Graduation week at ETSC

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When I arrived in Cairo, I knew I had come right at the end of the academic session: classes were finished, and final exam papers were being marked. Friday saw the culmination of the session with the official graduation. It was a very grand affair, held at Heliopolis Presbyterian Church, which was the only place big enough to host such an event and which was packed to the rafters (It took me a good 30 minutes to squeeze my way out at the end!). It was also very slick and professional and well-planned, as I have come to expect of ETSC. 66 students were graduating with various degrees (15 of whom will become ministers, mostly with the M.Div.degree: the majority of the others were MA (Theology) or MA (Organisational Leadership)). I felt it was very encouraging that so many lay people wanted to study theology and leadership at this level, and it bodes well for the church. There were various speeches, needless to say, but the one which stood out for me was that of Tharwat Musa, (I interviewed him and will feature him in a future post),who spoke on behalf of the students on ‘Theological Education and the Devout Life’, drawing out the tension wonderfully between being equipped for the spiritual life, but also reaching out into the life of the community. All in all, an evening of real celebration

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The previous evening there had been an ‘in-house’ celebration at the College, starting with snacks outside, before we all packed into the Conference Hall. The families of the graduates had travelled from all over Egypt, and the Thursday event focussed on the love and support – and sacrifice- of the families. The ministerial students who are married, for example, have to leave their spouse and children at home for their four years of study, though obviously see them during breaks. It was good to speak with some of the families and see their pride.

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At the moment the Synod of the Nile does not ordain women, though the issue has been brought to recent ‘Assembly’ meetings. All the ministerial candidates were male, therefore, but quite a number of the M.A. students were women. The cities like Cairo and Alexandria tend to be more open minded, and some of the congregations there would have women elders and preachers, but the rural areas tend to befar more conservative.

 

While there has been a lot of celebration around the Seminary, the mood in the country has been more sombre with the crash of The Egyptair flight MS 804 on the forefront of everyone’s minds. It was amazing how many people knew someone who knew someone who was on the flight. While the investigations into what actually happened still go on, it is undeniably yet another blow to Egypt’s economy, not least the tourist industry which has been struggling to recover from the shooting down of the Russian plane in the Sinai.

 

Over this past week there have also been tensions in Upper Egypt between Moslems and Christians, arising from a love affair between a Christian man and Moslem woman, which is very much taboo. Houses were burned down, and while the man escaped (I don’t know what happened to the woman), his mother bore the wrath of a mob of young men and was publicly shamed. What hurt a lot of Christians is that the threat of violence was reported to the local authorities, who seemed to do nothing to help. It all reflects the vulnerability that a lot of Christians feel.

 

On a lighter note, Cinda and Steve Gorman, my predecessors, have been around for the last couple of weeks, Cinda was International Relations Coordinator at the Seminary, while Steve built up relations with the congregations and councils. Both have been tremendously supportive and affirming, and it has been marvelous to have such a handover. They flew out straight after the Graduation on Friday.

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Visiting Sinai

When I first started out as a Mission Partner, someone warned me not to write about holidays, especially just after arriving. However, the senior students (3rd and 4th years) at ETSC had organised a trip to the Sinai, accompanied by families and some staff members, and  it was thought that it would be a good opportunity for me to get to know the students and staff better, so I duly went along with them. It was partly relaxation at the end of the session, but there was a study element too, with some lectures on Exodus. And we also made a pilgrimage to Mt Sinai (Jebel Musa in Arabic – the Mountain of Moses) and St Catherine’s Monastery.

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35 years ago, as a volunteer at Tiberias, I had tried to go to St Catherine’s with a few friends in a Volkswagen estate, but we didn’t have a clue where we were going, and after a few hours, we gave up. So it was with all these years of anticipation that I approached the mountain. We arrived at night and started the climb at 01.00, and it was hard going. Soon our group was well strung out, but one of the third year students, Kamel, stayed with me, lighting my path with his torch. The night sky was wonderful, but most of the time our eyes were firmly on the uneven ground. We chatted on the way up about things like Christian-Moslem dialogue in Scotland and Egypt, but as time went on, all we could do was to concentrate on each step. Gradually we neared the top, but then there were hundreds of steps cut into the rock (almost like penitential steps), and that was the killer. On two occasions, I would have given up, but others encouraged me to persevere. I am so glad I did, as we finally reached the summit with 10 minutes to spare before the sunrise. It was a real sense of accomplishment. The only problem was the thought of descending. And, indeed, my knees will never be the same again.

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We stayed in Sharm el Sheikh for a couple of nights, and I took the opportunity to worship on the Sunday morning at the Heavenly Cathedral (Yes, that is its name), the main Coptic Orthodox Church. The old church was too small, so they built a marvelous cathedral over it, starting in 2002 and finishing in 2010, with the walls, ceiling and windows are covered with stories from both Old and New Testament (So different from Israel/ Palestine where the churches would concentrate on the New). It was also interesting to note that the majority of the congregation were men, mostly younger men, but perhaps that has to do with Sharm being a tourist town. We returned in the evening with the students, and discovered that the cathedral remains open till way past midnight. Around the church there are places to sit and relax, and many families were simply ‘hanging out’ enjoying the atmosphere, and I was impressed by the church being the heart of the Christian community.

