We are speaking frankly to you . . . our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections. – II Corinthians 6:11
Just outside Cairo in Egypt there is an oasis in the desert called Anafora. Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church says this retreat center is about opening up a space for people who would never meet elsewhere.
Bishop Thomas says Anafora can play an important role in helping people to see with a different perspective, in training leaders and in breaking down stereotypes.
He uses MCC as an example – a partner who treats him like a partner, sending service workers and young adults who are open to learn new ways of doing things and new ways of looking at the world.
Later, I met iconographer Helena Nikkonen from Finland who is painting a beautiful set of icons portraying the story of Jesus inside a new chapel just outside the retreat grounds. Another set of icons telling the Old Testament story will be painted outside the chapel. Helena says she doesn’t expect to complete all of these icons in her lifetime.
I am especially drawn to the icon of Jesus with the Lepers, as recorded in Luke 17. The lepers ask for mercy and Jesus opens his heart to them and heals them. One of the lepers turns back to thank Jesus, “praising God with a loud voice.”
The next day back in Cairo, I meet Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church. The Bishop implores MCC to help the church rebuild Egypt by educating the poor and by providing small business opportunities. “This is a time when friends – real friends – speak up for each other,” he tells us.
Bishop Youannes of the Coptic Orthodox Church leads BLESS, a social service agency of the church. Bishop Youannes talks of “developing” hearts and minds. BLESS’ work in dozens of villages on family planning, education, agriculture and income generation is making a difference in peoples’ lives.
The Bishop uses the words, “full of God, full of love” to describe the MCC country representatives in Egypt, but I couldn’t help observing that the words also apply to this bishop who so clearly is committed to the church’s work of caring for people on the margins.
Back in Anafora as we walked back to the retreat center from the new chapel with the icons, we noticed new buildings being constructed just inside the main gate of the retreat. When we asked, we were told that this will be a new rehabilitation center for people with serious injuries. We learned that Bishop Thomas had recently recovered from a serious accident and he wanted to show his thanks to all of the people who had helped him recover by building this center.
What a wonderful thing it is to see the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth practiced here in Egypt. Hearts are wide open to people in need. There is no restriction on the love that is provided.
Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.