For Such a Time as This

An interview with Anne Zaki

by Myrna DeVries Anderson '00
Fall 2012

Anne Zaki was born in Egypt and educated partly in that country and partly in Canada. She came to Calvin in 1995 and, dismayed by the community’s level of global awareness, she initiated the cultural variety show Rangeela. Now in its 17th year, Rangeela (Hindi for “colorful”) is perennially a sold-out event at Calvin. Following her graduation, Zaki married Naji Umran, a Canadian-Syrian student at Calvin Theological Seminary, and in the years to come, the couple had four boys: Jonathan, Sebastian, Emmanuel and Alexander. Zaki earned two master’s degrees, one in social psychology from the American University in Cairo in 2002 and one in divinity from Calvin Theological Seminary in 2009. She worked as a research and development specialist for global worship for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship from 2003 through 2012. The couple, who pastored churches in Michigan and British Columbia, married with the plan of one day returning to Egypt to live and serve. In September 2011, nine months after the events of the Arab Spring, they did. On a recent visit to the States, Zaki sat down in a booth in Johnny’s to talk about the events of her life.

What is your background?

I grew up in Egypt until I was 16, and then I earned a scholarship from our Ministry of Education to study abroad for two years. Given the options of going to Italy, USA or Canada, I chose to go to Pearson College on Vancouver Island. Pearson is one of 12 schools of the United World Colleges, an international organization co-chaired by Nelson Mandela and Queen Noor of Jordanto promote world peace and international understanding. Our school had 200 students hand-picked from 80 countries to learn the skills of international peace-building. Through living together, studying side by side and volunteering in the community, we learned to accept each other with our differences—different beliefs, different customs and traditions, different histories, different looks, different ways of relating, and together, to dream of and work towards a more peaceful and just world. Every week, we’d meet with a different international artist or world leader like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Hanan Ashrawi ofPalestine, who’d share with us their dream of this one world.

How did you come to Calvin?

There was a little square ad in some Christian magazine, which I had picked up on my way back to Egypt from Canada… and it caught my attention: a Christian college. When I got home, my father told me that his best friend’s daughter graduated from a school called Calvin, and she loved it—would I consider it? Coincidences like this call us to stop and pray. It was very late to apply—the end of May—but somehow God made a way, as He alone could.

How did you like Calvin?

I had never heard of the CRC (Christian Reformed Church) before coming to Calvin. I didn’t really know that it snowed in Michigan for six months out of the year. So, I didn’t know a lot of things. I was shocked. I wasn’t very happy initially. I didn’t find it to be a friendly place as a freshman, since I didn’t come in with my own community as a lot of students did coming from Christian schools here—probably students from public schools have felt the same way as me. The level of global awareness was also very discouraging. People asked me silly questions about Egypt—did I live in a pyramid, or did I go to school on a camel—and sadly, some of them weren’t even joking. They had no idea that Cairo was one of the largest international metropolises in the world. So, I just didn’t like it very much.

But I loved the spiritual life on campus. Already early on, I built a good relationship with Chaplain Dale Cooper (emeritus), and he’s really the reason that I stayed. … He took the time to listen to me about where I came from, and he basically said, “I know at your school in Canada they taught you to make your world a better place. Well, this is now your world. Make it better.” This welcome was reiterated by my resident director then, Stu Cleek, and Linda Bosch, the international students adviser. And that was the permission I needed to truly belong and invest in Calvin as my place. I was no longer a passing guest here, a foreigner. Calvin was now my home, and I was free to move around some furniture. And that’s how Rangeela got started. When I think of my four years at Calvin, my heart echoes with gratitude the words of Ruth in 2:10: “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”

How did you and Naji get involved in ministry?

We were each quite involved in ministry before we met and separately shared a vision to serve the church in the Middle East, which is what brought us together. We met in 1999 during a LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) service. He was at Calvin Seminary, and I was a senior at Calvin—how convenient. We married in 2000 in Cairo and stayed there for a couple of years, as Naji pastored an international church in Cairo and I completed a master’s degree at the American University in Cairo, and together we served at an Arabic-speaking church. In 2002, we had our first child, and four months later we returned to Grand Rapids for Naji to complete his master of divinity at Calvin Theological Seminary. Meanwhile, I started working for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship developing global worship resources and building connections with the church outside of North America. In 2004, Naji graduated and was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, and a year later, I started my master’s of divinity at Calvin Theological Seminary.

Did you have any sense before that you had a call?

