Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 21, 2014

Escaping Hell

The small nation of Eritrea, located north of Ethiopia and east of Sudan, is among the highest refugee-producing nations in the world. That’s amazing when you consider that Eritrea only recently gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. In the short years since then, President Isaias Afwerki has managed to create an intolerable environment for his own people — a hell fueled by the flames of human rights violations.

There have been no elections in Eritrea since it gained its independence. Instead, The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, headed by President Isaias, is the only political party. His highly centralized, authoritarian regime is known for arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, forced labor, extrajudicial killing, inhumane prison conditions, restrictions on freedom of expression, and religious persecution.

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Each month, as many as 3,000 Eritreans flee their native land and seek refuge in Sudan or Ethiopia. It is estimated that as many as 2 million Eritreans now live as refugees globally. Among those fleeing the country are young men seeking to escape forced and indefinite conscription into the military. The most vulnerable among the refugees are the unaccompanied children. Many of these kids do not know if their parents are alive or dead. Others are trying to find family members who have gone before them.

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Those fleeing usually leave home with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They do not carry any identification lest they be caught and unwittingly endanger the welfare of any family members still in Eritrea. When refugees arrive in Ethiopia, they are picked up and taken to a transition center where the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs establishes their identity. These individuals are then housed at the Endabaguna Transition Center until they are assigned to one of four refugee camps.

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Generally, adults and families are relocated to one of the four displacement camps within a matter of days. However, not so for any unaccompanied refugee minors. These kids spend as many as six months at the Endabaguna Transition Center where they sleep as many as fifty per room on hard concrete floors. These children use filthy latrines and have no paper products or water for basic hygiene. They survive on a meager daily food ration, live in fear of human traffickers if they wander from the center, and have nothing to do but wait.

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Our missions ministry will team up with my dear friend and mentor Dr. Jerry Squyres to address the needs of the unaccompanied Eritrean refugee minors living in the Endabaguna Transition Center. Dr. Squyres is the founder of Innovative Humanitarian Solutions, a Christian nongovernmental organization that has been granted permission to help make life better for all unaccompanied refugee minors at the transition center. Plans for the coming months include building a dormitory for the boys and girls, complete with bunk beds and restroom facilities. Longer term plans call for providing teachers, medical care, counseling, and helping these children understand the hope of the gospel.

This summer, we will challenge the kids who attend our VBS at Kingsland to help change the world for the unaccompanied Eritrean children living on the ragged edge of danger. Kingsland kids know that God can use them now to make a difference — that they don’t have to wait until they are older to bring healing, help, and hope in Jesus’ name to those in need. On Wednesday, Leslee McWhirter, Kingsland’s Interim Minister to Children, and I will accompany Dr. Squyres and others to northern Ethiopia to serve the Eritrean children there. I invite you to follow our adventure and to pray daily for the endangered children of Eritrea.

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Photo Credit: Dr. Jerry Squyres

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 19, 2014

Thinking About Tombs

In March of 1998, I visited the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty. This complex of tombs in Beijing was designed according to Feng Shui principles to keep away bad spirits and evil winds. The sacred walk leading to the tombs is lined with massive statues of people and animals, first in a standing and then in a kneeling posture to symbolize the obeisance of man and nature to emperors being carried to their tombs. The complex is quite impressive.

Statue along the sacred walk. | 1998 | Ming Dynasty Tombs

Statue along the sacred walk. | 1998 | Ming Dynasty Tombs | China

I also stood in a very long line at Tiananmen Square to visit the very impressive mausoleum of Mao Zedong, hoping to catch a glimpse of his body. Unfortunately, we were only permitted entry into a portion of the mausoleum where a Chinese guard with a Polaroid camera took our photo and charged us a buck. So much for seeing Mao’s carefully preserved remains.

