ABOUT THE MINISTRY OF FATHER SAMAAN
Whirlwind - The Dustman
A teenage boy with a grimy face stooped under the weight of a tatty wickerwork basket slung over his shoulders. He stopped when he came to a newly occupied flat and hammered on the door. 'Zibaala!' ('Rubbish!') He called out.The woman who opened the door caught her breath at the stench of his clothes. Su'aad was a young wife setting up home in Shubra, the district of Cairo that spreads north from the main railway station. It also contains the city's highest concentration of Copts. Su'aad and her husband, Farahat, worked with the Coptic Orthodox Church in their spare time. (To be known as a Copt in modern Egypt is to be identified as a Christian, although it does not necessarily imply any knowledge of Christ or the Christian life.)
Su'aad paid the boy the monthly pittance that he asked for taking their rubbish away. Bit by bit the couple had begun to get to know him as he came to their house almost every day. His name was Qiddees Ageeb. He explained to them how he would go home with his father on a donkey cart and hand over the day's pickings for his mother and sisters to sift.
These snatches of conversation eventually developed into a warm friendship. On one occasion Qiddees asked Farahat what it was like working for a national newspaper, for Farahat was a printer's assistant on Al-Gumhurriya (The Republic). Although this was a national newspaper, Qiddees had never read it - he was completely illiterate. He then asked Farahat what he did in his spare time.
This opened up the opportunity for Farahat to enthuse about his trips to country villages, for on Sunday mornings he would up at six to get to services in country churches, after which he and his friends would visit the surrounding neighborhood Hid. They would then share with the people they met their experience of how Jesus met their needs and transformed their lives.
Qiddees was interested in all this. What could God do in his life? Eventually the day came when this teenage boy prayed with Farahat and asked Jesus to change him and turn his life around.
- Farahat's Call
After this, whenever Qiddees came to collect the rubbish he used to say to Farahat, 'Come and speak to my people about Christ. The people in our neighborhood gamble drink too much, use guns, take drugs - there are so many problems, and there are quarrels and fights every day.'
Initially, Farahat would reply that he was too busy doing outreach work in the Villages to visit Qiddees' neighborhood. This went on for two years, but Qiddees never gave up asking ...
One Friday morning in February 1974, Qiddees yet again asked Farahat to go with him to visit the rubbish collectors. This time, though, Farahat heard God's voice clearly saying to him, 'It is that prepare you, go with him.'
- A Modern Jonah
So Farahat told Qiddees that he'd meet him after work that very day, and Qiddees gave him directions to a place called Bab AL-Hadeed, the 'Iron Gate' bus terminus. Farahat now felt in his bones that this really was what God wanted him to do, but his heart was not in it. He was unwilling to change the pattern of service that he was used to, so instead of taking the bus to Bab Al Hadeed, he decided to get on one going in the Opposite direction!
God, though, didn't let him get away with it - any more than he did with Jonah - and Farahat felt God saying to him as he rode on the bus: 'I am the one who is telling you to go. I will be waiting for you at the place Qiddees told you about.'
Farahat felt an inner turmoil, but two stops later made his decision. He got off the bus and caught the next one back to Bab Al-Hadeed. There he found Qiddees waiting for him - completely unaware of Farahat's deliberate detour! ‘It would be fascinating to know .what was going on in Qiddees' mind while he cooled his heels (or rather in Cairo, 'warmed his heels'!) waiting for Farahat to turn up. A Western reader will need to view this misdemeanor in an Eastern perspective. Easterners do not see appointments as commitments that must override all other considerations. On the contrary, they can be set aside if something else crops up. A Christian film producer once told me how he'd made an appointment to see another Contact in the film industry in Luxor. To reach him he had to drive from Cairo. He got there, but his friend never showed up - and so he drove back to the capital, a round trip of 500 miles. When they next met up, neither of them made any reference whatsoever to the missed appointment!
So whatever Qiddees' feelings were about Farahat's late arrival, he quickly got on with the job of guiding him to his destination. He took Farahat into the middle of the vast cemetery on the eastern edge of Cairo. In this part of the world, families who own tombs build them like houses and bury their dead in vaults under the floor. Foreigners call the cemetery 'The City of the Dead', yet homeless people and refugees live in the tombs, renting the upper storey. So Farahat and Qiddees' evening walk, eerie as it might have been among the shadows, was not a lonely one.
