Reflections on 2015 Coptic Lands of Immigration Seminar

H.H. Pope Tawadros II presided over the first ever, 2015 Coptic Lands of Immigration Conference from May 20, 2015 – May 23, 2015.  For more information about the conference please click the link above.  Below are the reflections of an attendee at the conference.

2015 LOI Reflections by Anonymous

I’ve spent the last 10 days reflecting on the land of immigration conference, between the things discussed, the people I’ve met, and the information that was shared. Each time I began to evaluate whether the conference was a success, I found myself questioning what the measure of success was. I realized that such questioning existed because the goal or goals of the conference was not clear to me. In fact, it seemed that there were numerous goals, some that complimented one another, while others did not conflict, they just co-existed on some relational level.

If the goal was to create a forum where we as a church can meet as one body – between His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, members of the Holy Synod, Clergy from around the world, and lay people, this was a success on most levels. Each person was given an equal amount of time, courtesy, and respect to speak, and one could really feel the level of love and concern each participant has for the Church.

The conference itself was set up similar to ECCYC and other types of conventions: Prayer in the morning, followed by a presentation on a specific topic by a regional delegation, along with break out sessions/workshops that proceeded afterwards. Each workshop involved at least one Bishop, Reverend Fathers, and male and female lay people. The topics that were discussed included the creation of a universal Coptic database (aka CopticWorld), whether feast day dates should be uniform with other churches, mission churches, missionary work, language issues, uniting the land of immigration church with the church in Egypt, media relations, and education. Other topics that were discussed during Q&A was the use of the Coptic language, and priest clothing and the impact it has on “PKs.”

In my opinion, not all delegations were effective in their message and there were speakers within each delegation that were not qualified to speak about certain issues – for example, one priest discussed legal issues but never practiced as an attorney. There were discussions about the legal implications gay marriage may have on the church and whether taking a position would effect its non-profit status (again, all suggestions were unqualified). There was a question asked about whether there is any hope to change the restriction on women to take communion during the menstrual cycle in which a response was given that a ‘team of doctors’ was examining the issue (???)

Nonetheless, the delegates that were prepared and qualified, did a fantastic job, and my God bless their efforts  – these delegates were His Grace Bishop Surial, who emphasized the need for Theological schools; NYNE discussing the need to reach out to our surrounding communities; Archdiocese and connecting the churches as one body; and His Grace Bishop Angaelos and his presentation on proper media relations.

Now, with all that mentioned, if the goal was to leave with action items, that goal was not met. However, if the goal was to get the dialogue going, to recognize that, despite our numerous diocese and tremendous global growth over the last 50 years, we are one church, this was clearly accomplished. His Holiness, may God keep for us and protect him, showed a genuine level of concern and sincerity for all the concerns voiced. Objectively speaking – he demonstrated just how much of a father he is to his flock. The Bishops showed an eagerness to work with one another, and the servants/lay people, went out of their ways to get to know one another and spend every waking hour trying to think of ways to properly address any and all concerns. It was an incredibly loving atmosphere and I left feeling so proud and blessed to be a part of our church, while recognizing that there is a lot that needs to be fixed.

I think all delegates agree that the primary concern and issue that needs to be addressed is education. Towards the end of the conference, I made a comment based on the numerous discussions that were had. I explained to His Holiness that all the discussions related to changing dates, clothing, etc. has done nothing more than reveal our lack of understanding of our church, its gifts, its history, and theological foundation. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I would ask why we did anything and everything in the church and was always responded to with because that’s how it is. As I grew older, I learned that certain stories about saints were nothing more than stories and uncorroborated by the church. As a Christian, I never had a Sunday School teacher explain to me who the desert fathers are, what they mean to the church, the idea of communion (theologically), trinity, and so on. I stated that the solution to this issue is not to get rid of the Coptic language, but to dedicate our resources to teaching the Coptic language as an actual dialectic language and not a bunch of sounds we make through a melody. Our strength will be in our comprehension of our church. The idea of a mission church and those straying are a  result of either a) laziness; or b) lack of awareness of the resources to learn things properly. I ended by telling His Holiness that my case in point is this – there are people that joined our church that I’ve met – they did it on their own, not through marriage or anything. They wouldn’t dream of changing Christmas from January 7. They wouldn’t dream of getting rid of the Coptic language and in fact, they know more Coptic as a language than some leading deacons…

So there it is, education.