Gate leading to the sacred walk. | 1998 | Ming Dynasty Tombs

Gate leading to the sacred walk. | 1998 | Ming Dynasty Tombs | China

The tombs of many of the world’s leaders, like those I visited in Beijing, are awe-inspiring wonders characterized by elegant architecture, impressive epithets, eternal flames, and beautiful surroundings. In most cases, no expense was spared to memorialize the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, in spite of their magnificence, these tombs all share one common characteristic — they are all still occupied!

Mosaic in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre | 2009

Mosaic in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre | 2009 | Israel

By contrast, Jesus was buried in an unpretentious tomb that was not prepared exclusively for Him. No artisan or workman carved it out with the intention of preserving His memory. And yet today, the empty tomb of Jesus remains as mute testimony to His victory over sin and death. His simple tomb assures us that through faith in the risen Jesus, people can experience forgiveness of their sins and a new and everlasting life.

The Apostle Paul understood the supremacy of Christ in life and death. In his letter to the Colossians he wrote these words: “And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18). Christ is “the head of the body,” His church. Paul referred to Jesus as “the beginning,” the One who made a way for us to become a part of the church — the fellowship of the redeemed.

But, most important of all, Paul emphasized that Jesus was “the firstborn from the dead.” In other words, He was the first person to be raised from the dead without dying again. He reigns supreme and alone is worthy of our unrivaled love and loyalty. This Easter weekend, we remember His resurrection and victory over the grave. Along with Christ-followers around the world, we rejoice in the fact that He is alive and reigns supreme.

As you reflect on the meaning of Easter, keep these things in mind and take a moment to lead your family in praise and thanksgiving for all that Jesus did to make a way for us to be reconciled to God. Remember that…

E = Easter is about an empty tomb that offers hope to those with empty lives.
A = Easter is about an announcement that Jesus is alive.
S = Easter is about God’s offer of salvation to all who believe.
T = Easter is about the triumph of Jesus over death.
E = Easter is about the joy that we can experience every day.
R = Easter is about our responsibility to share the good news that Jesus is alive.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 16, 2014

Wordless Wednesday

Sad Boy

Zabbaleen Boy | 07 April 2014 | Outside of Helwan, Egypt

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 11, 2014

Beyond the Filth

Helwan, Egypt

Those who know me well will tell you that Don Quixote is at the top of my list of favorite stories. Written in 1605 by the Spanish novelist and playwright Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote is considered to be one of the world’s greatest literary works. In a nutshell, Don Quixote is the story of a man who saw the world differently than other people. When the Man of La Mancha, dubbed the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, meets a common prostitute named Aldonza, he looks beyond the filth in her life. This unusual man is somehow able to behold the possibilities buried deep beneath the strata of abuse Aldonza has suffered. By the end of the story, his belief in her changes her life. Aldonza finally becomes Dulcinea, the woman the Man of La Mancha envisioned she could become.

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I thought a lot about Aldonza during this week that we have spent serving the children of the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s garbage people. The kids have faithfully come to our little campus every day to listen to Bible stories and to play games. To say that they were unruly at the start of the week would be an understatement. Most of these kids have never attended school and don’t understand what it means to be reasonably still and to respect the person who is teaching. Fights among the kids broke out a few times. And because they have never played sports, being a team player or sharing sports equipment was a totally foreign concept. More than once I felt as though I was trapped in a bad Zabbaleen version of “Lord of the Flies.”

Car Kids
As the week progressed, however, we all began to notice a difference in the kids. Many were actually able to sit still through our Bible lessons. The sports thing still needs some work but many of the kids started to understand that it’s ok to share a soccer ball or a frisbee. Our partners here are very encouraged by the progress made by the kids. They understand that it will take a long-term investment in the lives of these kids in order to help them realize their potential. We are committed to working together to make that investment and to see that kind of transformation come about.