When they finally reached the other side, Farahat felt as if he'd entered a living hell. He could hardly believe his senses. It wasn't just the stench. To some extent, Qiddees had prepared him for the tin shacks, the filthy animals and the heaps of rubbish, but he'd never imagined that such a 'God-forsaken' place could be thronging with such a seething mass of humanity. In the first street they came to, hundreds of children were milling around with men and women of all ages. Farahat had never met more than seventy-five Copts in any town he had served in, and in some villages there were only four or five. But here in one street there were hundreds.
Farahat felt his heart pounding. He hardly knew where to begin. 'Where do you worship?' he asked one man we don't worship.'
'Do you know about Christ?' 'No: 'All right,' said Farahat, 'but first we need a place to worship in.'
The man said, 'there is one place you could use - it's really a grotto.’
So Farahat promised him, 'I will come to you on Sunday very early and you can take me to this grotto.'
This time, Farahat was as good as his word, and at six 0'clock the following Sunday morning he went up the mountainside and the people led him into the 'grotto'. This turned out to be a gap beneath a massive rock that must have weighed several thousand tons. There Farahat held services on the next three Sundays.
- The Whirlwind's Manifesto
On the third Sunday, another lay-worker called Fayid joined Farahat. There were some 14,000 Copts living in an area of around 4 square kilometers - so Farahat was more than grateful for some help in visiting them. Farahat and Fayid went up to the grotto and prayed together. Farahat prayed aloud, 'Lord, I'm just a drop in the ocean. There are very many people here and they are very hard, wild people. What do you want from me? Do you want me to start a school, a Sunday school, a society, or a church? I don't know - tell me!'
Hardly were the words out of his mouth, when a sandstorm blew up. Violent gusts of wind came howling up the mountain. Farahat and Fayid were about halfway up on a narrow plateau. There were people below them and cliffs above them. The wind whipped up all the papers in the rubbish below them and flung them high into the sky. In a few seconds, blizzards of paper soared towards the highest of the mountain peaks.
In the resulting chaos one piece of paper fluttered down in front of Farahat. Fayid bent down and picked it up. 'Look at this,' he said. 'What's this piece of paper?' Farahat took it and, to his surprise, found it was a page from the Bible. His eye immediately fell on the verse that says, 'One night, Paul had a vision, and in it the Lord said, "Don't be afraid to keep on preaching. Don't stop! I am with you, and you won't be harmed. Many people in this city belong to me” (Acts 18.9-10). To this day, Farahat has kept this piece of paper with him.
At this point Farahat really began to sense that God wanted to do something, but he still didn't know exactly what. In the Coptic Church it is common to go to an older priest, or 'father confessor', for spiritual guidance. Farahat had just such a longstanding relationship with Farahat's spiritual fatherButros (or Zechariah Peter), so he went and told this priest what he and Fayid faced in this new area of ministry. But it wasn't the actual advice he gave that made its mark on Farahat. What impressed him most was the inspiration Farahat's spiritual fatherderived from God's promise to Joshua - a subject that he often preached about.
This promise had come to Farahat when he stood with Fayid on the edge of the district: 'Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you' (Joshua 1.3 RSV). As Fayid walked around looking for a suitable site' for ministry, Farahat in simple faith set the sole of his toot on the spot where he was standing.
Fayid did not know what was going on in Farahat's mind. The pair met again as they completed their circuits finding Farahat standing facing the opposite way, Fayid asked him what he was doing. Farahat's reply took him by surprise.
'Didn't God say to Joshua, "I will give you every place where you set your foot?”
Farahat felt sure this was where God wanted a church. So after marking out the site, they soon embarked on the building of a corrugated iron hut. They roofed it in reeds, in the local style. That first meeting-place reminded them of the stable in Bethlehem, but to the rubbish collectors it was a tin home just like theirs. It was only 170 square meters in area.
Eleven children came to the first Sunday school and nine adults to the first open meeting, held on 13 April 1974. But slowly the numbers began to grow until there was no room for all the children who came to worship.
Believing in the importance of providing the children with an education as well as pastoral care, Farahat's wife Su'aad opened two kindergarten classes in 1975. It was a simple beginning, but held the promise of expansion in the future. The adult meetings grew to the point where the iron hut was filled to overflowing. So they decided to do away with the tin sheets and instead build a small church of brick. But before starting to build the second church, they took a good look at the first to see how they could improve on it. They employed plasterers and fitted red stained glass to create a pleasant decor that would encourage more people to come. But they made the roof from canvas, which gave the feeling of being inside the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.
Farahat's spiritual guide, took him to see the Cop tic Patriarch, Pope Shenouda, who encouraged them a great deal with many Bible verses. They explained to the Patriarch that they wanted to build a more substantial roof for the church. (In Egypt, the Patriarch is a political figure as well as a religious one - his influence is vital in getting permission to build or extend a church.) The Patriarch agreed to start up a fund for a concrete roof. Yet the rate at which the attendance at the church shot up amazed them - even the new place was now too small.