I knew I wanted to marry a pastor since I was 16. I loved the church and ministry, and I wanted to marry somebody who would encourage me to grow in that love, so I figured that marrying a pastor would allow both of us to serve together in church. Growing up in Egypt, I didn’t have a female pastor model, so my intention to marry a pastor to serve alongside and through him was my closest interpretation of my call to ministry. But after being married for five years, it was my husband who challenged this interpretation and encouraged me to consider whether God was calling me to become a pastor myself. Initially I resisted the challenge, but my resistance broke before his prophetic words to me one day: “Be sure you’re not allowing your culture to dictate your call, instead of letting your call shape your culture.” These words sent me on a yearlong journey of biblical and theological studies of the topic, at the end of which I concluded that ordination of women as pastors was biblically permissible. The harder challenge was trying to discern whether this calling was for me and if I were ready to face the cultural implications of such a call when I returned to Egypt. And so I started my studies at Calvin Seminary in 2005 as an act of obedience, all the while praying and fasting and seeking the counsel of wise, faithful and trustworthy mentors—my cloud of witnesses, who confirmed this call over the next four years. 

How did you come to minister in Canada?

Since neither Naji nor I are Americans, with the completion of my studies at Calvin Seminary, our legal status in theUSA had expired, so we had to leave. We knew that we wanted to move closer to family, either to my husband’s family in Western Canada or to mine in Cairo. Both my husband and I had a close relationship with our grandparents growing up, and they had quite an impact on our lives, especially our faith formation. And so we wanted to bring our young children closer to their grandparents in order to give their faith a chance to be formed by the older generation. Ever since we got married, we knew that our ultimate call was to live and serve in Egypt. From the very beginning, we were both quite united in that call, but we knew meanwhile that we had to train, and we had to study, and we had to develop in a lot of ways before we were ready to return to Egypt.

… So the decision was to go to Canada for a number of years to spend time with his family and serve the church of Christ there. And that we did. In fall 2009 we moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, and lived in the same house as my inlaws, working together on their beautiful apple and cherry orchard. It was very good for us and our boys to be there. While we were there, we got to serve the Kelowna Christian Reformed Church, at first as youth pastors and then as interim pastors when the senior pastor left. These were a great couple of years, and though we thought we’d be in Canada longer, the Arab Spring happened, prompting us to return to Egyptsooner than we expected.

Why did you return to Egypt when you did?

Like I said, we always knew that we would go back, it was just a matter of getting the timing right. Of course we never thought the right time would be after a revolution. But several reasons called us back, the most important of which was that many Egyptian Christians were leaving. We sensed an urgent call to return, because not all Christians wanted to leave, and certainly not all Christians could leave. So the question was, “Who is going to serve those who remain? Who is going to pray with them? Who is going to encourage them?” This call was made even more urgent given the mass exoduses of Christians from other parts of the Middle East in recent history—like from Palestine, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. So we thought, OK, two people can’t prevent a mass exodus from a nation, but maybe we can come alongside those who stay behind, and maybe we can prevent some from leaving out of fear or despair. History tells us tha tNorth Africa was once predominantly Christian; where is the church in North Africanow? There has been a massive leak of Christians leaving North Africa over the centuries, and we couldn’t stand the thought that Egypt, too, would be empty of Christians—at least not in our lifetime, if we could help it.

What was it like in Egypt?

The Egyptian revolution happened in January 2011, and in March of the same year we traveled there to see what Egyptwas like post-revolution. When we got there, we saw great excitement and disbelief at what has been accomplished in the 18 days of the revolution. The barrier of fear had been broken, and there was a high spirit of hope and involvement, especially among the youth. I’d get on the subway, and almost everyone was reading the newspapers. Before, they just sat there and either daydreamed or slept or read their Koran because there was no connection between their voice and real life … . Now, everyone wanted to know what was going on: What would happen to Mubarak’s family? What would the new constitution be like? What new parties were forming and which one to join? There was this great sense of curiosity that came with new freedoms and a feeling of “If I don’t like it, I can talk about it.”

But we also saw anxiety, especially among Christians and also moderate Muslims. There was contradictory reporting about and interpretations of various events, and utter confusion about the role and agenda of political Islam in all of it. There was a real fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would hijack the revolution and take over the nation. This fear was confirmed later during the parliamentary elections in November when the Islamists secured more than 70 percent of the seats.

Our visit was also during a period of frequent acts of violence in the absence of the dismantled police force, marked by several attacks on churches, Christian businesses and homes. This unrest and insecurity was further exasperated by tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which took power after Mubarak’s ousting.

We saw people perplexed. We saw the church apprehensive about what the future would hold. And we saw violence, unlike anything in Egypt’s recent history.

How did you return?

