Reflections on Cairo: learning about God from refugees
(an adapted excerpt from my independent study project)
In the summer of 2017, I traveled to Egypt for the first time. From the moment I arrived in Cairo and in the weeks that followed, I experienced a sort of awakening. Cairo struck me as a sort of wilderness; for all its beauty, chaos, passion, and visible pain, it was a place deeply immersed in God’s presence. I could not have expressed it in such a way then, but I was slowly coming alive to God in a way that I had previously only experienced internally in the recesses of my soul and limitedness of my mind. Put another way, I had come alive to God in the world, beyond the bounds of how I alone exist in time and space. It was there, in Cairo, that God brought me out of myself to begin upon a journey of being alive to others.
In other words, that first trip to Egypt revolutionized what it means, for me, to be alive. In a “Rule of Life” I wrote for a seminary class three months later, I articulated the new way which I felt compelled to be alive in the form of these questions: how can I love God in this moment, and how am I as alive as I am living?. Every moment became a way to act upon the love of God; this is what it means to love God in any given moment, and also what it means to be alive to others. To love the invisible yet ubiquitous and enigmatic God is to love the visible manifestation of God, Imagio Dei, of another human being. To be as alive as I am living means to share in and feel the joy, pain, sorrow, and gladness of others as much as is in my capacity to do so, while recognizing the healthy boundaries that must exist among people because we are creatures of limit. However, I could no longer exist as an island before God; for the first time, I could feel the ethos of life that connects us all to one another and to God.
From my first encounter with Egypt, I knew that I had to return and a subsequent trip would have to be more than an attempt to see all of the interesting sites missed on the first go-round, though multiple trips to Egypt are well-recommended anyway. Needless to say, in studying contextual theologies of liberation in seminary whilst thousands are being forced from their homes, neighborhoods, villages, towns, and cities as victims of famine, conflict, and persecution, often in the name of religion, I began to ask what a liberation theology for refugees might say to the millions of displaced people the world over. I wearily wondered whether there would be any theology sufficient in light of their suffering, or if theology was even an adequate way to address the pain and plight of refugees. I fearfully pondered in my heart whether the sufficiency of theology translated into God’s sufficiency; that is, was God sufficient to be God, and that in a manner commensurate with refugees’ needs. Speaking to the African American context in the United States, Howard Thurman asked the question of what the religion of Jesus of Nazareth has to say to those with their backs against the wall; this very question as it pertains to refugees and displaced peoples circled in my mind and spirit for a long time.
These questions formalized themselves enough to be considered an Independent Study on the experience of refugees in Cairo and I returned to Egypt for a month in the summer of 2018. I had read a wealth of literature about conducting interviews, written a one-page project proposal, and possessed some ideas about the nature of God in my repertoire of experience. I did not anticipate that, minus a few, everyone that I interviewed would be Sudanese or South Sudanese; as a result, I quickly learned a lot about the conflict and ensuing crisis of displacement happening in those countries. I was blessed to meet my Sudanese and South Sudanese brothers and sisters, as well as to be welcomed into “African-style” church services where I was invited to worship with my whole being: hands, feet, body, mind and spirit.
In engaging participants for these dialogues, I opened conversations with an introduction to who I am and why I am interested in learning about God from refugees. To that end, a number of times I offered the imagery I have come to rely upon in understanding the universal church as the body of Christ. That is, each moment and experience that makes up my life is like weaving a small tapestry. My experience of God is particular to my being and reflects in my piece of tapestry; when people of God get together and share their experiences, we are sharing in the making of one another’s tapestries. The more we share, the more our tapestries reflect one another and the image of God that spans every tapestry becomes more evident. In a sense, this study sought to encourage the active participation of sharing in one another’s tapestries.
As such, our personal view of God is insufficient in every sense. If we only believe in the God that we can conceive of, it is not God, but ourselves, that we believe in. Otherwise, God is diminished to our own realities and the experiences and worldviews that come of them. Hence, when we think about God, it is prudent and necessary to seek, acknowledge, and consider as many points of view about God as possible; it is in this way we can begin to perceive the fullness of God’s grace. The myriad voices, beliefs, and experiences of God will undoubtedly be as confusing as they are confused, as wrong as they are right (as if anything is good apart from God), and as problematic as they are life-giving and sustaining. Nonetheless, the human predicament is to live in and through the mystery; we cannot know all, but we can press on to the light despite the darkness. We cannot surmount every odd, but we can have an irrepressible hope that urges us forward. To echo Dr. King, we cannot see the whole staircase, but we must put one foot in front of the other and take the next step. In recognition of this reality, we must still contend with the vastness of God and the disparate experiences of God’s people. Apparently, some are rich, some are poor, some have access to medical care in city centers, others die of diarrhea in isolated encampments, some have full plates while others pick scraps from dumpsters. Are these and other disparate experiences a reflection in any way of God’s provision and care, or is the life experience of a person simply the intertwined effects of the trappings of human free will and the resulting effects on the lived reality of people across the ages? How can or do both of those things work in some sort of muddled unison?
It is with these questions in mind that I sat before Sudanese and South Sudanese interview participants and self-identified refugees in Cairo. Despite vastly different life experiences, we both attested to the goodness of God. I do not base my account of God on the amount of things I own nor on the fact that I have a shelter to dwell in, but I readily acknowledge that, insofar as there is as these things are good and have a source, it is God. The real reason that I know that God is good, though, is because I have seen God’s goodness; I have felt God’s beauty and seen God’s love, namely in nature and in people. I have learned of God’s goodness from people who have every reasonable cause to doubt and declare religion the opiate of the masses. Religion may very well be a soothing balm for suffering, but not without reason. Religion, insofar as it seeks to translate into word and meaning the yearning of the heart that seeks to love, for no other reason than to gratify Love itself, can be a liberative force that reflects God’s will in and for the world. The stories of the individuals I was privileged to meet and who attested to God’s love in the midst of unspeakable terrors are living proof of this liberation from the wretchedness of utter destruction. This is not because of how they celebrate the sacraments, but because they see God in the sacraments and they have lived through their own exodus. As noted previously, one woman stated that Egypt is both the land of slavery and of hope.
When refugees pray for their daily bread, they really mean to ask God for sustenance. Participants I heard from have experienced death in one or more of its nuanced forms – discrimination, dehumanization, loss of livelihood, desperation, trauma, hunger, and pain. This is not to say that liberation is something to be attained only in the ever after or that God somehow sanctifies suffering as a means to liberation but, rather, that God breaks through every dungeon and stronghold of evil such as those listed above. Those dungeons and strongholds are nothing less than products of the human intent to be gods over both self and neighbor. Yet refugees can see God’s grace clearly because somehow, despite the manifold barriers of injustice, they see God in their suffering and cling to the hope of redemption. For those of us who were previously ignorant to the plight of refugees, our participation in that redemption must begin now because God is here, now, just as God has always been among us across the ages. Those who are the bane of society – the poor, excluded, vulnerable, and the refugee, are the very ones who are inheriting the earth, now, even as those of us who proclaim ourselves to be uninvolved are victims of our own oppression in that we cannot see God through the veil of our own ambitions to be involved in everything but the liberation of the marginalized.