Today, Sunday the 6th, churches around the world will celebrate the World Day of Prayer, officially designated as the first Friday in March. The movement began in the 19th century, led by lay women in the United States. Today more than 170 nations participate.
But Americans may be surprised at the official program this year.
Two years ago the country of focus was Egypt, and I was able to contribute an article to Presbyterian Today. The choice of nation was made four earlier in 2010, before the onset of the Arab Spring, leading many to remark the selection was prophetic.
One might say the same about this year, with a focus on Cuba. At that time relations with the United States were still frozen; now a new light is dawning.
I am not certain when the program was written, but it contains nothing of the thaw. Instead, worshipers were asked to pray this prayer:
Forgive us when we have not created a genuine space for dialogue among those who differ from us; when we have not lifted our voices sufficiently to denounce an injustice like the economic blockade affecting the Cubans for so many years…
In Cuba, we pray that you transform the walls erected by the economic blockade into wide open doors that are ready to receive.
Perhaps this prayer has now been answered.
The Cuban World Day of Prayer committee did make reference to oblique ‘detention centers’ for undocumented migrants , and in the opening skit one elderly Cuban woman said, ‘My generation has kept the Faith despite much discrimination.’ But a Cuban child praised her school which also teaches her the Bible.
As Americans, we are used to thinking of the Cuban blockade as an essentially just aspect of our foreign policy. It began to stem the tide of communism, and continued to check a human-rights violating dictator.
Certainly the reality is more complicated, on both sides. But it is worth noting that Cuban brothers and sisters in Christ chose to frame the issue as one of injustice.
Today, therefore, let us praise God with them that doors have been opened. Politics is messy; issues are rarely black and white; there is ample room to disagree with the shift in American policy.
But as the Cubans chose to pray, let us join them:
Forgive us … when we have built up walls that have prevented us from giving reason for our faith and hope… Enable each of us to do our part in providing help for the suffering world around us.
Lord, hear our prayer.
As a postscript, the 2017 World Day of Prayer will focus on the Philippines. Will the choice again prove to be prophetic?
Then again, the 2015 nation was the Bahamas. Perhaps it skips a year. Take care Suriname.
God’s planning is perfect. In 2008, long before the Arab Spring fixed world attention on the Middle East, the women of the World Day of Prayer International Committee designated Egypt to write the program for their 2014 event, held on March 7. In retrospect, God arranged for the more than 170 member nations to focus on Egypt during this critical time.
“All around the world people are praying for us today, and this should fill us with serenity and thanks,” announced Rev. Emil Nabil to the 300 mostly middle aged women at the main gathering in Cairo, one of over twenty locations hosting a WDP event. But off the podium the assistant pastor of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church, affiliated with the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile, had a somewhat different take.
“This event is not very well known here, even among Christians,” he said. “It has a following among women, but needs better communication.” Meanwhile at the English language service across town, Rev. Chris Chorlton announced tongue-in-cheek, “I asked ten Egyptian friends about the World Day of Prayer, and no one knew anything about it.”
The first World Day of Prayer was held in 1928, and even at that early date Egypt was among the participants. The local Presbyterian church led the efforts, with other denominations joining thereafter. By 1970 the WDP committee of Egypt drew from all national churches, but outside of individual participation the majority Orthodox – 90 percent of Egyptian Christians – remained largely aloof.
“Not many people are ecumenical, especially in the past,” stated Dalia Hanna, one of the younger Presbyterian WDP organizers. “It is getting better now, but there is some fanaticism in all denominations.”
Hannah was raised Orthodox but had a born-again conversion experience in her church sponsored Bible study group. But as her priests bickered over the legitimacy of their small fellowship, she decided to worship near her work at the American University in Cairo, at the famed Kasr el-Dobara, the largest Protestant Church in the Middle East. “The more I got involved the more the Lord led me back to build bridges with other denominations,” she said.
