No one ever comes out and asks me, but I suspect that there are many people who wonder why my annual trips to Egypt have become such an important part of my life and ministry over the last four years. It’s a fair question and there’s no short or easy answer.
Instead let me share with you one story from my most recent trip to Egypt where I taught English for a month at the Catholic seminary in Cairo in addition to leading worship for three weeks at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo while their pastor was on home leave. St. Andrew’s and its Refugee Ministry are supported by the ELCA and served by Peter Johnson.
Wael is a student who is new to seminary this year and new to English as well. He is in my Level 1 class. Wael’s English is difficult to understand — he struggles with basic grammar, his vocabulary is quite limited, and yet he wants so much to learn and to communicate. Sometimes when I am explaining something in class I’m certain that he has no idea what I’m saying. And yet at other times he surprises me with what comes out of his mouth.
At the end of study hall one day Wael surprised me. For the last week the more advanced students had been offering homilies in English in the daily Mass. This is one of the things that I work with them on each year. In very broken English Wael said to me, “Pastor Amy, I want … no, I NEED to preach in Mass. Next week I preach?”
“Wael, if you work on your English very hard in the year ahead, maybe next year you will be ready to prepare a homily.”
“No. I must do.”
“Wael, preaching is very, very difficult. You must know grammar, and you must know vocabulary, and you must know correct pronunciation, and you must be able to put your ideas from Arabic into English that is clear. This is very, very hard.”
“No. When Jesus go up, he send Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit send apostles to all nations and use all languages. I will preach. The Holy Spirit here.”
The conversation continued for some time. The truth is that Wael is not ready to prepare a homily in English just yet. He has a lot to learn. Through their hard work, his brothers have made it look easy and Wael and other students want to try as well. What Wael doesn’t know is that he preached a sermon for me today.
“I must preach. When Jesus go up, he send Holy Spirit. … I will preach. The Holy Spirit here.”
This is good news indeed spoken to me by a young man who doesn’t know the proper usage of the verb “to be” but who trusts with all his heart that the Holy Spirit has been sent to him to preach the good news of Jesus to his brothers and sisters in Christ. He has every confidence the Holy Spirit will use his broken English or whatever he has to offer. Oh, to have such confidence, such determination and such faith!
This is just one story about the daily encounters that keep calling me back to Egypt. There are others as well. I return to Egypt because of the relationships I have formed and because I feel called to be there. Somehow my presence matters, and God is using my presence to change my life and to change the lives of those I encounter.
Amy Walter-Peterson serves as assistant to the bishop and director for Evangelical Mission in the Upstate New York Synod. She has returned from her fourth summer of teaching English at St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Seminary in Cairo.