Friday, December 11, 2015

Garbage City, The Cave Church, and Mama Maggie

My first published articles! Be sure to check out the January/February issue of Good News Magazine for the pretty version. ;-)

Garbage City
We were told not to open the windows. Secretly, I was glad because I could practically see the smell.
For two days already I had toured Egypt. While I was enthralled by the sheer size of the Pyramids, amazed at the artistry of the Sphinx, and baffled by the detail of the statue of Ramses, the trash heaped up on the fringes of nearly every street appalled me. Refuse lined the Nile River Bed. Layers of plastic bags, cans, and paper bordered the canals and our guide told us that it wasn’t unusual to find dead animals floating in it. Worse still, he said, the water was used for cleaning, bathing, and drinking and the government’s only solution is to bury the tainted water, to hide away the filth.
Still, this in no way prepared us for Garbage City. As we entered the Zabaleen Village, located at the bottom of the Mokattam cliffs, our guide rolled up the windows of our car. The buildings cast shadows over our small group, over the narrow, trash lined streets. Droves of people waded through the piles. Many sorted through it, some carried it upon their backs, others drove trucks or wagons pulled by donkeys; everyone was smudged by dirt and grime of their work. I’d seen poverty in the U.S. and South America. I’d seen squalor. I’d never seen anything like this.
Driven to the area by a bad harvest in the 1940’s, these individuals quickly learned how to use Egypt’s waste problem for their advantage. While other portions of the country simply cover up the excess, the people of Garbage City, 96% of whom are Coptic Christians, recycle and reuse what they collect.   
My parents, who are currently living in Egypt for an extended time, describe the men’s journey into the city. “They load up trash on trucks, if they have them, or on wagons with donkeys.  These animals journey from the City to Maadi and other surrounding towns, taking freeways, as well as small roads into the towns.  It is amazing to see these little donkeys hauling huge loads that look like they'll topple over at any moment-right in front of traffic!”
Residents are encouraged to package up their trash separately from the garbage so that the people can recycle plastics and glass to make things. Both young and old can be seen transporting huge loads of rubbish through Maadi and Cairo, even amidst thick rush hour traffic.
I’d longed to visit this part of Egypt since a friend had informed me of its existence a few months before. While the pyramids and museums and food all held their allure, none intrigued me more than this particular group of people. How did they survive such deplorable circumstances? How did they hold on to hope? I wanted to see and to understand. I wanted to learn.
We drove through Garbage City, through mountains of trash, piles of discarded and broken things and on the other side, carved into the side of Mokattam, the Cave church rose up against a clear blue sky. The afternoon sun warmed the sandstone, a sharp contrast to the shadow within the city. No trash here. No darkness. No smell. Children played and laughed, tourists took pictures, people smiled.
Founded in 1974 by Father Abouna Samaan Ibrahim, the Cave church, also known as the church of Saint Samaan the Tanner, ministers to an average of 5,000 people per worship service. What began as nothing more than an open space for people to hear the gospel grew by the grace of God into the lofty one now seen covering an area of about 1,000 square meters.
Discrimination and hardship mark their lives as the religious minority. Many have fled the attacks of Islamic extremists. Yet the 4% of Muslims living among them know they are safe to build their Mosques without fear of violence from the Christians that surround them. Stories of God’s power, of healing, of miracles, are on the tongues of those who live in Garbage City, a people who live daily in the discomfort and dirt but who are also fully convinced of the reality of the God of the Bible. They look beyond their everyday struggles to the promise set before them, symbolized in the church carved into the heart of the mountain. 
Though they are afflicted, they are not crushed, though they are perplexed, they do not despair, though they are persecuted, they are not forsaken, though they are struck down, they are not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Their perseverance and faithfulness are a witness to the world, one that God uses to bring many into His Kingdom. 
How do the Coptic Christians of Garbage City live and work and praise God in such poverty and squalor? As Eric Liddell’s missionary father once told him: “You can praise the Lord by peeling a spud, if you peel it to perfection.” 
Book Review: Mama Maggie
She is known as the Mother Teresa of Egypt, but it’s unlikely you have heard of her. A once successful Marketing Executive, recognized for her fashionable clothing and wit, Maggie Groban gave up glamour and comfort to serve the poor in Egypt. The book Mama Maggie, written by Marty Makary and Ellen Vaughn, seeks to tell her story and the stories of those whose lives she touched. 
Born to a privileged Coptic Christian family, Maggie Groban had every opportunity to live a life of ease. Ambitious and smart, she excelled in both school and business and eventually went on to teach computer science at American University in Cairo. In this venue she worked with the brightest of students, encouraging them to reach their goals, challenging them to consider what they were doing with their lives. All the while, she contemplated she path she had chosen.
The death of her Aunt Teda, a woman who had spent her life ministering to the poor, served as a turning point. “I had the best students, the smartest in the whole country,” Maggie said. But in the wake of Teda’s passing, she sensed that “God wanted to promote me. He said, ‘Leave the best, the smartest, and go to the poorest of the poor.’” Though she already volunteered occasionally in the slums, Groban felt the tug to do something more significant, something that would require great sacrifice on her part. So Maggie exchanged her fancy clothes and finery for a simple white skirt, shawl, and t-shirt, and with the support of her husband, Ibrahim, formed Stephen’s Children. In spite of government resistance – it takes a year to get approval to start a Non-Government Organization if things go well – their ministry to the children of Garbage City received generous support from friends, family, and churches the Grobans had supported in the past.
Their first task was to tackle education. According to the book, one study reveals “the base illiteracy rate in Egypt is 24 percent for non-poor families and 41 percent in poor families.” Moreover, women receive even less education than men, often not being sent to school at all. They are expected to grow up, get married, and have children. The ability to read is not considered important for them, as they do not see it as something that will make them valuable or socially acceptable. Stephen’s Children works to combat these attitudes that often perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
Using a Montessori school model, Mama Maggie established schools for children as young as preschool age. Here they are given a basic education and taught about hygiene, as well as their religious heritage, whether Christian or Muslim. Families who attend the schools are also given access to free medical clinics. Many of her students eventually go on to her vocational schools, where they learn to work on looms or make shoes. “In these settings,” the book says. “They could begin a new way of thinking and living, a bit of empowerment rather than shame and dysfunction.”
The next step Stephen’s Children takes with its students is the bi-annual summer camp in which the children can escape from their difficult home environments for a few days. As Mama Maggie’s assistant Youssef says, “We can harvest what we’ve been doing all year.” Stories of repentance and healing mark these events. Children are given the opportunity to learn, to discuss their struggles, to sleep in a bed. They are taught to dream big dreams. Many are rescued from abusive home lives. Some are convicted of the abuse they have wreaked on others.
After twenty years of daily working in the poor cities of Cairo, raising awareness all over the world, and being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Mama Maggie has started to draw back and allow others to take over. Those she has poured into are now stepping up to take the reigns and continue the mission to the poor, to carry out Maggie Groban’s God-given vision. “I want to go on with our work for the poor more and more,” she says. “Until it spreads all over Egypt, the Middle East, and the whole world, to make a better future for humanity-especially the children. This is the real love story, the one that lasts forever. How many love stories on earth end or change within just a few years? As we set our minds on God, who loved us, and gave himself for us, we are filled up. In the poor areas, we provide simple work, but with great love. We draw a smile in the heart and spirit of every deprived child. I hope this goes on from generation to generation to generation.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Lights of Christmas