In previous years, whenever we would visit and share our desire to return with friends and family in Egypt, they would dissuade us and encourage us to go back to the States and complete our studies and training. But that last visit in March 2011 was different. Everyone was saying, “So, when are you coming back?” I think that there was a readiness at both ends. There was a readiness for people to receive us, and there was a readiness on our part to go. On our flight back to Canada after our visit, both Naji and I were totally quiet. Both of us were obviously trying to process what we had seen and experienced. Several hours into our return trip, my husband, not accustomed to seeing his extroverted, talkative wife silent for so long, finally asked me what was wrong. And I said, “Nothing. I’m just thinking.” To which he responded, “What are you thinking about?” Again, I held it back: “I don’t know. I just have this sense …,” and then he said it for both of us, “That we should go back sooner?”

So by the time we pulled into our driveway in Kelowna, we had a plan to spend the next four weeks in prayer and fasting about this call. If it was confirmed, we would move our young family to Egyptin five months in order for our kids to catch the beginning of the school year in Cairo. Miraculously, those four weeks were filled with daily assurances, and our call was completely confirmed that this was the time to go, and that if we didn’t go now, there may not ever be a time to return. We sensed that this was a critical point in the history of Egypt and the church there, and that if we don’t go back now, we were going to miss it.

We didn’t have jobs waiting for us in Cairo when we went … but we knew that God’s faithfulness is to be trusted. We quit our jobs in Canada. We sold and gave away everything we had, except for 13 suitcases worth of stuff and 35 boxes of books and children’s toys, and we went. Of course, we have our network there … . My family of origin still lives there, and we still have many friends from the churches where we used to serve nine years prior—and whom we had visited regularly since. So it wasn’t like we’re going completely on our own. And we did have to deal with many logistic details under extreme time pressure. But one thing we purposely didn’t do was secure jobs before for ourselves before we left. There is great freedom in letting go of most of one’s possessions and going after God’s call. I think everyone should have this kind of an experience at least once in their lifetime. We were on a plane, and I thought, “We’ve got 13 suitcases under us. We’ve got our four kids here. And we’re going completely relying on God … . Oh, so this is what faith is!” As if we’d never believed before, you know? There is something so refreshing about really, truly trusting God with your future. And there was something freeing about telling people that we didn’t know what the plan was and that we’d figure it out when we got there. And honestly? It’s all worked out beautifully. God gave us opportunities, which we were able to step into precisely because we weren’t tied to previous plans. And that was good.

What is your ministry?

I am working at the seminary in Cairo. It’s the largest (Protestant) seminary in the Middle Eastwith around 250 students in various programs. I teach courses on worship, preaching and communication. I also help out with their development and international relations office. Naji is enrolled in a graduate program studying Arabic and Islamic studies full time, learning the necessary skills to teach Christian-Muslim dialogue. He maintains his ties to the Christian Reformed Church through his position as research project manager with World Mission’s Global Impact in order to explore and strengthen partnerships with the Middle Eastern church.

We’re very involved in two congregations every week. On Fridays, our family attends an English-speaking international congregation with over 20 countries represented every week. Some are international teachers or businesspersons, some are diplomats and some are Christian workers. On Sundays, our family attends an Arabic-speaking Egyptian church. In both churches, we are grateful for opportunities to lead worship, preach, lead prayer meetings and Bible studies.

In addition, almost every week, one of us is invited to speak or preach at various church meetings in other Egyptian churches around the country. The church here is solid and has a long history and an uninterrupted presence in Egypt since the day of Pentecost.

I’ve requested my ordination as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in Egypt, and I am awaiting their Synod’s decision. If they approve, I’ll be the first woman pastor ordained in the Middle East and North Africa—a step that I hope will speak well of the witness of the church in a cultural context that devalues the place and role of women, especially in religious affairs. Recently I’ve become quite involved with a political activism group called Rescue the Revolution Front, an ecumenical group that aims to preserve the culture of Egyptas a civil, democratic state guided by Moderate Islam against the wave of ultra-conservative radical Islam that has come with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood since the revolution.

We went back to be a witness. Many people, when they hear the words “being a witness,” think we’re going to Egypt to tell somebody something. But that’s not what a witness does primarily. A witness is there to see something happen, to watch an event unfold … . So our primary purpose is to go and watch what God is doing, to go and watch how the kingdom is being built … we know that God is up to something in Egypt—and wouldn’t you get on the first plane if you knew God was up to something someplace? Our purpose there is to watch God do something in and among the Egyptian people and then to go out into the world and tell others about it: “This is what God did for the Egyptians. I am sorry you’ll have to believe it by faith here in North America, but we got to see it with our own eyes.” Right now, we have the peace that comes from knowing that we’re in the right place at the right time. And every day brings new surprises. It’s a fun adventure. I can’t imagine going back to living a life where I know exactly what to expect next week.