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Sri Lankan Sunday School Was ‘Willing to Die for Christ’ on Easter. Half Did.

Sri Lanka Sunday School
(Getty, via the Independent)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 25, 2019.

In most Sunday schools, the question is an academic exercise.

“How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” asked the teacher on Easter morning. Every one of the children dutifully raised their hands.

A few minutes later, the Sri Lankan class descended to Zion Church’s main service, passing through an outside courtyard where a stranger was speaking with church leaders. He had discovered there was no Easter morning Mass at the nearby Catholic church in Batticaloa, and was wondering when the service would begin here. He asked about the healing service.

Observers report he was sweating profusely. A pastor invited him to take off his backpack. Then, an explosion—many inside thought it was the generator.

Half the children died on the spot.

“All the children had responded [to their teacher’s question] by putting their hands up, and signaled their fresh dedication to Jesus by lighting a symbolic candle,” recounts a seminary leader [full testimony in sidebar below]. “For so many of those children, it would be their final act of worship.”

In total, at least 26 worshipers—including 16 children—were killed and 100 injured at Zion, a charismatic congregation in the Fellowship of Free Churches in Sri Lanka. Two Catholic churches in and near Colombo on the island nation’s opposite coast were also attacked by suicide bombers that morning, along with three hotels. The death toll currently stands at 253, revised down from 359.

But this is not the only Christian tragedy.

Sri Lankan authorities have now arrested 76 local Muslim extremists and one Syrian, placing the blame on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) movement. ISIS has claimed responsibility, calling it revenge for the massacre at a New Zealand mosque last month.

In response, gangs of young Christian men are now marauding Muslim neighborhoods. People have been assaulted. Shops have been destroyed. Hundreds of Pakistani refugees—mostly Ahmadis, a persecuted minority themselves—have fled the area around St. Sebastian’s, the Catholic church in Negombo where more than 100 worshipers perished.

“How we process this new reality and respond will determine the character and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ in Sri Lanka,” Ivor Poobalan, principal of evangelical Colombo Theological Seminary, told CT…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Christianity Today History Published Articles

How Sunday School Sparked Revival in Egypt’s Oldest Church


Habib Girgis
Habib Girgis, memorialized on the curtain separating the altar from the sanctuary of a Coptic Orthodox Church

This article was first published at Christianity Today on June 19, 2018.

My wife had just dropped off our kids at the local Coptic Orthodox Church we attend in Cairo and sat down with her Egyptian friend at the adjacent church-owned cafe. After initial pleasantries, she spoke of this current article I was then researching.

“Oh, do Americans have Sunday School also?” inquired the mother. “I never knew.”

My wife and I have lived in Egypt for nearly nine years and consider ourselves of evangelical faith. But we wish also to learn about ancient Christianity and, to the degree possible, worship within the Coptic Orthodox Church, which many Protestants here respectfully call “the mother church.”

We have been impressed by their biblical fluency. We have marveled at their forgiveness after martyrdom. But to entrust our own children to them?

We have been blown away by their care for the next generation. It takes two years of training to even teach a kindergartener.

It was not always so, and they have the Americans to thank—sort of.

This article is about Habib Girgis, the recently canonized Coptic saint who doubled as a humble educator. This past month the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of what he set in motion: the Sunday School Movement.

Girgis lamented the situation of his time, when Western missionaries were making inroads among the Copts.

But then again, they left fallow their own fields:

“Is there among us anyone who is capable of responding to those who ask him about his religion and why he is a Christian?” Girgis asked in a student lecture four years later.

“I am sure that most of us do not have an answer, except to say that we were born from Christian parents and hence we are Christians.”

Please read the article to see how Girgis sparked the solution, but spark it he did. Today the Coptic Church is among the most devout in the world. Here is testimony from one of Girgis’ disciples, who carried forward his teacher’s reforms once he reached the highest levels of the church:

Looking backward eight decades, the beloved Pope Shenouda III, known as “the teacher of generations,” described the solution with primordial imagery.

“Our teacher … started his life in an age that was almost void of religious education and knowledge,” said the patriarch, who died in 2012.

“Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And the light was Habib Girgis.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

And if you are interested in an earlier post, excerpting a book review on Habib Girgis, please click here.

Habib Girgis Sunday School


The Egyptian Founder of the Sunday School Movement

Habib Girgis
Habib Girgis, memorialized on the curtain separating the altar from the sanctuary of a Coptic Orthodox Church

Perhaps it is likely you find one word in this title a bit odd? We’ve had Sunday School in American churches long before I can remember – could it really have been an Egyptian immigrant?

That would be a tale, but the idea traveled in the other direction. Sunday Schools in Egypt are thriving, and America had a role.

But it is largely due to the tireless work of a Coptic Christian few have heard of.

Habib Girgis is the subject of a new biography published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, written by Bishop Suriel of the Melbourne, Australia diocese of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Here is a review, provided by the Center for Law and Religion. Afterwards I’ll continue the story of cross-pollination.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Coptic Orthodox Church was in a state of deep vulnerability that tore at the very fabric of Coptic identity. In response, Girgis dedicated his life to advancing religious and theological education.

