Part 1 of a trip report from Chip Zimmer, VP of Global Ministries for Peacemaker Ministries
“There is no tradition in our culture of going to someone to speak the truth in love,” Bishop Mouneer Anis, the head of the Anglican Church in Egypt, North Africa and the Horn of Africa, told me recently as I sat in his Cairo office. “Egyptians don’t know how to do this. When people are in conflict, they simply stop speaking to each other.”
Helping conflicted Egyptian Anglicans speak the truth in love is high among Bishop Mouneer’s priorities, so high, in fact, that he invited Peacemaker Ministries back to lead a second round of training for members of the Church’s staff. Ken Sande and I provided an introductory course for 20 participants, mostly Anglican priests, when we visited in May 2011. This time, the Bishop requested a more advanced program that would equip 77 of his church and ministry leaders with peacemaking skills.
Designing a training program for such a group is always an adventure. Although I have been at this for more than 10 years, I am still never quite sure what to expect. To be fair, neither are my hosts. We join in a kind of dance in which who leads and who follows are figured out as we go along. I constantly assess what’s working and what’s not working and make adjustments.
There is another element in all this, something that is impossible to predict, yet which plays a critical role – the presence of God’s spirit and of what he intends to do. Sometimes, all the parts just fit, the moves each partner makes complementing what the others do. For me, this was one of those times. We danced together well.
I landed in Cairo after a 27-hour trip from Billings, and I spent the late afternoon and evening with Rev. Farag Hanna, the Anglican priest who is coordinating this year’s training program.
Training for the Egyptian Church
We headed out early the next day to the Catholic retreat center, where our training took place. Our audience included not only Anglican priests, but also the heads of various Anglican ministries, such as schools and a hospital. Other than a handful who participated in our 2011 training, this year’s group had little prior experience with peacemaking. Somehow, I needed got to get them thoroughly comfortable with the basics and teach them coaching in three days, including the time needed to translate my English into their Arabic.
To accomplish this I stripped peacemaking and conflict coaching down to their essentials. I embedded basic principles into stories and narratives that would be both authentically Egyptian and memorable. Farag provided me with typical conflict scenarios, then we went back and forth by e-mail, as I built his original sketches into the case studies, demonstrations and role plays we would use for the training.
I was determined to build another element into our program. Like most of us, Egyptians confront barriers within the church and the larger culture that operate like big “No Trespassing” signs. Authority, age, gender, social standing, all play important roles in giving society its structure and shape. But, this relational architecture also sets boundaries around how people engage each other when conflicts arise. As a result, cultural norms and biblical precepts collide.
I wanted us to examine such boundaries carefully. Farag and I built into our cases and role plays some typical relational quagmires, such as a conflict in which an older, more senior leader sins against a younger, less influential member of his church. In many cultures, elder status automatically acquits senior leaders of responsibility when they act wrongly toward others, especially those who stand lower on the social scale. This touches the very heart of peacemaking and I felt it was critical that we press hard when such issues arose.
As I welcomed our 77 participants to the first day of training, I wondered how all this would play out…
It went even better than I had hoped. Participants readily grasped the concept of “heart issues,” that is, how the sinful motives result in sinful words and deeds.
The Innocent One Who Takes the Initiative
But, our Case Study raised a sensitive issue. The Senior Pastor in the case, Rev. Ibrahim, had acted both wrongly and abusively toward his young choir director, Samir, firing him without cause after blaming him for an event over which Samir had no control. Although troubled by the Senior Pastor’s actions, participants hesitated over whether he should go to the ex-choir director to apologize and offer his job back.
After a short break, I told the participants that I wanted them to continue in their small groups to answer the question, “Who should say what to whom?” Rather than continue to press them directly, I sensed God prodding me to find out what participants believed would be most appropriate in Egypt.
I was surprised when we gathered back in the plenary session. The first group to de-brief announced, “We think Rev. Ibrahim must talk directly with Samir. He needs to apologize.” A second group added, “Yes, but he’ll never do so without pressure. The other choir members need to go to Rev. Ibrahim to encourage him to talk to Samir.” Then a third group pitched in, “But, the choir members are all young and they’ll never go to Ibrahim. Their parents need to put pressure on Ibrahim to talk to Samir.” “No, the elders should talk to Ibrahim,” said another group. And so it went.
I was thrilled. Our group had gone beyond the question I had posed and was wrestling with the mechanics of how such a conversation could actually happen in Egypt, a place where admissions of wrongdoing are rare and seldom flow downhill.
But, now things got really interesting. A final comment came from the back of the room. “I think Samir should go to Rev. Ibrahim. He’s the innocent one in all this. So, he is in the best position to bring about a solution.”
“I agree,” I said. “What do you think would happen if, instead, Samir reached out to Rev. Ibrahim? What sort of impact would that have?”
One of the participants raised his hand. “It would have a very strong impact,” he said. “Usually the person who is innocent waits for the guilty person to come to him.”
“Can anyone think of examples from the Bible where we see this happen?” I asked. There was silence. “Isn’t this one of the great themes in Scripture, the innocent taking the initiative to reach out and restore the guilty?” I paused to let the idea sink in.
“Who took the initiative to reach out to us, to restore us to God?” I asked. A couple of people raised their forefingers and pointed skyward. “That’s right. Jesus, the innocent, came to earth and gave his life to restore us, the guilty.” There were nods of recognition.
We turned to look at key verses in Matthew 18. I summarized the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one who has wandered off. Then, we read Matthew 18: 15: “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens, you have won your brother over.” Again, the grand theme, the one who is wronged reaching out to restore the wrongdoer.
There was no need to press further. They got it. For the rest of our time together, participants would no longer wrestle with whether to apologize when they had sinned against others, or go to those who had sinned against them. From now they would wrestle with the question, “How do we do this, here, in Egypt?”
In the next installment: A role play exercise that was uniquely Egyptian…
Grace and peace,