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Timothy Jones

A Journey to the Other Holy Land

Rediscovering the church in Egypt.

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Egypt never seems far from news headlines these days—especially so in recent weeks. A little more than a year ago, I would have noticed such reports only in passing. Now I pay keen attention, sometimes uneasily, because of ten days I spent in Egypt that spring. I went to teach theology students in Alexandra and Cairo. While I arrived with a briefcase bulging with lecture notes, I came away with insights of a different order, with kindled anticipation for the spiritual ferment taking place in this troubled region. An array of images—some jarring, some promising—linger from my trip. So does the hopefulness I have for the Christian friends I got to know there.

Some of the impressions were imprinted before I actually reached the country. That was the case at the Kuwait City airport, where I awaited my connecting flight to Alexandria. Settled in my seat in the terminal, I heard a high, thin humming. Looking to my left, I realized the sound came from the bearded, wizened man on the next seat. He peered at a leather-bound book with Arabic script, chanting verses from the Qur'an while he rocked and rocked. Across the way a man with flowing robes and a keffiyeh fingered a string of beads. Most women strolling through the airport shops wore a hijab, even if they complemented the traditional head covering with chic jeans and make-up. While my wait for a delayed flight wore on, the airport PA system broadcast a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. No one could miss hearing the piercing, plaintive sound.

Those hours in the airport prepared me for Egypt. I could begin to imagine what I would see on the streets of Alexandria and Cairo. I knew that Alexandria sat on the coast of the Mediterranean. I tried to picture the deserts further inland with their pyramid antiquities. I wondered if I would see much-in-the-news Tahrir Square, with an impassioned leader with a bullhorn stirring a crowd to yet another round of protests. (I would.)

I was headed to teach first-year students at the Alexandria School of Theology, an Anglican school founded a few years ago through the vision of Mouneer Anis, the Episcopal/Anglican primate of the region. It is a sprawling territory he oversees—not only the Diocese of Egypt and the Middle East but also North Africa and "the horn of Africa." He had not long before visited the Nashville church I served as an Episcopal priest. While with us he told the story of his founding a theology school to serve his churches. The project had the feel both of a pioneering venture and a throwback to the Alexandrian catechetical school in the Christian church's first centuries. As we talked, I realized I wanted to make the long trek and teach. The invitation came. I went right after Easter.

Through email correspondence, the dean of the seminary, Dr. Emad Mikhail, had suggested I give six lectures on "spiritual formation and sanctification." Each would be translated into Arabic by a student or instructor as I taught. I gave the lectures first in Alexandria, then at the Cairo campus the following weekend, teaching altogether some three dozen mostly young people. I explored how spirituality grounded the life of the church leader and pastor. Each lecture drew on a guide, from Augustine to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I especially concentrated on older mentors like Julian of Norwich and Thomas Cranmer. I gave pride of place to Athanasius of Alexandria, the ancient bishop so strategic in the battle against North African Arianism.

I had studied in seminary how Athanasius insisted, against Arius' theologically anemic Jesus, on the full-orbed divinity of Christ, articulating the Trinity in ways that shape the church to this day. But that textbook information took on new vividness now. I loved that I could teach about him in the very environs where he lived and worked so courageously. He would be banished, I reminded the students, from his own diocese five times during his career as the controversies raged.

And what carried a wallop of revelation to me—both as I prepared and as I taught—was how much my Christian faith owes to this land. Not just because of Athanasius, or his fellow North African bishop Augustine. On the plane and in the Kuwaiti terminal I had been reading Thomas Oden's startling book, The African Memory of Mark. Oden reclaims ancient African traditions that link Mark, of the gospel that bears his name, to Africa. Mark not only grew up in modern-day Libya, according to the old traditions Oden retrieves, he also established a Christian beachhead in Alexandria—the very city in which I found myself. His ministry ended in martyrdom; pagan leaders had him dragged through the streets, which I could trace on my map of the city, streets that I would traverse myself. An early martyr—from Africa! (Oden emphasizes Egypt as being a part of North Africa, not simply the Middle East.) So the stories of John Mark for Africans form, argues Oden, a "moving epic for grandmothers to tell granddaughters and fathers to tell sons."

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