Al Sandalow

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I had the privilege to going on a unique tour of Egypt last month. We had an American seminary professor as our scholar guide and an Egyptian Coptic Christian as our local guide. I know the average American Christian knows nothing about Coptic Christianity, but they trace their roots back to the earliest Egyptian Christians who believed in Jesus Christ in the first few centuries after Jesus’ earthly life. Egypt became one of the most Christian areas in the Roman Empire and was the most important center for Christian learning for many centuries. In practice, they are very much like other eastern Orthodox churches.

Now, in the Middle East, like much of the world, your faith is not an isolated element of who you are. It is often tied to your ethnic identity, your tribal or family group, and other factors. So when we say someone in these places is a “Christian,” someone’s personal belief is not the only factor in play.

Arabs invaded Egypt in the 7th century AD and in the centuries since the Coptic Christian percentage of the country has shrunk to 10%. It has also been a beleaguered and persecuted community, and many subjected to the lowest employment that could be found — specifically, collecting trash. Many poor Copts started collecting organic trash to feed their animals. That expended into collecting trash that could be recycled and sold. Government actions in 1969 forced many of them into a hilly slum south of Cairo called Manshiyat Naser, or more commonly “Garbage City.” Initially the area has no electricity, running water, sewer, schools, or functional roads. Much of that is still true. By most standards, life there was barely livable and the people felt so insecure they did not build permanent homes.

All that changed when a Coptic layman (who later became a priest, renamed Abu Simon), who lived a comfortable life, felt the strong call from God to visit these people. When he arrived and saw the utter poverty and despair, he knew God was calling him to do something. So he moved there and began an amazing effort to both build a church and care for these forgotten people.

In the following decades a church was built — literally becoming one of the largest churches in the world. On holy days as many as 20,000 people attend worship at the massive stone amphitheater church cut from the rocky hillside.

But the priest also helped to bring in social services and community improvement. This attracted other churches and NGO, who opened schools, clinics, and other services.

But perhaps the best thing that this brought was hope. After it was established, many of the residents built permanent homes and even now, many who could afford to move out of the city stay because of the church community they have there.

I would love to tell you the transformation is complete. It is not. By most standards it is still a terrible place to live, but because of the actions of a single Christian who answered God’s call to care for the “least of his brothers and sisters” (in Jesus’ words of Matthew 25), so much of their life is changed for the better. In the real world, this is what real love looks like.

Theologian RC Sproul often repeated one of the great catch phrases of the Reformed Christian faith: “We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” If God’s love is real within us, we are transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to love both God and those around us. Love is not flowers, candy, and Valentine cards. It starts with God’s grace in Jesus Christ and has to show up in our lives in real actions if it’s real. The Apostle John wrote this:

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us… We love because God first loved us” 1 John 4:8–12, 19 (ESV)

So don’t be fooled. Real love is tangible, sacrificial, and originates in the love God has for us. One man’s love changed a whole community; what could yours change?

Al Sandalow is the pastor of the Ellensburg Presbyterian Church.

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