Boys and Dogs
At first glance, it’s easy to be distracted by the filthy little faces of the kids, by their lack of discipline, by their aggressive behavior to hold on to something they think they might lose, and by the desperate environment in which they live. In order to bring help and hope to these kids, we must learn to look beyond the filth — beyond the actualities of their lives in order to behold the possibilities in their lives. Like the blind man whom Jesus healed at Bethhsaida (Mark 8:22-26), we must depend on Jesus to help us see people clearly. And we must understand that changes will not happen overnight. Every investment requires time in order to mature and yield benefits.

Trash Truck Boy
We have our work cut out for us as we serve the Zabbaleen kids living in filth outside of Helwan. I am convinced, however, that our investment will pay off and that one day many of the kids we met this week will realize a better future. In order for that to happen, we must have an incarnational presence among them. In the coming weeks we will finalize construction of our modest school and community center. We will also enlist workers who will invest in these kids every day of the week — folks who will be the hands and feet of Jesus, washing filthy little faces and feet. Exciting things are still to come in this difficult place. Don Quixote would certainly agree.

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Dirty Feet

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 9, 2014

Consider The Ants

Helwan, Egypt

I’m convinced that if God decided to transform all of the human race into bugs and insects, the Zabbaleen would definitely be the ants among us. Observing the Zabbaleen at work is like watching a colony of ants. They are a people in constant motion — transporting Cairo’s garbage to their homes, sorting through it, bagging up recyclable items, loading their bulging bags onto trucks and carts, and finally transporting their goods to market. This is the cycle of life for the Zabbaleen. They cannot afford to be idle or they will not survive.

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The Zabbaleen are masters of hard work and efficiency. They have developed their own systems for turning trash into a meager treasure that gives them enough to survive from day-to-day. Once the trash comes in they must immediately off-load it, begin the picking process, and then systematically get everything to the right pile for processing. Organic waste is fed to animals. The rest is sorted according to categories like paper products, metals, cans, plastics, rubber items (including the soles of shoes), and more. Certain families specialize in certain items and have their methods for bagging and transporting the items they sell to recyclers.

Loading Crew
Because Cairo’s flow of garbage is incessant, the Zabbaleen cannot afford to waste any time. As quickly as they summit today’s mountains of filth, they must do it all again the following day. They must deal with everything they bring in because there is no garbage pick up for any remaining items. Somehow they manage to take almost every item of garbage and make money, even if only a few Egyptian pounds. Observing these industrious people at work is nothing short of inspiring. Their example certainly leaves us without excuse for complaining about how hard we may have to work.

Atop The Trash
When the writer of Proverbs recorded his wisdom about hard work, he used the ants as an example. “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (Prov. 6:6-8). And again, “the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer” ((Prov. 30:25). And so it is with the Zabbaleen. They have learned to work cooperatively and consistently in order to provide food for their families. They do not know the luxury of a day off or a vacation.

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In addition to being an industrious people, the Zabbaleen are also a people of faith. An estimated ninety-percent are Coptic Christians. This morning we took a quick detour through Cairo’s Mokattam district, home to several thousand Zabbaleen. There, they have transformed the caves in the Mokattam mountain into churches, the largest of which is the Cave Church of Saint Simon the Tanner. The church can seat 20,000 people. There are no words to describe the rugged beauty of this church and the other smaller churches nestled in the caves. This religious complex carved into the mountain is a metaphor for the existence that the Zabbaleen have carved out of Cairo’s mountains of garbage.

Come Lord Jesus
We can certainly learn a lot by considering the industrious Zabbaleen, a people whose work ethic is akin to that of the ants. Although life is extremely hard for them, they have managed to survive from day-to-day and to hold on to their faith in a God who loves them. Like Lazarus who longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:19-31), the Zabbaleen survive on the crumbs swept aside by those more fortunate than them. I am thankful that we are here to serve the Zabbaleen and their children in the name of Jesus — the One who loves us and who loves the Zabbaleen.