This book follows Girgis’ six-decade-long career as an educator, reformer, dean of a theological college, and pioneer of the Sunday School Movement in Egypt—including his publications and a cache of newly discovered texts from the Coptic Orthodox Archives in Cairo. It traces his agenda for educational reform in the Coptic Church from youth to old age, as well as his work among the villagers of Upper Egypt. It details his struggle to implement his vision of a Coptic identity forged through education, and in the face of a hostile milieu.

The pain and strength of Girgis are seen most clearly near the end of his career, when he said, “Despite efforts that sapped my health and crushed my strength, I did not surrender for one day to anyone who resisted or envied me…. Birds peck only at ripe fruits. I thank God Almighty that, through his grace, despair never penetrated my soul for even one day, but in fact I constantly smile at the resistances…. It is imperative that we do not fail in doing good, for we shall reap the harvest in due time, if we do not weary.”

Habib Girgis remains a pioneer of Coptic religious and theological education—a Copt whose vision and legacy continue to shape his community to this very day.

I must read the book to know the details and his particular impetus. But as I understand the greater trends, the American Presbyterian missionary efforts in Egypt put the Coptic Orthodox Church under great stress. The church, as mentioned in the excerpt, was vulnerable due to a state of internal decay as simony and Biblical illiteracy plagued the faithful. The church kept to its ancient rituals, but little more.

The Presbyterians, following a general failure to work successfully among the Muslims, began converting Copts to the evangelical faith and starting new churches.

Habib Girgis worked tirelessly to renew the Orthodox Church, as described above. His activity furthered the reforms began in the papacy of Cyril IV (1854-61), and continued with Pope Cyril V (1874-1927), the longest serving patriarch in Egypt’s history, who supported it.

The Sunday School Movement that was launched would eventually animate to-be Pope Shenouda III and other eventual bishops. The monastic heritage of the church found new life with an emphasis on education, and Bible reading was encouraged among the young, old, clergy, and laity.

Girgis was declared a saint by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 2013.

Today the Presbyterian Church in Egypt is also thriving, but the Coptic Orthodox Church are the revived mother church respected by most. Habib Girgis is largely to thank, and now he can be.

Perhaps also Christians worldwide might realize – oh, Copts have Sunday School, too?


Unintended Recipients of Generosity


‘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?

Operation Christmas Child

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.

 Girls with OCC Gifts


Mother’s Day: Culture, Parenting, and Last-Minute Chocolate

Our American readers may wonder why I am writing about this topic two months before the US celebrates their matriarchs, but here in Egypt, our big day is on March 21st.

Mother’s Day has been celebrated in the last three countries we have lived in: Jordan, Tunisia, and now, Egypt.  I don’t remember the dates in each country, but I do remember asking a friend in Jordan if they celebrate Father’s Day.  She laughed and said, “Here, everyday is Father’s day!”

It could be interesting to research what countries have official mother’s and/or father’s day, but I don’t think I will get around to that anytime soon.  If any readers have any insight, please share in our comment section!

I have noticed this year that Mother’s Day is quite a big deal around here.  I guess as our girls are getting older, and involved in more things, I will collect more and more handmade crafts of love from various venues.  As such, I thought it worth writing about what I’ve noticed so far before first, I forget, or second, get too busy to write (being a mother and all).

This is the first year Emma is in school, and she has been singing a few songs about mothers in both Arabic and English over the last couple weeks. Still, the day passed without any word of an assembly, so maybe it is still in the works? Sometimes it is hard to figure out the culture, especially when mixed with an Arabic administration!

Emma also made a mother’s day surprise for me last Wednesday, but had to hide it in her backpack until yesterday when she presented it to me along with the flowers that she purchased with her sisters and Daddy – from her own allowance.

The weekend before I scored four different mother’s day crafts!  Fridays are both weekend and “church day” for us.  In the morning, the girls attended the Coptic Sunday School and each made a flower in their individual classes:  Emma made a flower balloon, and Hannah made a paper flower to put on the refrigerator.  At this same church, we will celebrate mother’s day in my adult Sunday school class tomorrow, and a friend mentioned that next Saturday night is a special service for moms, complete with gifts!  That’s a lot of celebrating!

Meanwhile, the second church where the girls attend Sunday School actually changed the time of their normal meeting today and invited the moms to attend a special party.  And so the three girls and I headed over to the local Arabic Evangelical church where we first listened to the kids sing some of their normal songs.

Then one of the teachers took some comments from the audience.  First she asked the kids what are some things their parents do that really bother them.  The answers included: Limiting internet, making me do homework and go to school, and yelling at me.

And then it was the moms’ turn to share about the kids, which included: Not taking care of their stuff and not listening to their parents.  During this time, Emma got out of her seat and came back to me to translate the question (in case I didn’t understand) and ask me to share an answer!  Kind of funny that she wanted me to answer such a question.

After it was all over, I asked what she would have shared if she said something.  She liked the “Mom makes me do homework and go to school” comment.  I was glad she identified with that first over some of the others!

