This week I had an appointment with Father Younan Williams of St. Mary and Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church in Houston. The meeting was sparked by my letter to him and his bishop regarding the January bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt. Apparently bombing of churches and violence to Christians is not uncommon in Egypt.
Driving to the church, I had no idea what to expect. I had been to Russian Orthodox Churches, and imagined it would be somewhat similar. As I drew near, the golden dome and cross of the church (located near the corner of FM 529 and Highway 6, half way between Covenant Houston and Celebration Cypress) rose up behind Half Price Books like a mountain. It left me no doubt I was in the right place. As I pulled up, Father Younan came down the steps of the church and met me in the parking lot. He was wearing full length black cassock.
After a few pleasantries we walked into a stunning worship space. The walls were covered with beautiful frescos (murals?) of Bible stories ranging from the expulsion of Adam from the garden to the Resurrection, reversing the curse of Adam. You could not worship in this space and not learn the stories. For photos see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stmaryhouston
After a short tour, we sat down together in a visiting/meeting room where he offered me something to drink. Good hospitality. Conveying a humility about him, and he laughs easily. I asked lots of questions, and learned volumes.
Being Christian in Egypt is a dangerous thing. Wearing a cross, carrying a Bible, even going to church singles one out for persecution. No one is Christian lightly. Many Coptic Christians have a small cross tattooed on their right wrist. Fr. Younan showed me his. While some Christians consider tattoos taboo, this community sees this particular sign as a permanent witness in the midst of persecution. They have been indelibly marked with the sign of the cross.
This congregation appreciates their religious freedom. They take nothing for granted. Most of his 250 families (1,000 people) are Egyptian. He preaches one sermon in Arabic, and then one in English. Worship attendance is about 450. A free meal follows worship every week, followed by Sunday school. SS for the children is in English, as most of the children don’t know Arabic very well. There is rapid assimilation.
Fr. Younan sat across from me in his black cassock. In the right breast pocket was his prayerbook and his iPhone, which buzzed frequently. In his left pocket was a long, wooden, handheld cross. He uses it devotionally, holding it when he prays, inviting others to hold it when he’s praying with them. After explaining this, he gave it to me as a gift.
Of interest to me was their ecclesiology. Fr. Younan was a cardiologist in Egypt. The bishop saw his gifts and love of people and asked him to become a priest and move to the U.S. It was a big decision, one that he does not regret.
In the Coptic Orthodox Church priests are ordained first, and then sent to a monastery for training. He went to the “Syrian” Monastery in Egyptian desert. This training is for at least 40 days. 40 days in the wilderness prior to ministry. “Wow,” I said. “That’s a short time.” He went in to explain how thorough his adult “Sunday School” training was. “80% of my theological education came through Sunday school prior to ordination,” he said. The monastery training is primarily liturgical and spiritual formation. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Monastery,_Egypt
Coptic Orthodox priests must be married. Monks must be celibate, and kept separate from the general population. Bishops are drawn from the monastery and answer to the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria. So all bishops are celibate monks. They cannot be married. Priests must be. Father Younan has a wife and two children.
I was astonished to find out Fr. Younan is the only paid employee of his congregation. They keep overhead low. The work is becoming a bit much for him, so he’s petitioned his bishop for another priest. All cleaning, cooking and administrative work is done by volunteers. His administrative assistant is a competent volunteer who works 8 hours a day for free.
One sometimes meets people who exude a genuine kindness. Fr. Younan is this kind of person. With his cassock, cross, full beard and tattoo, he’s all in. No blending in. No undercover Christian. His accent singles him out as an Egyptian, his way of life as Christian. He comments on the opportunity and the danger of the regime change currently taking place in Egypt. He likened it to a tightrope walk. It’ll either end very well, or very badly. Most of all, he strikes me as a person of deep faith with a broad gloabl perspective, who truly loves people and the work to which God has called him.