Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Don't be afraid."

It was 9 pm and I was sitting in the office of an engineer/contractor in a small city in Egypt. The office was on the fourth floor of a building he had designed and built some years ago.  For me, it had been a busy day of travel, teaching, and meeting pastors and business persons.  For Aheb, it had been another long but normal day of work, overseeing his three businesses.  Aheb had just shared his story of the challenges of doing business as a Christian minority in Egypt, challenges that include things that Westerners could hardly imagine.  I asked him with whom he shared these challenges – who encourages him, who mentored him, where he gets his support?  His answer, sadly, was the same that I heard from each business person with whom we met.  “No-one. There is no-one I can trust to discuss my business, not even my family.  The church does not care.  There has been no one to mentor me.”  After a moment of silence, I said, “It must be both a lonely and frustrating path for you to walk.”  He quickly responded, “I am not lonely or frustrated.  I love what I do.  God has made me in a way that I am able to keep moving forward.”
The beautiful river Nile and streets of Minya

After more discussion, I wrapped up with a final question.  “Aheb, if a younger version of you walked through the door, ready to start his work as an engineer in the construction field, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give him?”  Aheb thought for a moment and then quietly said, “I would tell him, 'Don't be afraid.'”  He paused, then added, “The future is a mystery.  Fear is an obstacle.” As soon as those words left his mouth, I saw tears well up in his eyes and he struggled to maintain his composure.  

I quickly felt very aware that a nerve had been touched. I was also unsure of the Egyptian culture, as it relates to the appropriateness for an Egyptian man to show this type of emotion in public.  I decided to not push the question further.  This was a man who had shown, through his story, that he was not afraid to take risks.  He was running several businesses, doing a ministry of church leadership development in Chad, raising three beautiful daughters, survived two revolutions in Egypt, survived his office being burned, faced oppression and persecution as part of being a Christian business person in a religious minority, and had, moments before, boasted of his love for Egypt. While many Christians are fleeing the country, he has never even been tempted to leave.  So what did those tears mean?

I’m not sure.  But if I were to guess, he caught a glimpse of his younger self coming through the door. He flashed back on the many moments of struggle and pain over his 18 years of business experience. The same pain that he chooses to fight through each and every day, and for a brief moment allowed himself to feel the weight of the struggle.

Farms outside of El Minya
The next day we visited another business person who gave us the same answer of having no one to support encourage, mentor or trust as it relates to his business.  He then shared that we are the first to EVER ask him about the role that the church plays in his business.  He said this sadly, yet with some frustration.  He said, “The church doesn’t care at all what I do during the week, as long as I come with my family on Sunday and give when they need funds.”  Then he leaned forward and asked, “What do the pastors say when you ask them the same question?”  He knew that we were teaching pastors and church leaders about Church-based business as mission.  We squirmed in our seats as we had just spent four hours the day before with pastors who insisted that all is well with their relationship with business people. The pastors believe that they are affirming and supporting their business people. 

Dr. Walker teaching the pastors.
This same businessman then shared that he has taken fifty-five (!!)  loans in his eight years of business, with five loans going concurrently as we talked.  I didn’t want to tell him that he probably wins the first prize out of the thousands of businesses that I have interviewed for the highest number of loans.  My fear for this man is that he is in a vicious circle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. But he never really faces the music as his book-keeping system is simple, at best, and not giving him the feedback he needs to make good financial decisions.  He said that he is working fourteen hour days and never sees his family – he has a three year old son and a forty day old son.  He is unsure when this will ever change.

We returned to the training with the pastors that afternoon, and shared with them some of what we had heard.  Dr. Walker encouraged the pastors to think of what would happen if they never visited or inquired about the lives of their grown children – in many ways, those children would feel like orphans.  He then said, “I am here to tell you that you have many orphans in your church.  They need you to care about what they do.  They want you and the church to affirm, encourage, and disciple them in how to be the Church from Monday-Friday.”  It was a somber moment.
At the end of this training, all eight churches from this town decided to forsake denominationalism and work together to bring Discipling Marketplace Ministers to their town, and reclaim the redeemed Marketplace.

We know that this is just a first step.  But we are thankful for that first step, as difficult as it was to get there.  We will start this training at the end of February.   Each pastor will preach a sermon series on business as mission, meet and pray for and with the business members in their church, and choose 5-10 of their members to join the training.  Please pray with us for this group of eight churches. Pray also for these business people who seem so eager to share, so thirsty for support, so hungry for companionship.