I have always been afraid of the dark.  Since childhood it has hovered over me as a dark entity, solid and real like some sort of demon just on the edge of my vision.  It left me not with the exhilarating thrill that rushes up through the stomach and into the heart, the kind that makes one vibrate with life, but rather the sort of sick wrongness that reeks of the stench of death.  I tried night lights as a child but they only seemed to manipulate the dark.  It bunched in corners and gathered behind doors, looming, waiting for its dark friend sleep to draw me under and claim me as a victim.  The presence of a brother, a father, a mother, a friend was the only thing that robbed this monster of its solidness, banished it to its true form.  I cowered alone but found strength with others.

This has followed me into adulthood, like a second shadow clinging to my being.  It has brought friends along with it; exhaustion, desperation, depression, guilt.  If I truly trusted the Lord I would not fear.  How can I say I love Him when I let the darkness rob me of my peace.  I am a failure, a fraud, a hypocrite.  This darkness has become my accuser and I have listened to it, allowing its words to drown out all other voices.  Like a corpse crushed at the bottom of the sea, when this darkness comes I feel utterly helpless.

But I am not a corpse, and, as John 1:5 says, "the darkness has not overcome" the Light.  My journey is slow.  It ebbs and flows.  One night I sleep in peace, the next I stare at the ceiling, pumped full of sickening adrenaline, but there is forward progression.  I am seeing the Light of the world pushing back the dark that has always hunted me, and not just brushing it into corners or behind doors but revealing His Lordship over it.  The dark is not an entity on its own, it has no power that was not given it, and it will not overcome.

As I was driving home tonight from babysitting, I took a moment to wind through my neighborhood and look at the Christmas lights.  Because we are not allowed streetlights in Fullbrook, the stars are starkly visible on a clear night, but during the advent season thousands of twinkling strands spread their light together.  They glow with a warmth that is felt even in the Texas heat, with the reminder that the Light of life came into our darkness to slay it and cast it down.