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The trip coincided with a heatwave, with temperatures rising to the mid 40s, and the journeys by bus were long. However, for me it did accomplish its goal, and I feel as if I know at least some of the students and staff a lot better. Just too bad, some are graduating soon and will leave the College.

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Welcome to Cairo

Being in Cairo, I had expected to be woken up by the call to prayer from the minaret, but instead I am woken by a cacophony of barking. The police kennels are just across the road, with about 140 dogs – so it can get noisy! In fact, there is also an equestrian ground next to the kennels, but the horses are fewer in number and generally less noisy!

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It is wonderful to be in Cairo. My flights were super, and I encountered no problems whatsoever at the airport. Mina, one of my new colleagues was there to welcome me and take me to the College where I have a flat (what they call a ‘suite’) in the Dorms. I am on the 4th Floor (which is a bit misleading, as when you walk down the stairs you discover it is actually the 7th!), and there are 10 student rooms on my floor (which they share, two to a room) with my suite at the end of the corridor. Part of my role here is to interact with the students, so it is good to be surrounded by them.

 

I arrived just at the end of the Easter break, and at church on Sunday I did a double-take when the Gospel reading was about the risen Jesus appearing to Thomas (the church here marks the ‘Eastern’ calendar, so Easter this year was about five weeks later than the Western date). However, now everyone seems to be returning now from their homes, mostly in Upper Egypt.

 

I am writing this on my 4th full day here, but already I feel so much at home. I seem to have the ability to settle quickly, but this has been helped by the warmth of the welcome I have received. People are incredibly kind and genuinely want to help. That applies to the students and staff at the College but also the people around. I have caught the underground into town and explored the surrounding neighbourhoods, and have felt very safe. In fact, the only danger is getting lost in the maze of alleyways. I have always prided myself in my sense of direction, but I have put that firmly to the test.

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The staff here are mostly Egyptian, but with a few expats, mostly American, but I will be working in the Development Office and will be in charge of International Affairs (More about my role here in a future post). There are four of us in the office: Mariam is overall in charge, a pharmacist who has 18 year old twins, but who has worked for the College for several years now; Mina is a highly personable young man, newly married, and with super communication skills: and finally Marlein who has only been in  the office for 6 months, but she is practising her English on me, and I am practising my Arabic on her. It is quite a thought to share an office with three others, after years of having my own office, but they are super people and very supportive.

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As well as waking to the sound of dogs barking, I also waken to a sense of real anticipation as to what each day will bring. It is a privilege to be here and I am looking forward to being part of College and Church life here.

Gearing up to go

One week to go, before I fly out to Cairo. The suitcases are lying empty, almost accusingly, in the spare bedroom, but I hesitate to pack. What to put in and what to leave behind? Do I need to take bed linen and towels or will I find them there (You would think there would be lots of Egyptian cotton in Cairo!)? How many books will I take (I am going to a College, after all, with a good library, so maybe not so many. They are heavy to carry, anyway!)? I should be used to all this by now. After all, it has been over 20 years since I have been a mission partner, and I have had to pack up and move houses so many times in the past. But I know that it will all happen and everything will be packed (usually late the night before). The important thing is to take something to remind me of my 15 years in Zambia and something to remind me of my 5+ years in the Holy Land.

 

I am of course thinking of the wider picture, beyond the mundanities of packing, and feel so excited at the prospect of my posting in Cairo, although in many ways it is going into the unknown. I will be the International Relations Co-ordinator at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC), and I have already spoken to Atef, the President of the College, who has been incredibly welcoming and affirming. Also, I visited the College a year or so ago for its 150th Anniversary celebrations, so I have a rough idea of where I am going to. It will be good to be part of a College community again (The time I spent at the UCZ Theological College was so special).

 

Needless to say, Cairo will be very different from Tiberias. There will be no view over the Sea of Galilee from my veranda every morning, though no doubt I will occasionally see the Nile, though it may be a metro ride away. Cairo is also gigantic and noisy (though admittedly the music from the evening disco boats in Tiberias could be very intrusive), but no doubt I will soon get used to it.

 

I am delighted to be staying in the Middle East. I find the mix of religions and ethnicities fascinating, and I feel very committed to the Church in the Middle East, especially at this time when it is under considerable pressure. It is important to stand alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ at present time, though saying that, the church in Egypt seems very active and forward-looking. It will also be good to discover the various dynamics in Egyptian society, and that will take time.

 

I will be posting my impressions and experiences and may even manage a few photos, so I look forward to you accompanying me in my sojourn in Egypt through this blog.  But meanwhile it is back to the packing…!