Category Archives: Approaches to Charity and Development

Act Now to Prevent More Massacres

The 21 martyrs of Libya. Icon written by Tony Rezk.
The 21 martyrs of Libya. Icon written by Tony Rezk.

By murdering the 21 martyrs on camera, the Islamic State wanted to make us a passive audience for their theater of horrors.

But against their own intentions, in trying to tell their story, the killers presented us with a clear choice and an important opportunity to act.

We know the story they wanted to tell: “We can terrorize these Christians at will, because our strength and cleverness have brought them into our grasp.”

But the real story of what brought Copts into their grip is not one of terrorist genius. The truth is, the martyrs were snared by preventable causes: the crushing poverty and lack of jobs that drove them to Libya.

If we had addressed the root causes that pushed those fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles to leave Egypt in search of their daily bread, there would have been no massacre of Copts on that beach.

Let there be no mistake: It’s not for a lack of wanting to help that we failed to prevent what happened. Our readiness to help is immense; our Coptic generosity pours out at the first sign of a tragedy like Libya.

This tradition of giving after the tragedy is laudable; no one questions the importance of helping the victims’ families when disaster is past. But it is not the same as having a vision for the future.

In that light, here is the choice before us: Will we continue mainly to react to tragedies by aiding the victims — or will we start working together to end the causes that make Copts victims?

These are two very different approaches to dealing with poverty. One — the “charity” approach — reacts to events and relates to people as victims. The other — a “transformational” approach — is proactive and defines people as partners in transforming lives and developing communities.

What makes the second approach “transformational” is acknowledging that all true change comes from the Holy Spirit, and flows from and points to the Kingdom of God.

Put more simply, a charity approach says: “If you help people pick up the pieces after their tragedy, you’ve done your job.” In contrast, the transformational approach says, “Let’s start working side-by-side now so that we all become closer to the Kingdom of God, and are strong enough to head off tragedies.”

It might sound abstract, but I’ve seen the transformational approach make huge changes in the lives of children, adults, and their communities. Just as importantly, this way of “working together” is transformational for all of us living outside Egypt. So choosing one or the other approach has real-world consequences.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re one of the hundreds of parents I’ve met in the Saeed, where the poverty is ferocious and the jobs are scarce.

If you’re a father in a village, your work may be drying up. Your children may be getting thinner before your eyes. Going to Libya may mean death. But you’re willing to risk it for your family. So there you go, and there you die.

Suddenly, after you’re gone, there’s help for your family. Which is important, and one way we affirm that we’re all responsible for each other within the Body of Christ.

But the help doesn’t change the fact of your torture and death, nor does it restore you to your wounded family. Nor does it repair your lost contributions to your church or your community.

Wouldn’t it have been better if the flood of generosity had arrived before you were massacred?

Moreover, wouldn’t your life have been a different life, your village a different village, your Egypt a different Egypt — had that generosity had been focused on improving your family’s education, encouraging your entrepreneurial ideas, promoting job creation, and developing community resources?

Most importantly, wouldn’t that have kept you from desperately seeking bread for your children in places where the Islamic State is a threat — or is ready to hatch?

One thing is for sure: You can’t massacre someone who isn’t there. That’s a sure form of prevention.

To go back to the original thought: The Islamic State wanted us to focus on their capacity to do Copts harm. But the more important story is our capacity to do ourselves good.

This is our choice. We can still make the best outcome from the worst intentions.

Could Hot Tea in Egypt Keep Cold Rain Off a Child?

Egyptian tea brings happiness to the guest.

I’m in Egypt now, seeing the faces of all our old friends. Their welcome is like the tea — it’s the warmest, it’s the sweetest, and it never changes. At the same time, the challenges facing our brothers and sisters in Christ are really evident wherever I turn.

I’d like you to imagine that we’re together today, sitting in this modest room in Sohag. It belongs to a widow, Niveen, who serves us tea. As she steps carefully onto her threadbare carpet, I notice it’s soaked dark with water. She explains, reluctantly, that the roof leaks icy rain in the winter. It ruins the rugs, it reeks, and it keeps her children awake at night.

Since her husband passed away, Niveen has had trouble feeding her kids. She’s supported through the Church’s beneficence, but it’s hard to make ends meet. Her biggest goal right now, besides fixing the roof, is to buy blankets to protect her children from the winter chill.

Hundreds of times, I’ve been in rooms like this in Egypt, sitting with strong, struggling mothers like Niveen. And without fail, they don’t dwell on the ice water in their lives. They focus on serving me the warmest, sweetest tea.

That’s the hidden meaning of Egyptian tea. It’s what goes unspoken, because of the host’s dignity: “Yes, my roof leaks ice water, but I’m going to bring you hot tea.” That’s strength. That’s our culture. I’m so proud of it, and I’m so proud when we can return that hospitality.

I’m telling you the story of Niveen because you can make a difference. Coptic Orphans has an Urgent Needs Fund that meets the most pressing needs of families like hers. In 2014 alone, almost 100 generous people collaborated with the fund, empowering nearly 270 families to deal with life’s most difficult challenges.

Here’s how the fund works: One of our 400 Church-based volunteers, or “reps,” notices a family facing a particularly dire situation. Often, the health of the children involved is at risk, and frequently, the missing piece for survival is housing or medical care. Other times, there is an educational need that could mean the difference between a child’s success or failure in life.