By the rime Farahat's spiritual father had raised the money for the second roof it was already time to be thinking about a third building. So Farahat prayed, 'Lord, we need another roof and the first cost 90 pounds, and the second was 96 pounds. To do the roof for the third place in concrete will cost 1,000 pounds. This, Lord, is a very large sum of money.'
Yet Farahat felt God was saying to him, 'I told you I have many people in this town, so the place must be very spacious to take in the new people.' So they went ahead with the plans for the next church.
Farahat's spiritual father found a really good architect and they marked out a site of 1,000 square meters. Each day, Farahat used to come straight from his job at the newspaper and join the laborers in shifting piles of rubbish to widen the space for the church. Local people looking on could see that everyone involved in the project was pulling together.
While they worked on this latest church there was still plenty of visiting and follow-up to do. Farahat was puzzled, though, to meet people in the street, who suddenly looked shocked and ran home - he just couldn't fathom the reason. In fact, his mere presence was spiritually challenging to the people, disturbing their sinful lifestyle. All Farahat knew was that God had said to him, 'I have people in this town. So Farahat felt God would bring in the people. But he couldn't deny that the vision was there, and the promise, 'Don't be afraid ... I am with you, and you won't be harmed' (Acts 18.9-10).
• Evangelistic Athletics
In this same year, 1974, one of the believers had a vision. He saw a desk, and in front of that desk all the people of Egypt. It was easy enough for Farahat to interpret this as a vision of evangelism, but when he actually set about evangelizing he found the Holy Spirit leading him to do things that he had no experience of at all.
Many of the Copts had never heard of Christ and didn't want to listen to what Farahat had to say. Often he knocked at doors, only to find that no one would answer them.
'OK, so what's the matter? Why is everyone hiding?' he would shout out. If he did get into a house, he often found people sitting around drinking. They would then take one look at him and run away. Yet Farahat felt the Holy Spirit was saying, 'Run after them!'
'Is this evangelism is?' he asked himself, as he hared after them, gasping for breath to keep up. In the end, Farahat decided persistence was the answer, so he kept up the chase until he actually caught one of the fugitives! On one occasion he caught up with someone carrying a big carafe of spirits, so he grabbed hold of him and brought him that same day to a church meeting. The man then began a new life in Christ and the carafe went into a special museum the church keeps of things given up by people who have repented!
Once when Farahat was out visiting with Samir, another volunteer, they went into a house to invite people to a meeting. They were sitting down eating in the dark. One of them said, 'My name is Ali, and as I'm a Muslim, I won't be going. These others are Christians - take them along.'
The religious scruples of the man who called himself Ali may have prevented him from attending a Christian meeting, but his scruples were certainly not of the stringent kind. To most Muslims, drinking any alcohol is a sin that could send you to the 'fires of hell' - yet unseen by his visitors, Ali was all the time quietly sipping from a carafe of strong spirits.
In the darkness Farahat and Samir couldn't make out the people very well. So they stood up to go, but someone said, 'You wanted to meet together, so stay and eat with us. 'All right,' they replied, 'but we like to pray before we eat.' They stood up to pray, and during the prayer there came a shriek - and a sound that struck like a bombshell.
Someone had grabbed a big bottle of alcohol and smashed it. It was the man who had called himself Ali Muslim, who had a huge moustache and only one eye. Suddenly he cried out, 'God forgive me, I have denied you. I am a criminal and a killer - and I am now coming back to you.' It turned out that his real name was Shawqy Zaki. He came to the meeting and made a commitment to the Lord that very night.
The more that Farahat learned about Shawqy, the more he saw that he was a remarkable example of God's grace. In his past life he couldn't bear to pass a day without a quarrel or fight. And if no quarrel came up in the ordinary course of events, he would go out and start one. Once he went out and hailed a taxi. He then embarked on a grand tour of Cairo, keeping the driver going well into the night. At last they came back to their starting point and the driver asked for his fare. To his horror, he found himself looking at the blade of Shawqy's knife and ran away. This was in fact one of the mildest of Shawqy's excesses, in a life in which violence predominated.
One day, driven to distraction by his failure to find someone to fight with, Shawqy decided to turn his anger inwards and stabbed himself in the stomach with a sharp knife. Bleeding heavily, he was rushed to hospital and survived. What was even worse was the effect that these outbursts of violence had on his family. The worst example of this was when he deliberately set fire to his house. Inside were his wife and nine children. They survived, but in his crazy career of theft and violence Shawqy had twice killed people. This was the kind of man whose life Christ turned around that night through Farahat's courageous outreach.
