“The Church has always done charity work and must continue to do it,” said one of our hosts at the largest Orthodox compound in Cairo. “This bishopric, however, focuses its efforts specifically on the work of development.”
“The difference,” she said, “is that charity work must go on always, but development allows people to become self-reliant.”
The point, of course, is well taken. We should all take it upon ourselves to be generous, to give charitably, to do relief work, but if that is all we do, why should we ever expect to bring the dignity of good work and social independence to those we serve?
Self-reliance, really, is an interesting concept for a Christian. After all, we should ultimately be reliant on God, not ourselves. But as the Lord provides our daily bread, so too he calls us to help others not only to survive, but to live well.
The Coptic compound centers around a mammoth cathedral called St. Mark’s, constructed in the shape of an ark and a cross and named after the first-century founder of the Church in Egypt. The complex is walled and sprawling, with drab-colored domes hoisting crosses toward heaven. There are palm trees in the courtyard. There are crucifixes everywhere, in walls and ceilings, in clothes and icons, in furniture and swinging low upon so many chests. We wade through masses of children—here for a country-wide youth competition—before entering a building that looks like it might have come off a Tattooine set, and are led to a regal-looking room adorned with Christian decoration. Here we are met by Bishop Yolios—pronounced like Julius with a Y.
Traditionally, bishops are charged by geography—Bishop of Cairo, Bishop of Alexandria, Bishop of Aswan, etc. Bishop Yolios, however, is part of a newer form of Coptic Church leadership, overseeing a bishopric focused on an issue rather than a place. Bishop Yolios is bishop of Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services, which means he does a lot of work with Egypt’s impoverished people.
He looks the part. Black robe and black head cover, bushy black beard, dark eyes, a dark leather cross hanging around his neck and patting against his chest. Despite what might be taken as a nearly ominous look, he has a warm smile and an inviting air.
Bishop Yolios speaks for a while, though he has a quiet gleefulness about him, like he truly enjoys listening to other people and being in company. When he talks about the programs he oversees and how he hopes they will expand and serve more people—Christians and Muslims—he says words worthy of any book of wisdom:
“We are limited, but by God we are unlimited. By the power of love. By the power of faith. We are unlimited.”
It is beautiful and beautifully simple, a sentiment as confident as it is hopeful. It is a truth that, if we really believed it, would change all things.
Elsewhere in the compound are housed icons, an icon workshop, and relics. Among them are the remains of Athanasius and “part” of the remains of Mark—the other “part” is in Italy.
It does not take long, sidestepping relics and listening to sage old men, to be reminded of the long line of great servants of the faith. One begins to think there may indeed be many Marks and Mother Teresas spread across the world and throughout time, in the great cities and the tiny crags of history, if only we have our eyes open enough to know them when we meet them. We will be blessed anyway to meet even one or two such servants along our own way to the Heart of service.