Hearts Wide Open

by J. Ron Byler Ron Byler

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 told me this retreat center is about opening up a space for people who would never meet elsewhere.

Anafora plays an important role, says Bishop Thomas, in helping church leaders in Egypt see with a different perspective, in training leaders for the future and in breaking down stereotypes between people groups.

An icon in the new chapel at Anaphora, an Orthodox retreat center just outside Cairo.

An icon in the new chapel at Anaphora, an Orthodox retreat center just outside Cairo.

He uses MCC as an example – a partner who actually 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.

In a new chapel at Anafora, I also met iconographer Helena Nikkonen from Finland who is painting a beautiful set of icons portraying the story of Jesus. A second series of icons just outside the chapel will retell the stories of the Old Testament. Helena told me she expects this project to last longer than her lifetime.

I am especially drawn to her 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.”

Back in Cairo, I met Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church. The Bishop implores MCC to help the church rebuild Egypt by helping to educate the poor and by providing small business opportunities. “This is a time when friends – real friends – speak up for each other,” he tells me.

Another bishop, Bishop Youannes of the Coptic Orthodox Church leads BLESS, a social service agency of the church. Bishop Youannes talks of “developing” hearts and minds and he shares about BLESS’ work in family planning, education, agriculture and income generation. These programs are making a difference in peoples’ lives in dozens of villages throughout Egypt.

The Bishop describes his workers as “full of God, full of love,” but I observe that these words also describe this man of God who is committed to the church’s work of caring for people on the margins.

I am remembering back in Anafora that, as we walked back from the new chapel across the retreat grounds, we noticed several small buildings being constructed just inside the main gate of the retreat. When I asked about them, our guide said this would be a new rehabilitation center for people with serious injuries. We learned that Bishop Thomas had recently recovered from a death threatening accident and building this center was his way of showing gratitude to the people who had helped him recover.

The Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth are 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 of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. For more stories from his recent trip to visit MCC projects in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine check out his blog at jronbyler.blogspot.com. For more information about Palestine, go to http://washington.mcc.org/issues/middleeast/israelpalestine.

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