The fall semester after my 21st birthday, I was eager to experience the world. At the time I had ambitions to become a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department, and I thought a semester abroad would be a great stepping stone. So, two years after the September 11 attacks and one year after the U.S. went to war in Iraq, I heeded a very strong calling to learn more about the Middle East. I expected to travel, learn some Arabic, and eat some new foods; I even expected that this could be the beginning of a career. Little did I expect that my semester in Egypt with the Middle East Studies Program would give me an opportunity to enter a powerful and challenging faith community.
As a student at Calvin College, I was a Christian who struggled to comprehend the mysterious and transcendent aspects of God. Along with that struggle, my study of the history of religion and religious institutions had convinced me that faith largely led to conflict and that leaders of the institutions of the Church were deeply, if not irreparably, damaged. Belief in God seemed to do little societal good.
When I arrived in Egypt, the program had brought together students from a broad spectrum of Christian schools. We had students from Messiah College, Taylor University, Geneva College, Seattle Pacific University, Southern Nazarene University and many others linked by their common commitment to Christian faith. At first this seemed unremarkable. But soon my assumptions about what it meant to be a Christian in the modern world would be challenged.
I loved my classmates. Almost every weekend, we would take trips together. In Alexandria, some of us were invited to share Eid al-Fitr (the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan) with a generous Egyptian family. Our rudimentary Arabic and their rudimentary English did not take conversation far, but we managed to celebrate and share a meal together. On the border of Syria and Turkey, another group of us were in conversation with a local resident. Stephen and Robert and Sarah were amazing in their ability to communicate, fearless in their humility, and we were invited to share a meal and an evening in this gentleman’s home.
From our base of operations in Cairo, we travelled all over Egypt. We saw the pyramids and explored ruins, living churches and mosques. We met with political and religious leaders such as Father Elias Chacour. We volunteered our time with organizations like the St. Andrew’s Refugee Services, teaching English to displaced kids from Sudan and Iraq. Some of us took a train to Siwa Oasis, deep in the Libyan Desert. Together, we became confident and seasoned travelers.
We also became residents of Cairo. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood, not in an expat enclave. We learned how to get around the city by taxi and bus. We learned where in our neighborhood to find the best koshari, shwarma, and my favorite, fiteer, which is similar to a French crepe. We learned that Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, had lived in our neighborhood; that inspired me to read one of his books, Midaq Alley. As we grew more comfortable with our neighborhood, we began to develop relationships with our neighbors, and I think it enriched the experiences of all. Through it all I often experienced a feeling of the loving Emmanuel, God with us.
But it was my time in discussion with my new friends that led to the most lasting change in my life. My classmates and I spent countless hours in discourse with each other and with citizens of the Middle East. We had group devotional time, as well as class to ponder Arabic language basics, the religious history of the region, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We also gathered in our apartments and shared countless hours talking over homemade meals and late into the night.
In these times of discourse, we wrestled with what it means to live as Christian stewards in the world. I remember struggling with my classmates over what it meant to be called to peace and reconciliation work, to the work of redeeming the world. Once, inside the program’s modest communal space, my friend Sarah and I passionately discussed how literally to read the Bible and why it mattered. For Sarah, it shaped her mission and calling. She was in the program because she was going to be a missionary to those who did not know Christ as their Savior. Not as comfortable with my faith, my ambitions were more secular in nature, but I could not deny that Sarah’s strong faith would be a light unto the world. Hers would be a life led by God, and it was good. This discussion and many others like it, both with students uncertain about God’s role in life and those who were truly convicted, shook down my assumptions about the Church as a whole. It forced me to take faith, and the faithful, more seriously, and it opened me up to the positive possibilities of faith-led life.
After the semester ended, many of my classmates took their experience and went into work in international relations and missionary work. Sarah is living and working around Syria. Andrew and Kate spent time in Afghanistan. Stephen works for the United Nations in Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked for the Air Force out of Germany. Robert worked in Sudan. I’ve lost touch with some of the others from my class, but even those of us who returned to North America and did not go on to explicitly work in international endeavors still feel the effects of the experience.
I did not go on to be a Foreign Service Officer. For one thing, I’m terrible at learning languages; I’m guilty of failing to listen and my tongue gets tied up in my pride. I’m now a patent attorney in the Twin Cities and an Army reservist. Although I’m not directly involved in international work, I appreciate the Middle East Studies Program making me a better global citizen. It informs how I worship, how I vote, how I discourse. My experience also informs every discussion I have with people of faith. I recommend making this a part of every student’s faith and educational journey. I still struggle with the mysterious and transcendent aspects of God; I think many Christians do. But, I will always be grateful to my semester in the Middle East for opening me up to the positive power of the faith-led life.
John M. Zwier is an associate at Carlson, Caspers, Vandenburgh, Lindquist & Schuman. A graduate of Calvin College and the University of Michigan Law school, he attended the Middle East Studies Program in Fall 2003.