Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mormons in Ma’adi

For the first time in a while, I got up early on a Friday morning. I put on a white shirt and slacks. And I accompanied Joseph, my Mormon roommate to a service with the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints. In Cairo? Well, yes, of course. It seems these days that Chinese businessmen and Mormon missionaries are becoming more common in these parts of the world.

After a 20 minute metro train, we walked toward the church, or ward as Mormons call it. We bump into Kevin, Joseph’s friend, who is now in Cairo studying Arabic intensively at AUC. He served a two year mission in Brazil recently and recounted days of being stuck in traffic in the middle of Carnival celebrations, with scantily-clad women or nearly naked bodies running around. “It was a challenge,” he remarked.

The ward is really a house with a large community room, plastic chairs and a podium on a low stage. Two ceiling fans work frenetically above us to cool the room. Parishioners numbered around 60 or more, but now that summer has arrived, and many have left Egypt for home, attendance has dwindled to about 30 or so. One woman has come from Alexandria, a 3.5 hour train ride. All the men are in ironed white shirts with ties, except for one in a pink shirt. I am the only tieless man. Somehow, the formality of Mormon services always reminds me of business meetings. One couple is visiting from California. Another man is working out of the US Embassy temporarily.

We begin promptly about 9:35am with a hymn. Thereafter, some announcements and then a testimonial from a missionary mother about the difficulties of living abroad. “I was getting used to life in Utah when Jed took me around the world.” The theme of today’s service is the Temple and Ordinances. She speaks of “exultation in the celestial kingdom.” And how building temples is one way of being Christ like. “Have the temple be an example for us.” She ends her talk with “in his name –Jesus Christ -- we pray, Amen.”

A young man named Hayden speaks for a few minutes. He will serve his upcoming mission in the Ukraine. “We must follow the counsel of the Prophet (Joseph Smith). There is a three-fold purpose of the Church: 1. Spread the Gospel 2. Perfect the Saints 3. Redeem the dead” Apparently, it is a Mormon practice to convert dead souls into the Mormon faith.

The President of the ward – a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair -- makes some brief remarks: “Can we be as good as the Lord expects us? In sports, those who are most successful in baseball can fail 70% of the time. And fail 50% of the time in basketball.”

After the service, the study session focuses on the Temple and Ordinances. A young man leads the study session. He comes from a mixed background: His grandfather worked in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a SS officer. His grandmother was an inmate at the same camp. Somehow, years later, they met up and married, producing his father. But, through rehabilitation of the dead, he has managed to reconcile and heal the wounds, so to speak…

He reads from the Book of Mormon, which is the size of a fat brick with gold trim. It’s really the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price all in one edition.

When it concludes, we mix and mingle a bit. I spot Bertram, my Nigerian teaching colleague from St. Andrews, the Sudanese refugee ministry. A member of the Ibo tribe, Bertram’s last name is Anyaegbudike, which means “someone’s look who does not frighten a warrior.” In other words, a gentle man with a kind disposition. About 5’ 5”, he is perhaps in his mid 30s and speaks with the warmth of a high school guidance counselor. He only joined the Mormon Church about a year ago. Bertram said that while he was an ecumenical Christian before, he was attracted to Mormonism because of the “clean lifestyle” that it offered.

“They are very honest and straight people. No drugs, no smoking, no non-sense.”

He has been in Cairo for more than a year and will be here for four years altogether before he returns to Nigeria. He pulls me in for a warm embrace and smiles from ear to ear. He is quite surprised to see me. We chat for a few minutes. He hugs me again before he takes off.

Just another morning at a Mormon Ward in Cairo.

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