I’ve read that smell is the greatest of our senses for provoking memory. One experience twenty years ago still lingers in my “fragrance memory.” Christie and I were attending a conference in Cairo, Egypt, our host took us on a trip to the “Garbage Village,” one of the more amazing testimonies of God-at-work in the Middle East.
In this city area overlooking one of the largest mosques in Cairo, a population of people – the garbage collectors – all live together. They provide the only trash collection services of this city of 15+ million. Going from high rise to high rise and industry to industry, they collect the garbage and bring it back to their “village” where they sort through tin, plastic, paper and glass recycling purposes.
The people of the village are historically Coptic Orthodox, but many were Christian in name only until a remarkable priest showed up. Almost fifty years ago, a young evangelist became a Coptic Orthodox Priest and moved into the village – so that he could reach out to the garbage people.
Starting with Bible study combined with health care, education, and other social services, he began his ministry. The people responded. The fellowship of serious followers of Jesus Christ began to grow. They eventually refurbished a cave to be their church sanctuary.
When the “Cave Church” (which sat 3000) became inadequate, they constructed a worship center in an amphitheater carved into the side of a mountain – with seating for 10,000 – 12,000. On Thursday nights, the garbage village people come, Bibles in hand, to be led in worship and teaching by Coptic Orthodox priests whose images are projected onto a screen high on the wall of the mountain.
As amazing as all of this is, however, the place stinks. Garbage is everywhere. People climb through the piles of refuse in front of their homes. Children join in the work, sorting through the waste in search of recyclable resources. The smell of fermenting waste hangs in the hot air and lingers on your clothes and in your nostrils long after you leave.
On the bus ride back to our conference hotel, with the smell of garbage on our clothes and shoes, I started thinking about Matthew 25 – the “as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” passage. I knew that Jesus was present in the garbage village. I knew that the ministry today has grown because an evangelist decided to move into that village and love these garbage collectors as if they were Jesus himself. Today, the church serves not only the spiritual needs of these “Jesus in disguise” people; it also facilitates education, health care, economic empowerment, and societal reform.
But with all these good things, it’s tough stuff to get by the fact that the place stinks. Many of the people stink. And if you work there, you’ll stink.
That’s when it hit me. The garbage village aroma made me reflect on other smells that we encounter as we reach out to the “least of these” – the body odor smell of the street person, the urine smell of the homeless shelter, the stale human aroma of the nursing home or the prison. If this is where Jesus is, then maybe we’d better start accepting the fact that sometimes Jesus stinks.
Special thanks to photographer Munir Sayegh for sharing his pictures for this blog. You can find more of Munir’s pictures of the “Garbage Village” at Manshiet Nasser in Cairo here.