“Do not come any closer,” God told him.
“Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.”
Then he said, “I am the God of your ancestors – the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
~ Exodus 3:5-6
This weekend, I had the
privilege not only to stand on holy ground, but also to hike, sleep, eat, and
swim on holy ground. The eight
other volunteers and I joined our classmates and teachers on a trip to the Sinai
Peninsula. We left early Friday
morning in a bus bound for the Red Sea. A
couple hours into the trip, the bus broke down.
Being stranded in the desert for an indefinite period of time is never a
good way to start out a road trip, but the situation did lend itself to a lot of
jokes about wandering in the desert for 40 years.
After two hours, a rescue bus arrived and took us to the Red Sea, where
we enjoyed an afternoon at the beach.
Later we traveled to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai. Our hike to the summit began at midnight under a clear, starry sky and a full moon. We hiked up a gentle path that gradually became steeper and eventually turned into steps (over 700 of them!) carved into the mountain. Exhausted and hungry, we reached the top at 3 AM, rented blankets, and camped out on the rocks for what would be a very cold, uncomfortable three hours of trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep. At 6 AM, still wrapped in blankets, we dragged our aching bodies to the other side of the mountain to watch the sun rise. I don’t think I woke up until we were hiking back down, but with the aid of sunlight, the downward hike was a lot shorter than the upward hike.
In addition to sore muscles and dirty clothes, I brought back from Mt. Sinai a much better sense of the setting for some of the Bible stories I have known since childhood. Have you ever wondered why the Israelites had such a hard time trusting God to lead them to the Promised Land? I have now seen how rough and barren the Sinai wilderness is and I have no trouble understanding why the Israelites might have been concerned about finding food and water. I can’t help but smile when I read Exodus 19:23 because I wonder if Moses argued with God just to avoid having to make that long climb again (and I imagine Moses didn’t have the benefit of 700 steps carved into the side of the mountain)!
Although the hike up Mt. Sinai was physically strenuous, I don’t think it was much more demanding than adjusting to life in Cairo. Since arriving here one month ago, much of my time and energy has been devoted to tasks I once considered trivial. Crossing the street, for example, is an art that I will probably not master in one year. Finding food is another activity that consumes much more time than it seems like it should because few people at the market speak English and I speak Arabic on the level of a small child. I am learning to be patient with myself and to rely on others to help me with many basic tasks, which has been a challenge for me.
Perhaps the biggest challenge so far has been adjusting to the way I am treated as a result of my skin color. Regardless of how I dress or what language I use, the sun glares off my white skin, alerting the world to the fact that I don’t belong here. As I walk down the street in Cairo, nearly every person stops what he or she is doing to stare at me. When we walk as a group, we get stares, hisses, and a variety of other “greetings.” I rarely feel threatened by the attention, but there are days when I desperately want to be invisible so I can go out and do the things I need to do without constantly being the center of attention.
I know many of you are concerned for my safety here in Egypt. I hope it reassures you to know that I feel very safe and have found the Egyptian people to be extremely warm and friendly and very welcoming. There is little crime here and I feel much safer on the streets of Cairo than in most large cities in the US.
I have had so many experiences in the past month that I cannot possibly share them all in this newsletter, so I have put together a website that I will try to update regularly with stories and photos from my journey. That address is below and of course you can continue to contact me via email. I would love to hear from any of you!
Thank you all for your support and prayers. As the other volunteers and I begin our jobs this coming week, please pray for safe travel for those leaving Cairo and that each of us will be welcomed in our placements and will be able to meet the needs of those we are here to serve.
September newsletter from Lisa Burke serving as a YAGM
with the ELCA in Cairo, Egypt
September newsletter from Lisa Burke serving as a YAGM with the ELCA in Cairo, Egypt