The True Christian: A Counter-Cultural Phenomenon

“In it’s earliest days, as it does today, conversion to Christianity came through baptism. The new member entered a family of believers that were all hopeful and aware of the same thing.”
(Theology Class, Fordham University)

With a convert’s emergence from below the waters of repentance—after one had shed the old man and put on the new— one also took up a warrant for one’s life. As you emerged free from the shackles of corruption—the wages of sin and death that were once unendingly bound—you essentially then also were despised and rejected both for the faith you held and the way you newly chose to live your life.

To put this into some context: early Christian converts were perfectly aware of the fact that they would be sought-after and tried with various trials, and even—ultimately—be put to death for their faith. We read Paul’s encouragement to the congregation of the letter to the Hebrews in chapter 10 as he writes “But recall those earlier days when … you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution and sometimes being partners with those so treated” (Heb 10: 32-33). We see an identification of Christian persecution as early as the end of the first century!

Entrance into the body of “those who are in Christ”, a beloved phrase by Paul, meant the admission of a new family member whose hope was in the risen Messiah.  Each member of this new family was hopeful of one thing; that through their faith in, and practice of, the message of Jesus Christ, they would attain salvation, forgiveness of sins, and perfection here and in the world to come.

We find Christianity emerging at a time when there is a large discrepancy between the rich and the poor, a framework that made it difficult—nearly impossible—for any real economic mobility, and an incredible demand on people for their civic and religious piety to be in line with that of the empire’s. We find ourselves entering a realm where the majority of the population found themselves under the dominance of a culture that was self-seeking, self-indulgent, and utterly, and sometimes purposely, mindless of the ostracized and destitute majority.

The modern viewer is left to realize that the ideals, outlooks, and prospects of a Christian were, and still are, completely counter-cultural. At its core, Christianity (the religion of the bible and of those who decipher it in the first few centuries afterwards) is ascetic, selfless-seeking, and fundamentally rooted in principles that defy those that surrounded Christians before and now.

The first Christians worldviews are absolutely shambled; they enter into a hope that instructs them to be completely opposed to ways of life many of them once lead. They forsake family, set aside personal ambitions, relinquish property and wealth, prestige and recognition, all for the call to live in a way no one—outside of those inspired by God—would have lived. They are instructed to reject the godless, secular, and ruthless world to take up a belief that set them apart.

In the Gospel of Matthew we find Christ preaching a difficult message;

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (5:44)

In fact, we find that entire section of the gospel message is actually the reworking of common social practices. Christianity was earth shattering in that it said “What they do outside is not for us. We have something different.”

And so the true Christian takes this example. But we find this truly-Christian attitude lacking in our church today. We find Christian culture more symbolic of so-so Rock music and funny gowns, of a shallow-rooted desire for piety mixed with the occasional, and sometimes haphazard, instance for abstinence, than with a radical devotion and organic faithfulness to the life and lessons of Christ Jesus.

Christianity was a revolution of the mind of society. It redefined social constructs, altered individual understandings, and questioned a vogue of commonplace lethargy that infected the populace of a generation. Christ’s message is a revolution of society because it is through his teachings that we see for the first time an internalization of the commands of God, of man, and of self. The true Christian is called to live in this way—“transformed by the renewing of [his] mind” (Romans 12). For it is in this way that we can truly fulfill the call of Christ’s message, which is to be holy. Holy as set-apart; Holy as other; Holy as distinguished from my peers because I have chosen to live my life in a way that for some makes no sense, but for others is the fulfillment of true concern for one’s soul.

Paul cries out to the people of Corinth and says truly that “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Corr 1:18).