After the mutual sharing, the kids all went to their respective classrooms while the moms were invited to move forward in the sanctuary for a talk geared for them.  The speaker shared that when she deals with kids, she emphasizes four things about them: They are important, loved, different and good.  She then expanded each of these points, but since I had our two-year old with me, I wasn’t able to sit and concentrate on her talk.  I caught some things here and there but missed the bulk of the message.

When I came back inside after letting Layla run around a bit, there was a question/answer time.  I would have enjoyed really listening to the exchange here, but it was a bit challenging.  I was able to listen to one or two questions regarding teaching children not to interrupt, or at what age can you start punishing a child.  As I listened, I soon realized that I was very pridefully and smugly listening to these questions and answers with an air of: “These poor people don’t know anything about child-raising.”

Like I do!  I was ashamed when I realized my superiority complex!  It’s not that I think I parent perfectly, and I am willing to admit my faults, which are more on some days than others.  However, I do think that I have studied how to parent well, even if I can’t always apply it properly.  And this isn’t all pride.  I have the privilege of great role models and friends who share struggles and ideas, as well as numerous books on the topic from so many perspectives.  I almost don’t have an excuse for not having all the answers!

On the other hand, I have lived in this part of the world long enough to at least know some of the stereotypical child-rearing strategies.  And I am guilty of thinking all parents use these strategies.  But we all tend to apply what we have learned growing up.  Unless you really don’t like some things your parents did, and you have resources to find better ways, then you will probably repeat those things.  I come from a place where resources are abundant and we are taught to search for ideas.  That isn’t as true in this culture.

Some of the things I observe here as adults relate to children have their roots in what people have been taught, and this stemming from good things.  As I have mentioned in other posts (see below), Arabs, as a whole, love children.  My kids have gotten so much attention from perfect strangers over the last 5 ½ years living in two different Arab countries, that I cannot doubt this culture’s love and care for children.

One natural response here is that adults don’t like to see or hear children cry.  If a child falls and scrapes his knee, the nearby adult will scoop him up, tell him, “It’s okay, don’t cry,” as he wipes the tears away, and then offer a lollipop or bag of chips to help him forget his pain.

Remember as well that Arabs are generous.  This continues along as a child gets into a fight with a friend or sibling and their feelings get hurt.  A candybar helps to mend things.  And then it gets carried further when a child gets upset because they can’t have what they want.  If a two-year old is told not to touch the computer, and cries about it, they may be soothed by a bag of cookies.  And so a young child may not be taught to deal with disappointment or learn to accept no for an answer.  Instead, they may be placated with sweets.

Sometimes my friends ask me how I discipline my children and they have often been surprised at how much I talk to my toddlers.  I believe little ones can understand a lot at a young age, and we have explained our expectations to them from the start.

I have noticed that younger children here are not expected to be able to listen and obey.  At times my friends make fun of their own child-rearing practices as they explain that after telling a child no yet again and having that child disobey, then the parent will lose their temper and yell and maybe even hit their child.  The parent’s anger has built up as the child disobeys time and time again, yet without real consequence, and then once the parent gets fed up, the child gets a punishment perhaps too harsh for the offense.  Again, this is a stereotype, and certainly it is not only Egyptian parents who fit this scenario, but it is one that plays out time and again.  There aren’t always resources to try something different.

Well, I have strayed a bit from the title of the piece.  After the question/answer time, we enjoyed a few snacks outside and the girls each brought me the pictures they colored of a mom and child.  The church gave out small cutting boards to each mom and we walked back home to head to bed.

It is nice, all this attention for Mother’s Day.  Another friend invited some moms to her place for tea on Mother’s Day morning, and that was nice too.  Perhaps there will still be an unknown school assembly to come!

I know I have a most privileged job here as a mom to our three girls.  Today I was reminded that I don’t have all the answers, and as parents we do the best with what we know.  I am always praying that God would make up the slack and give me more wisdom than I possess on my own!


Update: Now that it is Mother’s Day night, I can finish this post with a learning experience.  When I dropped Emma off at school this morning, I kind of noticed half-heartedly that other moms and kids were coming to school with gifts.  I barely thought about it until later that morning when another foreigner was asking if Emma had taken a gift to school for her teacher.  Then it occurred to me that the other parents were doing just that!

I wondered why, since many of the teachers weren’t actually moms, but I tried to find a quick suitable gift for Emma’s teachers before picking her up for the day.  I stopped at the local sweet shop and bought some chocolate after asking the workers there if this was an appropriate gift.

I then asked why teachers get gifts on this day and they mentioned that the teachers are like moms to the kids.  That made a lot of sense.  I quickly paid and walked down the street to the school and as Emma came out of her classroom excitedly ready to tell me something important, she saw the two bags in my hands and exclaimed, “Yes!  Are these for my teachers?!”

I was so glad I decided to stop and get something even though it was a last-minute thought.  Emma was so happy to give a gift to her teachers and glad to be doing what the other kids did.  A nice tradition, to give teachers gifts on mother’s day.  Let’s hope I remember by this time next year.


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