In the process Hanna was challenged with her own inner fanaticism. She traveled with the Egypt delegation to the June 2012 WDP quadrennial meeting in New York City, engaging with women from around the world about the Samaritan woman, the devotional prepared by her team. Hanna was shocked to find that not everyone present considered the object of Jesus’ attention to be a sinner. Similar debate about the nature of Islam confounded her.
“We had cultural differences that could lead to conflict,” she said, “but when you are exposed to such an environment you have to learn to be tolerant of others, even though your first reaction is to say, ‘You are wrong.’”
Similar, if easier transformations were witnessed back in Egypt as the working committees planned the program and the order of service. Mervet Akhnoukh, chairperson of the board of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Service, cherished how Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox women found common purpose.
“We prayed that our work would be of God, and we became friends,” she said. “The committee was a great ecumenical example, we became like one in the process of working together.”
Her committee included many Orthodox women, but the key toward wider knowledge of the World Day of Prayer rests with the clergy. In preparation for the yearly WDP, organizers hold monthly meetings to plan and pray, rotating through the different denominations. Orthodox priests welcome the group into their halls, but look to the pope for official sanction to be a part of a non-Orthodox service.
Hanna commended the recently deceased Pope Shenouda as a man of God, but described how doctrinal issues sometimes made Orthodox church leadership wary of the other denominations. But the new pope has brought a spirit of openness, she said, and this year it paid dividends.
The WDP committee presented their program to Pope Tawadros at the one year anniversary celebration of the Egypt Council of Churches (ECC), a landmark achievement he inaugurated with the other denominations. The pope gave his blessing, communicated publicly on the ECC Facebook page. And for the first time in many years, an Orthodox priest attended the main gathering, bringing along thirty women from his church, most of them from the younger generation.
“There is more cooperation and more unity among the churches, there is a new spirit to share with one another,” said Fr. Bishouy Helmy, general secretary of the ECC. “If the invitation was received earlier we could have done more, and hopefully next year we can host it in an Orthodox church.”
If Orthodox participation is poised to increase, this will go a long way in fulfilling the longstanding goals of these dedicated prayer activists.
“We want every woman to know she is a member of the body of Jesus and should serve him as much as she can, fully integrated in her family, her church, and her society,” said Nadia Menis, who personally won the papal endorsement and has been involved with the World Day of Prayer since 1967. “We want to uplift women concerning her health, her creation in the image of God, and her equality with men – creating awareness throughout the world.”
The World Day of Prayer is dedicated to such awareness, but this year as a byproduct helped make the world more aware of Egypt. Cinda, a PCUSA staff member working with the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo, joined a WDP event in Canfield, Ohio by Skype video, and related her personal experiences in Egypt. She noted the official program told only of the revolution of 2011, and wanted the church in America to be up-to-date. She focused on the Christian example given after churches were burned throughout the country this past summer.
“These brave Egyptian Christians,” Cinda told them, “it was as if the biggest, meanest bully on the playground smacked that wiry kid with the glasses in the face and the playground monitor looked the other way. The victim just stood up with his bloody nose and his broken glasses and stared back at the bully. No raised fists. No running away.” She related how Pope Tawadros declared the buildings could be considered a burnt offering, if it was necessary for Egyptian freedom.
The troubled national situation dominated the prayers of Egyptian WDP participants. Egyptian Christians have joined the government in condemning the popularly deposed president’s Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and deplore Western opinion that calls his removal a coup d’etat. They ask God now for a good president in the upcoming elections, for stability, and for improved economic conditions. They pray for the educational system, and against fanaticism and corruption. They pray for regional peace, the return of tourism, and for all Egyptians to know God’s love. And as appropriate for an ecumenical gathering, they pray for unity and the favor of God.
“Give us wisdom to know how to go through this difficult period,” prayed Fr. Bishouy to close the service. “Fulfill your promise: ‘Blessed be Egypt, my people’, where Jesus drank from our River Nile.”