It is this radical understanding of Paul’s, that faith in Christ is foolishness on all ends for those who do not know of the hope with which it resides, that brings our counter-cultural exposition to light. So it goes without saying that Paul understood the radical and counter-cultural notion of Christ’s life and teaching. It is because of this that I believe we are called to a faith that rises beyond all notions of common practice and that defies all notions of how one ought to live in this world.

Christopher Awad

Opportunity: Hopes for the See of St. Mark

It happened in the 5th century.

Loss of support, loss of community—severed ties—and now, with centuries between us, but not time, a chance for unity.

Chalcedon was a momentous event in history for many reasons, one of which has implications that affect lives around the world today—the split of the Orthodox Church. Though many think of the Orthodox church as the Eastern church—those that lay claim to the austerity of faith on Mount Athos—the Orthodox faith was molded and rooted very deeply, and primordially, in what is now classified as the “Oriental Tradition”—more specifically in and around Egypt. Holding it’s own significance traditionally as a place of refuge the Lord Himself sought after, Egypt’s longstanding deep religious traditions and fidelity to Orthodoxy—whether it be in faith or practice—has made it a place of religious significance and importance.

With the election of the new successor to the See of St. Mark, there are high expectations and real questions for the Papal-elect. Outside of having a growing Orthodox diaspora and the task of succeeding a leader that most of the living world today only ever knew as Pope of Alexandria, His Holiness Tawadros will have to deal with the issues of political turmoil, civil unrest, and economic turbulence in a country that is politically—not to mention economically or socially—structured to defeat the people he shepherds.

In a generous statement Monday November 5th, 2012, a mere 24 hours after his official election, His Holiness spoke words that struck the hearts of many and raised the bar for the role of religious leaders around the world. He offered himself as “servant” and “resource” for all the people of Egypt.

While one might not initially see the gravity of this position, it needs some serious insight to understand the dichotomy here. His Holiness Tawadros has expressed his opposition to an Egyptian constitution (one being drafted over the coming weeks) that is overtly religious. He is obviously combating the desire of the Egyptian higher-ups to write a constitution that is based totally and fundamentally in Sharia Law. And to then, with all that has been formerly said taken into account—the civil, political, economic, and social unrest and violent persecution of his people—offer himself as a “servant” to all the people in Egypt?

I believe it was with this move that His Holiness established the attitude with which he hopes to shepherd His people—and attitude that has love and the gospel of Christ at it’s core, and one, that is fundamentally rooted in the long-standing tradition of peace and unity that Egypt has always tried to support.

One might wonder why it is that I initially wrote about Chalcedon. It is because I believe that as Pope, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II will need to make it an absolute priority to unite the churches.

 “A Kingdom against itself cannot stand” Mark 3

In my opinion it is crucial that we find support in our Orthodox brethren around the world. It is with this support that our voice will resound—echo—around the world. Christ Himself preached to us this message and it has never been more true. I feel that it is especially important that His Holiness makes unity a priority because we have been divided against ourselves

Chalcedon happened thousands of years ago, and has severed ties between the rest of our family in Christ. Dialogues have taken place; bible studies between distant orthodox family members have convened; communion has been shared—but this is not enough. We need to rekindle the fire that has been kept suppressed for far too long.

I believe it is with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II that these severed ties can be mended and that unity can be restored. Orthodox Family can finally stand together, in fidelity for causes, supporting each other around the world, and I believe that it needs to be His Holiness’ priority to put unity in Christ under the agenda of his Papacy.

Jesus’ words strike a distant chord with some, but an all too real one with me: In John 12, Jesus says “I will draw all men unto me.” As his disciples, he has charged us—commanded us—to work towards this unity. I believe that this is what Christ lived, and died for—to draw Jew and Gentile, man and woman, free and slave—all men—“unto Him” with no division.

Garnering support, love, and prayers must be our collective goal, and, as I would posit, a priority for His Holiness’ reign. That we might glory in Him together, separated by centuries, but not by time.

The time is now.

Christopher Awad
Fordham College Rose Hill
Theology Major