Photo: Laury Rinker
Peter Johnson heard gunfire in his neighborhood more than once. “There were times when we were insecure and even afraid,” says Peter, pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo.
St. Andrew’s is only a half-mile from Tahrir Square in Cairo, where anti-government protests broke out January 25. Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in the square calling for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader for the past 30 years.
Ten ELCA missionaries serving in Cairo were evacuated February 1 on a chartered flight provided by the U.S. Department of State.
Peter and his family were among them.
None of the ELCA missionaries were threatened directly but were subject to the general chaos in the city. Parts of the St. Andrew’s compound had been breached by looters.
But Peter had mixed feelings about leaving Cairo.
“We’re called to serve in the context. Always in these circumstances we leave people behind — friends and colleagues, people who we’ve learned to love and with whom we work,” he says.
Helping young people reach their potential
St. Andrew’s is an English-language congregation serving the international and expatriate community of Cairo.
“I am a child of the congregation,” Peter says. “My father, the Rev. David Johnson, served as pastor of St. Andrew’s from 1978 to 1982. Those were my elementary and junior high years. At that time, St. Andrew’s was a vibrant English-speaking congregation serving a growing number of refugees in the community.”
Nearly 30 years later the same is true.
Today St. Andrew’s Refugee Services has grown “to encompass larger numbers of refugees from many nationalities who are employed in the programs and provide leadership to the institution,” according to Peter, who directs the service.
St. Andrew’s Refugee Services operates a children’s education program serving 220 children primarily from Sudan, Darfur, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.
“We want to be an organization that allows these young people to realize their potential,” says Peter. “Many of the children arrive without any formal education.”
St. Andrew’s also operates an adult education program serving between 600 and 800 refugees. Courses include English and literacy, computer and computer repair, accounting and more. Volunteers from all over the world come to teach at St. Andrew’s.
“It is often difficult for refugees to integrate into the Egyptian society and culture,” says Peter.
And with the recent political disturbances, the Egyptian economy has come to a halt making it even more difficult for refugees to care for their livelihoods, he says.
That’s where Peter’s commitment as an ELCA missionary comes in. “There is a high level of dedication in the context because of the increasing needs of people here,” he says.
Spiritual care for our neighbors
Thanks to the generosity of ELCA members, hundreds of children and adult refugees have been given hope.
The ELCA and its predecessors have had a long presence in Egypt, sharing resources and deploying personnel to serve Christian organizations. ELCA missionaries also serve as educators at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo.
“The work of St. Andrew’s Refugee Services over the years has been supported in large part by gifts to ELCA World Hunger,” says Laury Rinker, who serves on the staff at the churchwide organization and is also a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Chicago.
Laury visited St. Andrew’s in the fall of 2010 and witnessed some of the hardships refugees face.
“The refugees have fled their home to escape war and are met in Cairo with expensive, crowded and a sometimes confusing urban setting,” she says. “That’s what makes the work of St. Andrew’s Refugee Services so important. Adults count on St. Andrew’s to learn life skills, English and Arabic to survive in their new environment.”
Financial contributions for the programs at St. Andrew’s through ELCA World Hunger will continue to sustain the ministry. ELCA Disaster Response has issued a special appeal to help repair breaches on the St. Andrew’s compound caused by looters.
“There’s no doubt that the services we provide are going to continue to be of vital importance for refugees in Cairo,” Peter says.
His experiences in Cairo have also impacted his personal faith.
“I think we as Christian people can wonder what it’s like to do ministry at the foot of the cross. Life and routines can be sometimes simple and ordinary. Other times in life, we can be challenged by events outside of our control,” Peter says.
“We believe that our God is one who comes to us in that chaos to provide for us a presence, a hope of reconciliation, healing words of good news in the midst of crisis, and ultimately an energy from the spirit to care for our neighbors,” Peter says.