Construction Worker

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 8, 2014

What We Take For Granted

Helwan, Egypt

We all take lots of things for granted. For example, once while on a domestic flight somewhere overseas, I sat next to a lady who could not figure out how to buckle her seat belt, even after watching the safety sermon at the beginning of the flight. “I have never used one of these before,” she turned and whispered to me. I unbuckled my own seat belt and then explained to her how to put the two ends together. She was visibly relieved albeit a bit embarrassed.

David Teaches First Aid
Today, we taught hygiene and first aid lessons to forty Zabbaleen moms. David Budke did a great job of explaining in a careful step-by-step way why it’s important to wash our hands and brush our teeth. One mom asked if brushing teeth was painful — a clue that neither she nor her kids had ever brushed their teeth. David assured her that the process was not painful and then demonstrated how to brush teeth by brushing his own. We then gave dental hygiene items to each family and also cautioned them to use their respective toothbrush.

Moms' First Aid Kits
During our first aid lesson, we discovered that no one in the room had ever used a band-aid. Once again, David demonstrated how to apply antiseptic cream and a band-aid to a wound. He also talked to the group about how to take over-the-counter pain relievers and use the other items in the first aid kits we provided. By the way, all of the first aid supplies were donated by the kids at Morton Ranch Elementary, the school where team member Katherine Sand teaches.

David Gives Aid
After the lesson, mothers lingered for another half-hour asking more specific questions like how to use an antiseptic wipe. We also had a few opportunities to do a little basic first aid. We treated a few scrapes and minor cuts and helped an older man who had stepped on a nail. There is no medical care for the Zabbaleen in their village outside of Helwan. That’s why we have set aside one of the rooms at our school to serve as a community clinic. This clinic will allow us to be the hands of Jesus to help those who are hurt.

Christy Teaching
This afternoon we also taught the story of the lost sheep and explained to the kids how much God loves them. Team members Christy Cupit and Katherine did an excellent job of preparing the lessons and making them interesting and memorable. When the kids see the picture of this story in the pictorial Bibles we will provide, they should be able to tell the story to their own families. Everybody is very interested in the stories we are telling and a few of the kids even asked if they could see the Jesus Film again. They are just now learning the Bible stories that many of us have known for years and often take for granted.

Four Boys
I am encouraged by the things that are happening at our little campus in this Zabbaleen village outside of Helwan. I envision that in the coming years many of the kids who live here will realize a better and brighter future because of the investment made by the kids who attended our Vacation Bible School last year. May we never take for granted the way in which God can use our kids to help change the world and bring glory to God.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 7, 2014

Best Birthday Overseas

In Cairo, Egypt and the village of Helwan

When you get to be my age birthdays are no big deal. They are just another milestone on the way to some far-off horizon. Today was not the first time I have observed a birthday overseas, but it was definitely the best birthday I have had away from home. I received some unexpected surprises that made this a really special day for me.

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First, I received an invitation yesterday to speak to the Egyptian Campus Crusade Staff this morning. There are more than a hundred of these folks serving in Egypt. The Campus Crusade country leader asked me to challenge his team to engage creatively in reaching the unreached — definitely one of my favorite topics. I always enjoy being with people who are already actively engaged in advancing the interests of God’s kingdom. It’s not hard to motivate people like that. I will speak again to the team leaders on Wednesday morning.

Prayer Meeting
Second, I was asked to speak at Kasr El Dobara, the largest evangelical church in the Middle East. Last year I spoke at their Monday night prayer meeting, a gathering of more than two-thousand people worshiping and praying, that is broadcast live to a million viewers throughout the Arab world. I love this church and her heart for the nations. Tonight I spoke about how the life of Jesus was oriented in the direction of people with messy lives and our responsibility to orient our lives in the same direction as Jesus.

Third, I received email and text birthday greetings throughout the day, more than I have ever received. I don’t know how so many people knew it was my birthday, but it was refreshing and encouraging to receive so many nice notes. Each note was like a little bit of honey and a little bit of balm. I received notes from friends I have not seen in years. Absolutely the kind of thing that can keep you going with a smile and that will add a spring to your step.

