I recently returned from a week-long business trip to Cairo. It was my first time to Egypt and even to the region. The schedule was a busy one, full of meetings interrupted only by long car rides through traffic that would make D.C. and L.A. look tame by comparison. Despite the busy schedule, we managed to take in the Great Pyramids and some other sights, enjoy wonderful food, and meet some truly inspiring people. It is the people we met that have me reflecting deeply about faith and compassion as the Christmas season is upon us.
Egypt is a complex country. It is predominantly Muslim with 10% of its population comprised of Coptic Christians and about 1% evangelical Christians. The country is still recovering from the throes of a revolution and subsequent ousting of its democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president. The economy is not thriving: Tourism has dried up, unemployment is high, and socioeconomic class divisions are grimly evident.
Egypt is also a tense country. While the nation is more stable than some of its neighbors, a church in its capital city suffered a bombing on the day we left that killed 25 people, sparked more unrest, and demonstrated just how much hatred exists in some Muslims toward the Christian minority.
Yet something is hopeful in Egypt, something at work with the potential to bring real healing and peace: the spirit of the people we met. What has me feeling hopeful about Egypt is not the government, new social or economic policies, or another political uprising. Every day, men and women—some of them only teens—get up and undertake simple yet heroic acts of compassion to the most needy among them regardless of religion or class.
Our team from Cairn spent one full day touring and serving meals at two of Cairo’s “garbage cities.” Here, families scratch out a living by collecting, sorting, and reselling trash. Here they raise children. Some of these families have been doing this for generations.
They live in conditions that are difficult to describe. We saw dead animals lying in the open, piles of waste in and among the shanties and shacks that line dusty, trash-covered makeshift roads. We saw the dirty faces of toddlers playing among scrap heaps. We talked with a little girl who had just gotten stitches for wounds from rats who had bitten her while she slept the night before.
But we also saw kindergarten teachers standing before classes full of little boys and girls with smiles on their faces as they finished breakfast and began their lessons for the day. We saw middle-aged volunteers with basins and towels washing the filthy feet of children, inspecting them for injury and outfitting them with new sandals. We saw teenagers teaching personal hygiene and manners to grade-school children who responded to the skits with cheering and laughter and singing and dancing. We saw doctors donating time to care for the sick, artisans teaching weaving and shoemaking to teenagers, and others serving breakfast and lunch from regional vendors.
These children and their families did not go unnoticed. The men and women serving them were not waiting for government intervention, resources, or support. These servants were compelled by faith to do what they could to show love, mercy, and compassion to their fellow human beings.
I was struck by this over and over again all week. Everywhere we turned, we met another person who was committed to serving others, even those with whom they differed in the most fundamental ways.
On the final day, we visited a camp that runs recreational retreats for youth and families. I stopped and watched as the Egyptian young adults on staff led a group of Syrian refugees through a ropes course. The laughter and cheering was loud and genuine. These refugees, who know so much sorrow and loss, were being loved and cared for by people who simply wanted to do good works born of their personal faith.
This reality in Egypt has me reflecting on life and faith, especially at this Christmastide in America. If in a land of need like Egypt, such faith compels men and women to do good works, then how much more should our opportunities in the land of plenty compel faith-filled works of compassion? We have so much for which to be grateful, so much that we take for granted. Yet, Americans are not without our ills: our societal and individual needs, inequity, and injustice. There are those in our midst who could use an act of kindness and compassion. At this season, as we celebrate the coming of Jesus, who came to bring forgiveness, mercy, grace, and peace, perhaps we can muster enough faith to notice the needs of others and act accordingly. In this kind of caring, we have reason to hope.