There were many experiences for which I was reasonably prepared regarding my second visit to Cairo, Egypt. Having spent three days there during my college years, I had already been introduced to many of the standard sights. So this time around, I was better prepared for the sheer enormity of the pyramids. I was prepared for the old school feel of the national antiquities museum, like walking through the set of the first Indiana Jones movie. I was also prepared for Cairo’s sprawling traffic, jammed bumper to bumper in every direction. In short, it was good to be back in this remarkable, gargantuan city.
But I was not prepared to meet the contemporary Synod of the Nile, the daughter denomination of American Presbyterian missionary efforts more than 150 years ago. I suppose I had a vague awareness that there were Presbyterians in that primeval land – stage for the ancient, dramatic Exodus narrative and later shelter for Jesus’ refugee family – but I had no idea that, these days, Presbyterians would number nearly half a million. Who knew there are nearly 400 Synod-established congregations and growing fellowships sprinkled up and down the Nile River? Who knew that Egypt is home to a third as many descendants of old Calvin and Knox as there are in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Who knew that Presbyterians in and around Cairo are scrambling to plant fellowships and build church buildings amid that city’s constant expansion? Who knew that the Protestant seminary in Cairo, also 150 years old, is a vital force for education and training in the entire Middle East region? Who knew that the Synod is home to one of the Middle East’s most mature, long-standing social ministry efforts, the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services – or “CEOSS,” as it is lovingly called by many. As we sat and listened to Egyptian young adults speak of job-training courses, skill-honing opportunities, and the inevitable positive contact between Christians and Muslims that results from so many of CEOSS’s on-the-ground ministries, I could not help but well up with a sense of grateful pride.
It was not pride based on ownership, as if I or anyone in my generation of Presbyterians has been the source of such work. Rather, it was pride born of awe, a recognition of the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit through the ministries of this established church, now 150 years in the making. As a young Egyptian woman beamed with her own kind of pride, telling us how the church’s job-training program allowed her to earn her own money for the first time in her life, and about what a difference this was making in her daily living, I could not help but daydream back to those first North American missionaries. I could see them, nearly two centuries ago, packing up their possessions, saying goodbye to families and congregations, traveling to what then would have seemed a strange, formidable land. I could see them traveling up and down the Nile, giving birth to Christian fellowships, starting what would later become hospitals and schools, and instilling in their indigenous neighbors a sense of pride – not only for becoming theologically-informed followers of Jesus, but in being Egyptian, no less. I wondered: What would they think and feel, sitting here with me, listening to this young woman, whose life is being blessed and bettered through the ministry of a strong, established, focused, and vital denomination of Presbyterian Jesus-followers? Surely they, too, would well up in humble pride, meeting the grown-up Synod of the Nile. Surely they would burst out in songs of praise to a Faithful God, songs sung in the Arabic language those first missionaries came to know so well.
I was ready to stand next to the pyramids again, enormous and steady as they have proven to be. I was not prepared, however, to experience today’s Synod the Nile – surely one of the global Christian movement’s better stories of growth and faithfulness.