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WORSHIP AT A GARBAGE DUMP


Imagine a town built atop an active landfill. That is "Garbage City" in Cairo, Egypt, longtime home to an impoverished, marginalized community of Coptic Christians for whom life is only going to get harder.


The so-called Zabbaleen have been the trash collectors of Cairo for generations. The fathers and their sons go out into the city and collect the garbage in beat-up pickup trucks or donkey-drawn carts. They bring it back to their community, where the women meticulously sort through all of it. They recycle an incredible amount, as much as 80 percent, selling whatever is salvageable. Particularly poor families rifle through the trash for food to eat. They have created a complex, labor-intensive process for getting the most out of what other people throw away.


The Christians of Egypt have been historically repressed, and the Zabbaleen are a potent symbol of their station. They were pushed to the outskirts of the city hard up against the Moqattam Mountain. When the authorities — typically — tried to obstruct the building of a church, the Zabbaleen dug out worship space in the adjoining caves. With its huge amphitheater that can seat thousands, the "Cave Church" is now a tourist attraction. It is magnificent and spiritually vital, built on the faith of the humble.


It was during his stint in Harlem in 1930, among a shunned but vibrant Christian community, that the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to see things "from below." There is no other vantage point from Garbage City. Everyone there must instinctively understand the lines of our vintage Christmas carol, "Why lies He in such mean estate / Where ox and ass are feeding?"


Asked by the Voice of America about the future of Garbage City a few weeks ago, resident Adel Gad el-Rab said, "We are the garbage collectors, but we live on a mountain of faith."


(From a sermon by Terry Blankenship, The Attitude of Worship, 5/29/2012)

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