Friday, March 2, 2012

“…to ashes you shall return.” Ash Wednesday in Downtown, Cairo

 During this time of year, especially during the Lenten season, I find myself questioning many things regarding religion and spirituality. I’ve never questioned my own **I hate to use this word** “faith” as much as I have since being in Cairo this past year. Unspeakable things have happened but I’ve raged against the storm, probably making matters much worse for myself—which actually leads to great humility and the ability to laugh at oneself on a later date.

Due to my excellent southern charm **ha, ha** and the wonderful friends I’ve made here, I found myself bribing two of the most wonderful to attend an Ash Wednesday service with me in Cairo. I decided on Tuesday that I would participate in the Daniel Fast for the third time in my life. Basically the fast requires that you cut out all “rich foods” from your diet and you are only allowed to eat fruits, veggies, brown rice, water, and seasonings such as salt and pepper. This 21 day fast continues to be one of the hardest things I’ve done, and the first three days are the absolute worst since my body starts to convulse and protest in anger regarding the lack of caffeine, sugar, and carbs that it’s not receiving. However, on about the 9th day I’ve never felt so amazing and complete strangers compliment how nice my skin looks or how happy I am—I very well should be since there’s nothing toxic meandering around inside!

So once again, I began pouring through the pages of The Ultimate Daniel Fast (it’s currently $3.99 for the Amazon Kindle!) and began to make notes of who to pray for, what to pray about, and what I wanted to change or improve in my life. Each person/group/idea would be placed under each calendar day of the fast. Sounds easy enough, right?

After this was said and done I found myself hustling my two dear American friends, Angela and Matt, into a taxi to Heliopolis, only to find that the church actually wasn’t in Heliopolis but in Downtown, Cairo. Oopsies.
After speeding through traffic with the Egyptian Eval Kaneval taxi driver he drops us off in the middle of a rather filthy street and mutters something in Arabic, meaning that there are two churches—one of your left, one on your right. Good luck! Well, to the left it was.

6:50 p.m.—An Egyptian gatekeeper opens the gate and welcomes us in Arabic. I felt a pang in my chest and thought, “Oh God, I promised Angela that this service is English. She’s going to kill me and give me as sacrificial offering…” I quickly looked at the two men sitting to the left, just inside of the decrepid gate, and asked, “St. Andrews?” They both nodded and pointed toward the church. I couldn’t help but smile just a bit as we made our way up to the strange building. Perhaps it looked odd in the lights of Cairo, but I felt a little bit more comfortable inside of the church grounds.

6:57 p.m.—We found the door into the sanctuary; beside of it there was a sign that explained the church services available. **Hallelujah, the service was in English!** I stepped inside, not wanting to be late, and realized that we were the first church goers. Since St. Andrews is a non-denominational church it was a bit hard for me to place the three men of the church with their titles. There was an interim pastor, perhaps a deacon of sorts, and another pastor—or preacher, if you will. As soon as we shook their hands and sat down Matt said, “This feels like home.” Something overcame me at that moment. I was almost nervous about the service. It was my first church service since I left home at the beginning of August, besides the German Christmas service I attended in Fliderstadt with Sebastian, but that one hardly counts since I literally only understood about seven words of the whole thing. 

7:00 p.m.—The service was due to begin but a few people kept filing in. I counted 31 in total, including the three leading the service. We sat in small, rickety rows that were very close to the alter. Some sat farther down by the piano, there were two small girls there. Only three men in total, besides the men of the church, were in attendance. There was a greeting and then a leading prayer. I was glad to hear the familiar words of prayer and the call to worship. I found it slightly humorous that the hymnbooks were Presbyterian, but better to have some than nothing at all.

I lost track of time.
My mind was buzzing and my heart was, indescribable. Taxis and shouts outside kept interfering with my thoughts. Why couldn’t I focus? Had it been too long since I’d been to a service? Is there such a thing—my preacher would argue, yes. I think.

I looked to my left and Matt’s lips were closed, his eyes were shut quite tightly, and he was deep in…thought, or prayer perhaps. He had mentioned that he had been toying with concepts, ideas, and history regarding Christianity. I was almost pleased to hear it, and for the past few years I’ve done the same. Partially because of being a scholar of religion and partially because of other religious beliefs I’ve encountered. I still consider myself to be of Methodist denomination, but in fact tend to incorporate rituals from other religions into my personal forms of practice.

On my right Angela looked serene. It was hard to place her. Then I realized I should be placing myself in the middle of the service, not analyzing every tiny detail around me.

The next thing I knew we were asked to come forth to receive the ashes, on either our foreheads on hand. I watched the first row move forward in silence. I was entranced and could smell candles or incense burning around me. I thought about my church at home, the familiar faces—jokes made during the sermon, the loud “amen’s” coming from one of my favorite men in the church, my hands being squeezed by Tina and Heather. Again, I found myself looking at my two friends with great fondness. It’s amazing how love and friendship can be found so easily, if you let it.

Our row stood up and I clomped to the end of the row (I wore heeled BCBG boots and found myself being a bit louder than I wished). It was my turn to have the ashes rubbed on my forehead. I silently said the familiar words I heard every Ash Wednesday. The pastor’s cool finger moved in a cross over my face. Another pang in my chest.

After the service I found myself in the fellowship hall, just so we could check it out. We were also the first ones in but others followed behind us, looking forward to cake and refreshments. A man came in and said that we couldn’t leave the church grounds because there was a shooting just outside. Oh, fabulous. Our scare was reconfirmed via phone conversation just minutes after.

As we were discussing what to do next a lady introduced herself to me. Annie from Charleston, South Carolina made my night. We quickly began talking, I told her my family lives in Charleston and how I missed chicken and dumplings. She told me that she could make some mean cornbread and chicken potpie. We shared our love over a nice pair of boots and for Harry Potter (apparently she also had a Harry Potter party in her church once, but didn’t get in as much trouble for it as I did with Heather, the preacher’s daughter). We talked about the South and how we missed our churches and families there. I began to realize that maybe home wasn’t so far away after all. She gave me her number and told me to call her, of course.

I have a lot to be thankful for—such amazing people who will Skype me at any minute of the day if I really needed them to. Friends who will wash tar off of me after a night of mayhem, friends who will bring pizza and movies to me when I’m sick, loved ones who fly all the way to Egypt just to see me, sisters who message me just to say hello, a boyfriend who can make me smile in an instant, family who ships Girlscout cookies, homemade banana bread and soap just to make life in Cairo less stressful. God has blessed me in ways that I could never imagine. Even in the midst of a shooting, with traffic piled up for miles, and confusing thoughts of religion and questioning swarming in my head I was blessed with a little piece of home. 

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