Mt Pleasant News
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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Apr 22, 2018

Strangers in the land of Egypt

By DR. JOY LAPP, Associate Professor of Religion, Iowa Wesleyan University | Jul 29, 2016

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people remember their history of slavery and oppression as foreigners in Egypt. They know what it feels like to be mistreated as strangers, and they are reminded to treat the strangers in their midst with understanding and kindness.

In the New Testament, Jesus likewise praises those who offer generous hospitality. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

I have experienced being welcomed as a stranger.

After I graduated from seminary, I went to Egypt for three years where I taught English as a volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee. I was definitely a “stranger in the land of Egypt.” Moving to a new culture is challenging and even the simplest things can be unbelievably difficult. It is easy to feel lost where nothing operates according to the conventions you are familiar with.

In the absence of supermarkets, how do you buy groceries? I had to find the bakery for bread, the fruit seller, the vegetable seller, and communicate in Arabic with each vendor. How much should things cost and what is the value of these unfamiliar coins? How do you make a long distance phone call? I was in Egypt in the era before smart phones (and even before email), when calling long distance meant going to the central phone office, handing the phone number to an operator, entering a booth, and then waiting until you were (hopefully) connected.

My job was teaching evening English classes to adults in Beni Suef, a town about 60 miles south of Cairo. I lived in the Coptic Orthodox Convent with the sisters where morning prayers were announced by a bell at 5 a.m., and meals where eaten in silence.

I was managing through the fall term, but December hit me with a jolt. It was Christmas time where I came from, but in Beni Suef there were no carols on the radio, no Christmas lights on the town square, and no candlelight services. Dec. 25 passed without notice. I was homesick. The sisters saw my sadness and reached out in kindness to include me in their activities. Coptic Orthodox Christmas is on Jan. 7, and I was included as they prepared for a quiet, spiritual celebration of Christmas that truly is devoid of the “materialism” that we decry in this country. Orthodox Christians fast from all animal products during Advent – no meat, eggs, butter, or cheese for forty days. Breaking the fast on Christmas day (in January!) with a delicious chicken soup was a joyous occasion.

My students were experts in welcoming the stranger. I was invited for meals and for day trips to ancient churches and monasteries. They patiently reminded me of Arabic words I had forgotten and helped me navigate the foreign world that I had entered.

Henry County residents have an amazing opportunity to extend hospitality to strangers. Iowa Wesleyan University will welcome approximately fifty new international students to its campus this August from more than fifteen countries.

To learn more about how you might become involved, contact Maria Metcalf, International Programs Advisor.

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