‘Make sure your kids come to Sunday School tomorrow,’ their teacher told Julie. Snug in bed, my wife ignored her first call at 10:45pm, but then picked up on her second effort at 11:00. Egyptians are well known as night owls, though they don’t usually call us so late.
‘There will be special visitors,’ she told Julie in Arabic, but the key word to follow was in an unclear English. ‘They will give each child books.’
Great, we thought. Emma and Hannah both have been making progress in their Arabic reading, and now they would be receiving additional age-appropriate materials we could use at home. Only we weren’t sure she said books. It might have been boox.
Regardless, it was nice to be invited. She didn’t want our children to miss out.
Upon our arrival in Egypt four years ago we began attending the Coptic Orthodox Church, which we discovered had a wonderful Sunday School program. Coptic laity is required to complete a year-and-a-half long training course before they serve officially in any capacity. We kept a close eye on content, especially early on, as we were still learning the intricacies of Orthodoxy. But we appreciated the spirit and love with which they teach, and our kids’ participation helped us as parents feel part of the community. Besides, David and Goliath is the same in any tradition, and on the occasions they taught about specific saints it was a learning process for us, too.
But this teacher was calling from the Arabic Evangelical Church. Her earnestness was in part due to the fact our kids hadn’t gone there since we came back to Egypt after a summer in America. This wasn’t the first time she called to inquire.
The Evangelical Church is more akin to our American heritage, but consistent with the night owl nature of Egyptians, their services don’t begin until after our kids go to bed. So we never became part of that community, though we discovered their Sunday School program began right after the one at the Orthodox Church ended. The two are about ten minutes away walking distance, and our kids are not the only ones who attend both.
They, and we, appreciate this Sunday School also, but churches across Egypt changed over the summer. President Morsi was deposed, hundreds of his supporters were killed when their protest site was cleared, and the next day dozens of churches across the nation were attacked. Nearly every Friday since then, Morsi supporters have marched through the streets. Many have been peaceful, a few have been involved in unclear violence, but all have sprayed graffiti on every nearby wall or sign. Anti-Christian slogans have been commonplace, blaming them for siding with the popular revolt against the Islamist president.
As a result, many churches have moved up their service times so that people can get home before Friday demonstrations begin, just in case sectarian violence rears its ugly head. And here it is necessary to clarify that in Christian Egypt, Sunday School takes place on Friday. The weekend is Friday and Saturday, and most churches hold their main services coinciding with the Muslim day of prayer, when everyone is off.
This meant the Evangelical Church now held its Sunday School at the same time as the Orthodox Church. We had to choose, and our Egypt roots were stronger in the latter. The teacher called us regularly to invite us back, and we apologetically explained our situation.
But this time there were boox.
The teacher assured we just had to get there before a certain time, so we booked out of the Orthodox Church and made our way. Hannah, especially, led the charge pushing the stroller beside me. When we arrived we noticed a few other new faces, perhaps like our own.
That is, in the sense of ‘not regular attenders’ rather than ‘foreigners’. The open area outside the church was filled with Egyptian mothers dressed in the traditional village garb of a long robe and head covering. Granted, we haven’t attended for a while, but this Evangelical Church is more generally frequented by the middle-to-upper class residents of Maadi, the upscale Cairo district where we live. Not far away are lower-to-middle class areas, too, but village dress is not the norm for this church. Maybe they were there also for the boox?
Now, Egypt unfortunately is not known for its love of literacy. We began to suspect the teacher was not promising books, but a box. As the first few children left their classes, we saw we were right.
We didn’t know how right, though Julie started to wonder. Were these boxes from Samaritan’s Purse?
Samaritan’s Purse is an American based Christian charity, and one of their signature campaigns is Operation Christmas Child. Kindhearted people in churches across the country fill shoeboxes with toys for underprivileged children around the world, who might not otherwise receive anything for Christmas.
And out marched our three girls with huge smiles.
I’m sure Samaritan’s Purse orchestrates with churches throughout the country, distributing many boxes in poor areas. 40 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, so there are certainly many needy. But dollar store type toys are readily available in Egypt, and the Orthodox Church does a very good job of making Christmas special, here celebrated on January 7. Toys and treats are given freely even in rural village churches, and families sacrifice to make sure their kids have new clothes for the holidays.
I’m not saying the charity is unnecessary, but it was odd to see Samaritan’s Purse in Maadi. And it was fully ironic that a generous Florida mother sent her shoebox across the ocean to be received by our five year old daughter. Her toys were not even the made-in-China variety; Hannah got an electronic battle hamster that darts across the floor.
Perhaps God’s generosity is similar. He makes his rain fall on the just and the unjust. He gives full wage to those who work but a few hours, while praising others for contentment with the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
We can trouble ourselves – and perhaps we should more often – why God’s generosity seems instead withheld from those who need it most. Or, we can take the lesson and apply it with whatever we have, to whoever we meet. When we visited that poor, rural church, our children were honored also. There is a similar ministry here in Cairo that gives Christmas gifts to the children of local Sudanese refugees. Perhaps the value of the Florida mother’s gift was to prompt imitation in our family to them.
In one sense we are to bless those we know in need; in another, we are to cast our bread upon the waters. We were unintended recipients of generosity, and while laughable, it is humbling. Therefore, let us be generous also, by nature, so that blessing comes to all who cross our path, many of whom will be unintended.