More Than Bricks
In the summer of 1982 I found myself in a work camp for "youth" (which meant folks in their 20s) in Agamy, a village on the Mediterranean outside of Alexandria, Egypt. It was at a Coptic Orthodox Center and sponsored by the Youth Program of the Middle East Council of Churches. Many Orthodox and Protestant Egyptian Christian youth were there. Five of us were there from the U.S. There were some Europeans, a handful of Sudanese, and a few others. We spent hours in Bible study, learning some cultural traditions, enjoying time together, eating, fumbling over language, and swimming in the Mediterranean. Our work was to build walls, lay stones for walking paths, and do some other repairs and improvements on the Center. The work side of the camp was run by a recently graduated Egyptian engineer.
Being achievement-oriented Americans, the small group of us from the U.S. would huddle up at the end of each day to chat about our experiences. We were humbled at the ability of Copts to sit for three hours of rapt attention to a bible study or lecture without a single break. We told stories about parties and other cultural experiences and corrected each other as we noted missed cultural cues and more. We wondered about the health implications of well over a hundred people dipping into a single cask of water with one tin cup, but breathed in and went along. We spoke of all that we were learning.
At one point the technological rationality that's second nature for achievement-oriented Westerners came through us in pointed form. We were concerned that too little progress was being made in a couple of the project areas. We were only there for a few days, after all, and we wanted the camp to leave a legacy of physical improvements in the place. We wanted to say, "we did that" and we wanted our newfound Egyptian friends to enjoy the fruit of the campers' labors. So we chatted about the finer calculus of tool to worker ratios, the ordering of projects, and what was doable in what amount of time so as few projects as possible would be left unfinished. As one example, we wondered why two or three people were assigned the job of scooping sand with one shovel into one bucket for the manufacture of cement. We saw better ways of using human resources. And so with compassion and respect for sure, but also with a sense of superior organizational skills and commitment to success we approached our young engineer-director with some ideas.
He was gracious and hospitable. He listened very carefully and thanked us as friends for our ideas. He nodded often, and even wrote some things down. And then he looked at us with genuine wonder—not a hint of condescension. He said, "What you are saying is so valuable, and I thank you. But if I put only one person on that job with one shovel, wouldn't he get lonely? No one should have to do a job alone. Jesus doesn't want us to be alone."
There's an economics deeper than efficiency, and there's profit greater than what numbers can calculate. There's a quality of life that can't be pointed to. There's a legacy of relationship—even friendship—in how we build that might be more complete than even the perfect thing we're building. I'm grateful for that simple lesson, and still need to learn it.
The gospel is more radical than we'll probably ever really know.