This past week was another Muslim holiday, Eid al Adha, which Dylan and I celebrated by taking a trip to the Western Desert. It's a great time of year to go to the desert - quite nice during the day (a little hot at times) and quite cool at night. We traveled with an older French couple, as arranged by the travel agency, who turned out to be lovely traveling companions. Our trip encompassed Bahariya Oasis, the Black Desert, and the White Desert. (Did you know that "Sahara" actually means "desert" in Arabic?) In spite of getting a bit sick, Dylan and I throughly enjoyed the getaway. Here's a look at some of our pictures!
Picture this. I'm sitting in a room full of men (why are men in charge of so many things?) in the small front room of an apartment. The men are Sudanese and they form the parents' committee for Sudanese Future School, a refugee school in Arabawenos (a poorer part of Cairo). Although MCC helped found SFS, we hadn't been involved for years, up until a few months ago. That was when we heard the school was accepting help from a Muslim organization and starting to consider teaching a Muslim curriculum.
There are a couple of problems here. One is money. The school doesn't have enough money to pay for rent and for teachers' salaries. This is due partly to actual lack of funds and partly to mismanagement of existing funds. In some ways, they have to take what they can get. The other problem is a huge departure from the original vision, which was for a Christian school. The school has no board of directors to hold the administration accountable and the admin and teachers have been drifting.
There are also two sides to the issue(s). One man, the founder of the school, says the school has begun to teach students Islam, that the parents are very upset, that the administration has been stealing money, etc. The other man, the current headmaster, says they are in financial trouble because of the founder's actions, the school is still straight upon it's vision of Christianity, and the parents are perfectly happy together if the founder will leave them alone. Both have been coming to us for help and as a mediator for a while now - I feel like we're no closer to really understanding the situation.
Now, the founder has left that school and is looking to MCC for help in starting a new, Christian, school. However, the old school is also looking to MCC for help in sorting out their current difficulties. Arabawenos is about an hour's drive away from Maadi, so we can't just pop in and observe at any time. Who is lying? Who is right? Who should we help?
We (Dave and I) tried to explain to this room full of men that sometimes giving money is not the best way to help, even though it seems like it is. If we continue to give money, they continue to be dependent on us and end up in the same financial trouble whenever we can't provide anymore. I know this logically makes sense and is the best long term strategy. But I can read the thoughts of the parents. "So what if we end up in the same trouble next month? We're in this trouble NOW, bail us out and then we can deal with next month." To hear us say, giving you money is not the best solution, when they obviously need money, well....
That's when helping hurts. We do need to think about the long term, and we need to be good stewards of the resources at our disposal. We do need to be sure that they're managing their money well and that they're committed to teaching kids in a Christian way. We need other people at MCC to review and approve our decisions and we need to consider the other organizations we help, some of which are refugee schools in equally difficult situations. Even when we have the money and could throw it at the problem, that's usually not the best way. But for each person in that meeting tonight, it probably seemed like another dead end. No money = no help. As much as we tried to assure them otherwise, I can see their point.
When Helping Hurts is actually the title of a book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. If this topic interests you...you should check it out.
One part of my work that I (generally) enjoy is going out to visit ministries in other parts of Cairo. This past week I went with Dave and Julie (MCC staff) and James (our translator) to visit a pastor in El Marg.
We heard about Pastor Hisham through another church which had done some short-term missions work with him. Hisham is the pastor of an evangelical church in a heavily Muslim part of Cairo. Many of his parishioners are very poor and can be discriminated against because of their religion. We went to learn more about Grace Church, its ministry, and its needs.
El Marg is about an hour metro ride away from Maadi, so we all met at the Maadi station bright and early (does 9am count as bright and early?). The trains were pretty crowded - no seats for us, and at some points no hand-holds either! I kept waiting for it to empty out, but it never quite did, even after we passed the downtown stops. El Marg is the second to last stop on the line (followed only by New El Marg). I think we were all relieved to pile out when we arrived.
I was much surprised (and relieved) to find that Pastor Hisham had come to pick us up in an old van - old, but air-conditioned. He pointed out a few things to us on our drive to the church, but there wasn't much to see. We passed several mosques and the only other church in the area, a Coptic church. The road was terribly bumpy, so much so that I was bracing myself by holding onto the seat in front of me. We're talking about bouncing off the seat, not just swaying back and forth a little.
On one side of us the whole drive was a pile of garbage. I think there used to be a canal dividing the middle of the street, but people apparently long ago decided it was a handy place for trash, because there is hardly any water visible now. A few wooden bridges span the garbage/water for pedestrians. Some of the garbage on the banks was smoking and burning as we passed. People didn't seem to mind.
Grace Church was tucked away in an alley and had no identifying features on the outside - just one of many brick buildings. Inside, we found a surprisingly neat and rather nice meeting area. The downstairs had been designed as a children's room and had various murals painted on the walls (including one of a whale swallowing Jonah). Apparently 100 kids come there every week for Sunday School and other activities. Upstairs was the adult space, fitted out with old red chairs and all kinds of bright paper decorations. The next floor was under construction - the church had been planning to add another floor, but the government refused to let them. It's been a court case for a couple of years now, and they're hoping for a good verdict sometime in March.
Hisham told us that about 150 families come to Grace church, and about 40 of those families desperately need help with basic things like food, blankets, and medicine. The church tries to provide as best as they are able. Part of Pastor Hisham's ministry is devoting two days a week to doing home visits and finding out exactly what each family needs. I appreciated that he didn't try to give a blanket answer to our questions about the needs of the church. The fact is, everyone has a different need and it takes a lot more time and effort to find those needs and fulfill them than it would take to glance around, say everyone needs food, and leave it at that.
(All of our conversation was through our translator - for all my Arabic lessons I still understood very little of what was said.)
We prayed together before we left and promised to be in touch. Fortunately the church in the States who told us about Pastor Hisham in the first place is prepared to help meet some of his church's needs, and we get to be the messengers. I like being the bringer of good news. =)
And we even got seats on the metro ride back to Maadi.