Katherine Teaching
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Finally, our team had a nice time today with the Zabbaleen kids in Helwan. Katherine and Christy taught the story of creation to the kids. It was fun watching the kids engage with the story. Afterward, David distributed soccer balls and frisbees and the fun began. The kids loved having real soccer balls and discovered how much fun a frisbee can be. A little girl told one of our translators that this was the best day ever. When asked why, she replied, “Because I got to play!” For a brief time this afternoon, this little girl got to be a kid, just an ordinary kid without a care in the world.

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Although I missed my family today, God took care of me by surrounding me with my extended family of faith and encouraged me in so many ways. Today was a non-stop day of ministry, exactly the kind of thing I love. I feel as though God put together the best birthday party ever for me, certainly one I will not soon forget. Thank you, Lord.

PS | My sister Bonnie was born on my first birthday. Happy Birthday, Bonnie. I love you.

Zabbaleen Boy

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 6, 2014

Among Heaps of Garbage

Helwan, Egypt

Being among the Zabbaleen is like being in an alternate universe — in a troubling place that should not exist but that does. The second we turned off the main road south of Cairo and onto the hard-packed dirt road leading to the desolate place where the Zabbaleen have staked their claims, we immediately sensed that we were entering a version of hell on earth. The road that winds through the Zabbaleen’s makeshift hovels is hemmed in by bulging bags of garbage guarded by swarms of flies. Mothers nurse their babies among this filth as kids caked in dirt entertain themselves with found junk. This is not what childhood should look like.

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We too have staked a claim among the heaps of garbage in Helwan. Last year the children who attended Vacation Bible School at Kingsland raised almost $15,000 to fund a school for Zabbaleen kids. Through our partners at Global Hope Network, we were able to secure a plot of land in Helwan where we are building a haven of hope. At present, three rooms are complete. Two will serve as classrooms to educate the kids and one will serve as the only medical clinic in the village. The large courtyard in the back has been cleared of garbage. We will transform this area into a playground, complete with trees and grass — something unfamiliar to the Zabbaleen.

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Today, we visited several of the homes that now have roofs and floors because of the generosity of our Kingsland family. Every beneficiary of our kindness expressed their gratitude. Something as simple as a roof that does not leak has greatly contributed to improved morale. For the vast majority of these people, they could never have saved enough to make these improvements on their own. They simply do not make enough money sorting through garbage and selling recyclable items. No one here has a sense of entitlement. They are just grateful to be the unwitting recipients of another’s kindness.

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Most of the Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians and have an understanding of the Christian faith. While some are literate, many parents and kids have never learned to read and write, something we hope to address through our school. This evening we showed the Jesus Film in the courtyard of our school. Showing the Jesus Film is part of our strategy to help the Zabbalen become more grounded in their faith. After the film, many wanted to see it again. In the coming weeks our partners at Global Hope and Campus Crusade will follow-up on the families that watched the film. This week we will also provide a children’s pictorial Bible for each home so that even the non-literate families can relate the pictures to the Bible stories they learn.

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I believe that Helwan can become a place of hope as we develop a long-term partnership to give the Zabbaleen a hand-up and give their children a way out of poverty by educating them. I am so proud of our Kingsland kids for once again helping to make a difference in the lives of kids they have never met. We must continue to fulfill the part of our purpose statement that says we will equip the next generation, one home at a time. By helping our kids to understand that life is not all about them and that they should consider the needs of others, we are unleashing a mighty force for good that will bring glory to God among the nations. Today, I saw God glorified among heaps of garbage because of the compassionate response of our kids to a great need among the Zabbaleen.

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Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 4, 2014

Taking Out the Garbage

Garbage. Each of us produce about 4.5 pounds of waste per day. Americans produce an estimated 251 million tons of waste per year. At least twice a week, the garbage we produce is collected from our curbs and taken to landfills or is burned. If the garbage collectors ever went on strike we would all be in deep trouble … literally. It would not take long for us to begin drowning in our own garbage.

