We are hurtling along the busy Cairo streets, our driver attempting to avoid pot holes, pedestrians, and other drivers, who are racing along at maniacal speeds. The lane lines are, apparently, merely suggestions. There are no seat belts in our car, and the shock absorbers have bottomed out.
By day three of our trip, I no longer have to stifle screams as other cars swerve within inches of ours, but I still pray we will arrive at our destination alive.
I am in Cairo to learn more about Stephen’s Children, a ministry begun 30 years ago by Maggie Gobran, now known, internationally, as Mama Maggie. She is called the Mother Teresa of Cairo because of her commitment to helping desperately poor, mostly Christian children, many of whom live with their families in a neighborhood known as Garbage City. This commitment is also why she had been named the 2019 recipient of the Colson Center’s William Wilberforce Award.
I have come to Cairo because I am tired of merely writing checks to charities; I wanted to get my hands dirty, so to speak, working one-on-one with some of the poorest people on earth. (“Don’t worry, you’ll get dirty, all right,” Jennifer Cramer, U.S. director of Stephen’s Children,” cheerfully tells me.) I also love to travel to new places, so working with Stephen’s Children seemed a good fit for me. And so for eight days, Stephen’s Children workers take me to see what they are accomplishing.
Once we arrive in Garbage City, half a dozen children welcome us and insist on washing our feet. After toweling my feet dry, a little girl offers me a new pair of flip flops.
We pick our way along a narrow dirt road, surrounded by derelict buildings filled with garbage, flies, feral dogs, people on cell phones–and the worst stench I have ever encountered. Here, many thousands of poor families live and work, sorting garbage and selling much of it, for very little money.
A Stephen’s Children leader knocks on a door. Inside is a single room, filled mostly by a bed. No kitchen, no bathroom, no electricity, or heat. Three children and their parents call this room home. It smells even worse inside than out, possibly because the family brings animals into the room at night. There is another Stephen’s Children leader there, and the children, all of them smiling, are delighted with the attention they are receiving. They learn a new Bible story, repeat Bible verses they have memorized since the previous week, and then join the leader in prayer. This volunteer–—as do hundreds of others—comes to visit children in Garbage City every week, and invite them to attend Stephen’s Children activities. Before she leaves, she hands the children’s mother a bag of food.
Coptic Christians—said to be descendants of the ancient Egyptians—make up approximately ten percent of Egypt’s population. They are discriminated against in hundreds of ways by the Muslim majority, resulting in chronic poverty.
The wretched conditions under which Garbage City families exist reveal the great need for the medical clinic Stephen’s Children runs. Here, first aid is offered to some 7,000 children every year who suffer burns (from melting down plastic water bottles), cuts (from stepping on broken glass), scabies, worms, food poisoning, and other health problems associated with living in a garbage collection area.
During the following days we attend a Vacation Bible School-style camp. Mama Maggie and other leaders teach the children, and lead them in songs. Children are served a large, healthy lunch, and gather into small groups outside with their leaders. Later, they play soccer before heading home on ministry-owned buses with bags of food to share with family members.
We were taken one afternoon to a farm outside Cairo, in the Sahara Desert, where, amidst olive groves, mango trees, and goats, Stephen’s Children leaders spend three months in intensive prayer and study before beginning to work with children. We visited two modern, ministry-operated schools, learned about the literacy classes for older girls, and vocational training programs for boys which, among other things, teaches them how to make shoes. We are asked to help make dinner rolls one day (while Egyptian women giggled at our efforts to shape the rolls properly) and spent a lunch hour helping fill the trays of food for the children.
There was also time for fun. We were taken to see the pyramids of Giza, toured the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, shopped at a bazaar, and enjoyed an al fresco lunch beside the Nile River. We enjoyed a private tour at a monastery, the building of which began in about 700 AD. On our last night, we shared traditional Egyptian food with Australian supporters at a local restaurant.
For all the fun we are having, for all the satisfaction of taking part in a ministry serving “the least of these,” I am aware of the constant undercurrent of danger. A Coptic Christian festival was being celebrated on the day we arrived in Cairo. Given the attacks on churches and Christian believers in recent years by jihadists, the Egyptian government now protects sites associated with Christianity during these festivals, including the Anglican Guest House, where several of us are staying. Heavily-armed police officers stopped us as our driver was about to drop us off there on our first night, and for several days we had to show our room keys each time we re-entered the area to prove that we had a reason to be there.
The danger is real: Ten days before our arrival, a police officer was killed while attempting to defuse a bomb placed outside a Cairo church as it prepared to celebrate Christmas.
“Out of Egypt I called my son,” the prophet Hosea tells us, and Coptic Christians are proud their country sheltered Jesus and his family. A spiritual war is being waged here, where Satan has maintained a strong and vicious grip for centuries. Those who are working to pry his fingers off these poor and persecuted people need constant prayer, as do the Copts themselves.
As I flew home to Maryland, I realized I had been blessed by the very children I went to serve—boys and girls who were generous with their smiles and hugs. And—in getting my hands dirty rather than simply writing a check–I learned more fully why Jesus told us to love, not with words, but with actions and truth.
If you would like to learn more about Stephen’s Children, or support this ministry, visit www.stephenschildren.org.
Editor’s Note: We hope you can attend the Wilbeforce Weekend, May 17-19, in Arlington, Virginia. Our featured speakers include our 2019 Wilberforce Award winner Mama Maggie, Rick Warren, Star Parker, Eric Metaxas, and more. Click here for more information and to register.
Anne Morse spent 17 years writing and editing breakpoint radio scripts for Chuck Colson, and is the author or editor of several books. She lives in Maryland with her husband.