The rep carefully assesses what intervention can truly make a difference for the family in harm’s way. Usually there are material improvements — a roof that doesn’t leak buckets of water, a door that keeps out criminals, a floor that is clean and hygienic — that can meet the urgent need. Or an operation can save a child’s life, or help with tuition can bring a life-changing career within a young person’s reach.

The rep contacts Coptic Orphans staff with a description of the case, which is vetted for its urgency and the effectiveness of the proposed solution. If the case passes muster, it is posted online with a plea for a donor to support the family in Egypt.

Next, through the generosity of donors who see the case online, or hear about it through word of mouth, a donation is made that we channel into meeting the urgent need. All donors receive a report documenting the “before” and “after. ” It shows what’s been done in concrete terms, often with photos. Sometimes the donations come with amazing swiftness, and the suffering is alleviated quickly. That’s always a cause for prayer and joy for the family, the reps, and our staff.

Here in Sohag, Niveen doesn’t know if someone will step forward to help keep the winter rain off her kids. For my part, I know this: The Egyptian tradition of hospitality is alive in her. The tea she offers is our shared strength, and a starting place from which we can keep cold rain off a child.  At moments like these, when I am warmly welcomed in Egypt, I know that it’s part of working together to respond to the needs within the Body of Christ, of which we’re all one part.

To make an immediate difference in a family’s life through the Urgent Needs Fund, please click here.

PS Names and some details about the families aided by the Urgent Needs Fund are changed to protect their privacy and dignity.

Egypt as Reality TV Show

Samah, an Egyptian businesswoman, shows off her products on the "set" — her home showroom.
Samah, an Egyptian businesswoman, shows off her products on the “set” — her home showroom.

Some days, in Egypt, you just wish the TV crews were there to record what you’re looking at. Great material for reality shows is everywhere. Who needs the Kardashians when you have real live Egyptians doing the most amazing stuff, often while talking on their cell phone and driving 77 mph?

The most amazing Egyptian I’ve met lately is Samah. She’s perfect for a reality show in the style of The Apprentice, that goopy drama where Donald Trump eliminates his protégés by shouting “You’re fired!” Samah is an up-and-coming businesswoman herself — although she’s a widow raising a young girl, she’s paying her bills by retailing blankets, bathmats, and other household goods.

But really, Samah could have a show of her own — Real Businesswomen of Egypt ? — because she needs no Trump to hire or fire her. She’s doing it her way, with the help of a loan from Coptic Orphans’ B’edaya microfinance initiative.

In fact, the closest person to a Donald Trump in Samah’s life is the Coptic Orphans “rep” who works with her.  Reps, you’ll remember, are the Church-based volunteers who guide and mentor the orphans in our Not Alone program, and who support their mothers in acquiring life skills. This particular rep, whose name is Isis, has been a source of inspiration and coaching for Samah.

From the moment you meet Isis, you know she’s no Trump-style caricature of what a mentor should be. She’s not looking to create a money-making empire;  instead, Isis is all about building strong, faithful, self-sufficient families by serving the Church and “her” orphans. She exudes patience and kindness, qualities she has used to walk Samah through the process of starting her business. She’s also got two other essential ingredients: determination and business savvy.

150206_Samah B'edaya Nermien (1)
“Hilwe! I’ll take 10!” (That’s me on the left.)

With Isis’s help, and lots of hard work, here’s the enterprise that Samah has gotten up and running. After looking around her neighborhood to see what her customers really need, Samah buys a load of household goods from a wholesaler. These, she sells out of her own home, which doubles as a showroom. The income she generates is of enormous benefit to raising her daughter, and allows her to keep them — and her home — in a healthy state. She’s even sewed new curtains for her windows.

Samah, who credits part of her success to good people skills and strong business ethics, is a “graduate” of B’edaya now. She’s paid off her loan, yet she continues to receive income from the business she’s built. It’s steady money — something she can rely on. Not only that, she reports that her income from the business has increased sevenfold since 2010. For B’edaya, that’s right on target, because the goal is to foster family independence and self-reliance.

Things have not always been so rosy, especially in 2004, when Samah’s husband died after five years of battling liver cancer. The illness was emotionally and financially draining; the family spent every pound they had and borrowed more to pay off medical bills. It has taken a long time to get past the initial stages of mourning and recovery.

But handling these challenges, and encouraging a move to family self-sufficiency, is what B’edaya is all about. It’s a microfinance initiative that tailors small no-interest loans to the needs of widows in our Not Alone program, giving them an income, more skills to feed their children, and more control of their lives. In the second round of loans, from the beginning of 2013 through January 2015, B’edaya disbursed US$14,067, with 29 of an initial group of 37 mothers seeing the process through to fruition. The loan recipients are in Sohag, Minya, Alexandria, Monofiyya, and some less well-off areas of Cairo.

When I visited Samah this month, I met her daughter Amira. She’s at the top of her 12th-grade class and doing exceptionally well, with all kinds of honors. She’s well-positioned to be accepted into a competitive university.

“She’s the angel who God has sent me,” Samah tells me.

I have to think: Wouldn’t that be a much better ending for a reality TV show than Donald Trump yelling “You’re fired!”?


More information about B’edaya is available here. You can also check out these “notes from the field” —  “Ambition vs. Tradition: How Egypt’s Widows Are Claiming Their Future, 1 Business at a Time” and “She’s Not on the Cover of Forbes. Yet”