Trash Day
This morning, I carried three bags of garbage to the curb in front of my home. By the time I left the house, the garbage in front of my home had already been collected to begin its journey to the dump. Garbage collection is a wonderful convenience for us in America. Next week I will set our large recycle bin on the curb and it, too, will be picked up and I will have done my part to help the environment for the week. Again, a great convenience.

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In a few hours our team of five from Kingsland will begin our journey to Cairo to work with the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s garbage people. I especially thought about the Zabbaleen this morning as I deposited my garbage bags on the curb. I tried to imagine personally collecting all of the garbage in my subdivision, bringing it to my home, dumping it in my backyard, and enlisting my entire family to sort through it to find things to sell in order to make a living. That’s exactly what the Zabbaleen do every single day, eking out a meager subsistance income of only a few dollars a day.

Zariab Boys
In the past year, our missions ministry has worked with our partners at Global Hope Network to bring hope the Zabbaleen. We have put roofs on their crudely constructed homes and also flooring. And, best of all, our VBS kids funded a school for the Zabbaleen. These kids do not have the opportunity to go to school because they must help their parents sort through trash. All of that is changing, however, for the Zabbaleen in our adopted village of Helwan. The kids in this village will now have the opportunity to learn to read and write and to learn about the hope that Jesus gives.

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Please keep our team in prayer as we serve the Zabbaleen in the coming week. We look forward to making many new friends, to providing a copy of the Scriptures for each home and teaching some Bible stories. We will also teach classes on hygiene and first-aid and provide a first aid kit to every home in the village. And we will work with the new little church in the village. We have an exciting week ahead of us. I will post updates daily from Cairo. Tahnks for your prayers and for following our journey.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 2, 2014

Hope for the Zabbaleen

Zabbaleen is an Egyptian term that means “garbage people” — the designation given to the Coptic Christians who serve as Cairo’s garbage collectors. The Zabbaleen collect garbage door-to-door but do not take it to a dump or landfill. Instead, they take what the gather to their own homes where they pick through it to find items to sell to recyclers. Their efforts yield a subsistence living of only dollars a day at best.

South Slum Trash Men
Our missions ministry is engaged in a strategic partnership with Global Hope Network to bring hope to the Zabbaleen. Children of the Zabbaleen must work alongside their parents to help the family and do not have the opportunity to go to school. They work long hours and are exposed to all sorts of unsafe elements. Unless these children get an education, they will not be able to escape their generational cycle of poverty.

Zabbaleen Boys Group
Last summer, we challenged the children who attended Kingsland’s Vacation Bible School to collect money to fund a school for the Zabbaleen kids in the village of Helwan. Our kids gave enough funds for us to secure a building and start a school to educate the kids in Helwan. Through our partners, this good work has started to gain momentum. Our school is a lighthouse that will give kids the hope of a brighter future.

Egypt Packing
On Friday, I will lead a team of volunteers from Kingsland to Cairo where we will work with more than 200 kids at our school in Helwan. Katherine Sands, one of our team members, mobilized the kids at the school where she teaches to collect first aid supplies for us to take to the families in Helwan. In addition to our Bible stories, we will teach lessons on hygiene and first aid to the families in the village and bless each home with a Bible and a first aid kit. Christy Cupit and Katherine packed up all of our teaching supplies, recreation gear, and first aid supplies this week. We will also partner with the new church in the village to show the Jesus Film.

South Slum Cross
We have a full and busy schedule in Helwan and look forward to meeting the kids attending our school. We will also meet with the men of the village to discuss a community development strategy to help improve the lives of the people. And we will look for ways to help resource the church so that it can continue its work of sharing Christ in Helwan. The people of the village are already grateful for the work we have done to put roofs and floors in their homes. We pray that the open door before us will result in much fruit for the kingdom.

Please keep our team in prayer as we travel to and from Egypt and as we serve the Zabbaleen. I will post updates daily next week from Cairo.

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