Impressive New Colleague

Impressive New Colleague

By Jim Harries, for consideration for publication in Jim’s Journal (July 2016).

An Egyptian wrote an email to me some months ago saying he was hoping to come to Kenya. When I reported this to another Egyptian colleague, she said “Really. That would be wonderful. He is a very godly man”, or words to that effect. I have since acquired a colleague who is also my Swahili student who also seems to be a saint from Egypt! (Someone who is as keen on learning Swahili very soon appears to be a saint in my book.)

I am still frequently very impressed by the ways in which my Egyptian colleagues do mission. Unlike myself, and American colleagues who I have often had over the years – the Egyptians are not Western. In their home country, they are relatively poor. They are a persecuted minority under Islamic rule. For them, coming to Kenya is not necessarily to come to a ‘poorer’ country.

Copts operate with liturgy. They focus heavily on chanting truths – and can spend hours learning chants and chanting. Africans who join their church are encouraged to chant, sometimes in an ancient Egyptian Pharaonic language that is only preserved in the Coptic church. Coptic Christians also preach and teach – it is just that their emphasis is slightly less on these things because of the profile of their liturgy. Their liturgy is very biblical but also makes mention of Egyptian Saints. It is like in a way – mission for them is to do the same praying they did at home but now to do it abroad. (It seems that whereas Westerners often come to solve African people’s problems for them, Egyptians come to pray.)

One thing that intrigues me is that the Copts are not rushing to hand-over their work. ‘Handing-over’ can become an obsession for Westerners. Egyptians being in a way ‘more like Africans’ than are Westerners might find some things easier to hand over. Yet they are not in the business of rushing to ‘hand-over’. It’s hard to put your finger on it … things are just different.

Apart from teaching him Swahili, I also translate into Swahili at times for my new colleague. This privileges me to hear what he is teaching. It is wonderful! And he has endless energy, it seems, to do it. It is not coming out of a Western curriculum or a text book. Most times when I see him teach, all he has in front of him is his Arabic Bible. To learn how to be a Coptic priest seems to require a lot of chanting prayers for hours and hours; the liturgy, and studying the Bible.