  (You can also go on their site and see past years.)

And to be honest.  Do many of these things really keep us from experiencing God?  If not…what truly keeps us from God that we should really give up?

Lent is more than just about a fast.  Lent is a time for our own reflection.
A time for Prayer.
A time for Penitence.
A time for Forgiveness.

But more importantly.  Lent is a time to focus on humanity.   Just how Christ focused his love toward us when choosing to return back to Jerusalem and make things right.

Below is a Word Cloud taken from Pope John Paul II & Pope Benedict’s lenten homilies the last ten years.    What are the real themes of Lent according to the Holy See?

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Here are a few prayers to reflect on during Ash Wednesday:

Father in Heaven,
the light of your truth bestows sight
to the darkness of sinful eyes.
May this season of repentance
bring us the blessing of Your forgiveness
and the gift of Your light.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.  Amen

O Lord and Giver of my life,
give me not the spirit of laziness,
despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of sobriety,
humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own transgressions
and not to judge my brother,
for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen
–St. Ephraim the Syrian (AD 305-373)