Early in Farahat's ministry to the rubbish collectors he felt the Spirit was giving him some practical advice: 'Don't just wade into all that mud, paper and waste. Get some boots and tuck your trousers into them.' Farahat was sure this was clear guidance from God, so he got the boots immediately. Since the people he was trying to reach kept running away from him, he had to learn to tuck his trousers in and run after them. More and more, Farahat was realizing that successful evangelism in this area involved going in for sport: to reach people, Farahat had to become an athlete!
One night someone Farahat wanted to invite to a service hid himself in the middle of a pig-pen! How on earth was he going to reach the man among the pigs, the offal and other horrors? The answer, Farahat realized, was to add a torch to the boots that were already part of his essential outreach kit. So at the next opportunity Farahat found his way into the pig-pen and shone the torch on his quarry! The man was frightened by the light and was cowering in a box. So Farahat went in and persuaded him to come out.
However, Farahat was not always so relentless, like some hunter with his prey. If someone refused an invitation to a meeting, Farahat might simply reply, 'Never mind, I'm sorry if I disturbed you.'
There were also gentler forms of persuasion. In Egypt close friends of the same sex may greet each other by kissing on both cheeks. At an Egyptian wedding a male guest will never kiss the bride, but if he is a friend of the bridegroom they may kiss on both cheeks and embrace for some time. So to kiss someone you have just been arguing with is a radical thing to do. It is not just a gambit to patch up a quarrel: it means that you are claiming his friendship. But if the professional from the church does the kissing, this is completely back to front. It is always the ordinary rank-and-file Coptic lay people who kiss the hand of the priest, never the other way round. Again Farahat found the Holy Spirit leading him down a different path to custom and tradition.
Confronted with a man who refused to come to a meeting, he found God saying to him, 'Kiss his hand, kiss his hand!' He did, and the man got up to go with him. Another man wouldn't budge. God seemed to be saying to Farahat, 'Kiss his head!' By this time, Farahat was thinking 'Whatever next!' However, he did it anyway, and the second man struggled to his feet. A third man was still obstinate, but the Spirit prompted Farahat, 'Pick up his shoe and put it on for him.' Farahat bent down and looked around for the shoe, found it, and put it on the man. The man gave a jolt, then jumped up and followed Farahat to the meeting.
Such was the variety of evangelistic methods prompted by the Holy Spirit in Farahat's ministry - one minute haring after someone, the next being urged to grovel!
- Healing the Healer
So Farahat slowly discovered that there is a kind of evangelism that does not depend on human methods or on following the customs that have been handed down to us. It is an evangelism led by the Holy Spirit. Once, he was called in to pray for someone. There was no electricity in the area at that time, and Farahat couldn't see the person very well. He didn't know what was wrong with him, but when Farahat had prayed, the man shouted out, 'My eyes are opened. I was blind and now I can see!'
Farahat had no idea that the man was blind. He asked him to point to things in the room: 'What's this?'
'A lady' and so on.
It was very clear the man had been healed.
For such a dynamic ministry Farahat needed to be fit.
Yet the smells and the smoke from one visit could make him ill for a week. Millions of scraps of rubbish attracted millions of scavenging insects. One family invited Farahat to share a meal with them, oblivious to the flies massing on the table. Yet to refuse to eat with them would have been unthinkable.
Although the people were poor and their lives surrounded by rubbish and dirt, they couldn't wash their faces more than once a week. There was barely enough Water to drink, and there were no amenities of any kind, Tap water and electricity were undreamt-of luxuries.
After a while, Farahat found that when he slept he started to ooze blood. Every time he shifted position in his sleep blood would seep out of him. The doctor told him to stay in his bed in Shubra and not to return to the rubbish collectors in Manshiyat Nasir and the many infections that were there. He followed this advice for a while and the blood flow stopped, but he didn't have peace about this decision. There was a restlessness inside him, which made him realize that he couldn't be happy if he abandoned the rubbish collectors.
So although he was still ill Farahat went back to them.
He was still so weak that someone had to carry him on his shoulder and lay him down inside the meeting house. He slept, but he couldn't move. So he said to God, 'Lord, today you have got to give me a boost. How can I lie here when souls are dying out there?'
While he was still sleeping, a power seized hold of him. The sensation startled him into wakefulness. Gingerly, he begins to move again - and found he could get up. He immediately ran outside and started visiting the people again and bringing them to the meetings. The illness never returned.