John 1: 1-18 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lessons from a Facebook Status

This past week, a friend of my posted a status on Facebook that caught my attention and started an epically long chain of comments.  In her status she posited a suggestion that once a year we ought to be able to post whatever we are thinking rather than the passive aggressive sorts of things we often share with any and everyone who will listen (or in this case, read).  It struck me as I scrolled through people’s responses (as well as my own) that the majority focused on what drove us bonkers about others.  From text speak to grammatical errors, carpool line cutters, and the excessive use of selfies each person gave vent to their anger and frustration over somewhat trivial issues.  Most of it made me laugh, quite literally, out loud, but a lot of it also convicted me.

As I read through the comments I noticed a two things: I do many of the things that irritate others, and others became defensive of the things they did that irritated me.  For example, I have a personal, fiery, hatred for text speak, and while some agreed with me, others declared proudly that they used it all the time.  On the flip side, one person dumped on adult high-fivers, an action I may or may not participate in on a daily basis. 

It sort of embarrassed me a little.  But I think that’s a good thing.  Seeing other’s irritation at things I did rather cooled the flame of my own annoyance towards personal pet peeves; not that I suddenly became ok with them (good grammar is no laughing matter ;-)) but I discovered a little more grace. 

I think it’s the same way with sin. 

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and [a]by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”  Matthew 7:1-2

I can be such a Pharisee sometimes.  Growing up in a Christian home and being born with the insatiable desire to please everyone around me, I have always been a “good” kid who cringed at the thought of challenging authority figures or getting mixed up in the drama my friends always found themselves in.  I’d been taught that I wasn’t righteous, that Christ’s sacrifice alone made me acceptable to God, and I would have told you I believed it, but quite frankly, I don’t think I really did.

Then the mirror got turned around.  God began to shine a spotlight on the ugliness in my heart, the rottenness of my motivations, the untrusting fear that lead me to protect myself in any way possible and drove me from deeper relationships…the stench of death was and is so overwhelming that it often knocks me to my knees.  It sucks.  I don’t like seeing myself for who I really am, twisted and bent by sin.  But as the whitewash is peeled away I find my heart becoming more gracious towards others.  Like the situation with my pet peeves I continue to hate sin; it’s a cancer, it’s not God’s best, it poisons everything around us, but the Pharisee slowly shuts his mouth and my standard of measure is altered significantly.

Do you ever find the fire of your fury cooled when your own sin comes into view?

My prayer is matched with a promise, that “He Who began a good work in [me] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 1:6)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lessons from Potty Accidents

This week was a week of beginnings: first days of kindergarden, new jobs, inservice for teachers, and for me, my first, official class (complete with my second pair of tap shoes).  Nerves abounded.  Unlike some of my friends I was not sending off my little one into the hands of another adult, rather, I was the aforementioned adult (so-called).  Worse still, with the baby classes mothers come to watch, fishbowl style.  What if they on't like the way I teach?  What if I have to keep one from falling in their tap shoes and the parents think I grabbed their kid too hard?  What if I slip on my own tap shoes and fall myself?

What if a kid pees on the floor?

Oh the things you learn on your first day.

"Teacher, look!"  The puddle was already there by the time my attention was caught.  My eyes went immediately to the shelf upon which might be paper towels but I saw none; no trash can either.  Time for plan B.

"Ok, go see mommy, it's ok, just go see mommy.  And let's all stay on this side of the room…"

I spent the rest of the class attempting to keep three year olds from stepping, hopping, and "snow-angeling" (is that a word?) in the puddle.  It's amazing how children migrate towards the things they should be avoiding.  But I guess we don't change all that much, even when we get older.  Whether it's eating food that's not so good for us, wasting time watching twenty hours of Netflix, or pure and simple sin, we chase after (or marinate in) things that are detrimental to us.  Worse still, the more we feed ourselves these things, the more we develop a taste for them.

"Oh honey, let's keep your feet out straight so they don't get wet!"  (Read: don't snow angel your feet into the puddle of urine.)

"What is it?"  (referring to said urine)

"Oh it's nothing, let's bunny hop."

I think we do this sometimes because our attention span is about as short as a three year olds and our vision just as limited.  God tells us something is not His best for us, but all we want to do is stomp around in it.  He's just being unfair, He's just a spoil sport.  We forget that our Creator knows what we truly need, and that when He gives us commands it is because He cares for us.

Thankfully, He is a gracious God Who hears our prayers.

"Ms. Courtney, did she have an accident?"

"Yes, but it's ok.  Sweetie I never mind if you have to go potty, just let me know next time."

"Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.  Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice deeds of wickedness with men who do iniquity."  Psalm 141:3-4

I am really excited to work with these little ones, potty accidents or no, and I am looking forward to learning many, many lessons from them in the near future.  Pray that God will use me in their lives as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Diving Back In Amidst the Madness

It has been about two months or so since I last devoted any time to my blog.  I made no decision to stop writing, there was no grand event in my life that drew time or energy from me (unless you count writing my final paper for apologetics and moving out to my parents house)…

 I just.

Sort of.


Every time I tried to write felt like an upward battle, an actual, physical struggle, and rather than doing the wise thing by pushing through the block, I raised a white flag and gave up.  So here I am again, trying to remain faithful to my exercise in writing, hoping to be more consistent even when things get busy at my new job (woohoo!).

In June I was offered a position at a dance studio in Katy.  They are branching out into Fulshear (five minutes from my parents house, which I am taking care of while they are living in Egypt) and I will be teaching little ones ballet, tap, and jazz.  In spite of a few nerves (I haven't taken tap since I was about their age, 3, and I took a very small amount of jazz in high school) I am super excited at the opportunity to help these little ones learn how to dance.  My prayer is that the Lord will use me in their lives and the lives of their parents; that I will be a witness by patience and gentleness and that these things will give me the opportunity to share the reason for the hope that I have (1 Peter 3:15).  Thankfully, the Lord can use even His most banged up and broken tools to do great things.

And our world is so broken.  The last few days have been sad, painful.  News of turmoil for the church around the world, the suicide of a beloved comedian, the murder of a close friend of one of the families

at my church…our world is not right; our world is damaged, and sometimes, even as the children of God, things seem hopeless.

In Jeremiah 50:6-7, the Lord says through His prophet,

“My people have become lost sheep;
Their shepherds have led them astray.
They have made them turn aside on the mountains;
They have gone along from mountain to hill
And have forgotten their resting place.
“All who came upon them have devoured them;
And their adversaries have said, ‘We are not guilty,
Inasmuch as they have sinned against the Lord who is the habitation of righteousness,
Even the Lord, the hope of their fathers.’

I think as the church we need to look to this passage and consider Israel's plight, especially in dark times.  God gave His people the land of Canaan as a place of rest.  Why was it their place of rest?  Certainly because the Lord defeated their enemies, of course because they were no longer slaves, and absolutely because He'd made them prosperous, but I think the deeper reason is because that is where He chose to reside in a very special way.  God is "the habitation of righteousness".  This word is often misunderstood, I think.  We view righteousness typically as a set of rules and regulations, or self-righteousness as prideful, holier than thou art living, but when broken down, righteousness means "the quality or state of being just or rightful."

Think about that.    

Injustice permeates our world with the blood of the weak and powerful alike.  Wrongness twists and bends the bones and joints of every aspect of life.  But in God righteousness lives and breathes.  All that is as it should be dwells within our Creator.  There is no shadow in Him.  Therefore, to reside in a land in which God's special presence had been placed meant to reside in a land of rest.  We can't rest when things are wrong, when we feel in our souls that things are bent and out of place.  It is only in the presence of the Righteous One that we are able to give up worry, and hope for the day when He has made straight that which we have made crooked.

It's hard to find space for this sometimes.  Our days are so full, crowded with things both meaningful and ordinary, but even in the chaos our souls can find rest in
prayer, in the remembrance of God's word, in the quiet whisper that so often reminds us that He is there.  I'll be honest, this doesn't always make everything ok right away; traffic is still frustrating, my sin still casts a shadow, and work is still sometimes hard, but it is like a deep gulp of air in the middle of a hard race.  You're halfway through and you just don't think you can keep running, your muscles burn, your joints are aching, and your lungs feel raw from exertion, but you see the crowds cheering you on and you take that deep breath sending oxygen to your blood cells and then, suddenly, you can carry on when you thought you were done.

Take courage, dear friends, and find rest in the Creator of all things, our "habitation of righteousness".

Monday, June 09, 2014


I wrote last week about how well my parents pampered me on my birthday; this week, I show how my sweet friends cherished me and helped me celebrate my 29th year...
At Babaloo's, enjoying a very geeky cake

Up close shot of the Tardis cake…if you don't know what the Tardis is, then you are clearly not as geeky as I am…and I am so, so sorry
The girls and some of my favorite waiters around!

Monday, June 02, 2014

The Year 29

So close to thirty, so far from maturity.  Tonight, I leave you not with lamentations of time wasted, hopes deferred, but instead, with times cherished, with a reminder that I am, undeservedly, unabashedly loved...
The best crab cake…ever.

Flowers from my favorite waiter, Gus!

A special birthday cake!

Gus, the man.

He even wrapped my wine for me to take home!

Thanks mom and dad for a great birthday celebration; and thank you Lynn's for treating me like a princess!