Egyptian-born pastor offers immigrant and refugee families ‘a time to cry’
Like many seekers before him, the Rev. Amir Tawadrous came to American shores on a journey of discovery.
Born and raised in Upper Egypt, Tawadrous had also lived with his family in France for two years before returning to Egypt to finish his bachelor’s degree and later his Master of Divinity degree.
“I came to the U.S. in 2011 as a global scholar to McCormick Theological Seminary,” says Tawadrous. “When I finished my Master of Theological Studies there in 2014, I received another scholarship from Union Theological Seminary in New York City to do a Master of Sacred Theology. That was when I decided that I wanted to take time to know America, [and] also to get deeply involved with the challenges of the churches.” So, he stayed.
Between earning two advanced degrees, Tawadrous served as a volunteer technician for the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the PC(USA), which proved a turning point in his life.
“The decisions that were made at the 2014 General Assembly made me decide that I wanted to continue as a PC(USA) minister,” he says, citing two of the assembly’s actions: to divest from three U.S. companies doing business in Israel-Palestine and to allow for PC(USA) teaching elders to perform same-gender marriages.
“[It] was very meaningful to me,” he says, “how the church is going forward.”
After being ordained as a teaching elder in 2015 by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, Synod of the Nile—a PC(USA) World Mission partner—Tawadrous went through the Church Leadership Connection, the PC(USA)’s internet-based matching and referral system, to apply to several churches in the U.S. He was soon offered two calls, one at a large congregation in New York, and one at a two-point, yoked parish in Kansas City, Kansas, in conjunction with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Small Church Residency Program.
“I selected Kansas because I came here to the States by myself,” he says. “I’m single—so I wanted to be with some people that I know that would be also a source of support to me. I already knew one Egyptian family in Kansas City, who are now in my church.”
The Small Church Residency Program (SCRP) has served to pair small, underserved congregations in rural, small town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates for a two-year pastoral-residency relationship, during which they are supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors.
Although the program will come to a close in December 2017, the office of Theology and Worship is continuing to provide guidance and oversight to the pastoral residents commissioned in 2016 as well as the other pastors in the program, like Tawadrous, who are at the mid-point of their residencies. Since September 2015, he has been serving two yoked congregations, Southridge Presbyterian Church in Roeland Park, Kansas, and Argentine United Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.
“I chose the Small Church Residency Program because the call is designated for two years, which allows me to grow spiritually, and I knew that Heartland Presbytery would appoint a mentor for me,” says Tawadrous, who was in Louisville Feb. 6–9 for the SCRP’s final cohort gathering.
“I was also worried because my ministry before this was basically in Arabic countries,” he continues. “Coming to the States, I was worried how people would look at me. I didn’t want to risk accepting a call where I would be fully responsible for things without having some kind of help.”
Tawadrous also happens to like small churches.
“In the smaller churches it’s more about family, about connection,” he says. “It’s about living together and how it is important for us as Presbyterians to always remind ourselves that smaller churches live in God’s covenant with the area—with the neighborhood—that they live in. Their ministry doesn’t depend on how big they are in numbers, but how effective God’s mission is in their heart and in their neighborhood. They may do little things but the little things are very meaningful.”
One of the “little things” Tawadrous says the congregation does is open the church to homeless people in the neighborhood so that they can take showers in the morning. “That is a simple thing that we do,” he said. “Every time these people get out of the shower, I feel it’s a new baptism in their life.”
Another “simple thing” that Tawadrous regularly does is listen.
Most recently, he has been listening and serving as a non-anxious presence for three immigrant families—Syrian, Sudanese and Egyptian—who are members of the Southridge Church. Tawadrous says that their shared language of Arabic gives them a similar understanding and worldview on a number of issues.
“What united us even more than our language and their backgrounds was for them to see an Egyptian minister who speaks their mother language and at the same time is a minister of an American church of Anglo people,” he says. “It’s now a part of our identity that we are here in the States. Our history is not limited to the countries that we have been living in. We have to be able to go forward in our lives.”
Tawadrous describes the “huge feeling of fear” being experienced by the Sudanese and Syrian families since both of those countries are included in the president’s executive order on immigration.
Speaking about an ongoing crisis in the life of the Syrian family, related to the husband’s inability to leave and reenter the U.S. freely, Tawadrous says, “He came to my office and we were talking, and I was listening to him. It was a time for him to cry. He was crying like a child.”
“There is a time for us as ministers when we ask ourselves, ‘How can I help?’ when there is nothing practical at hand that I can offer,” he continues. “At that moment… something deep in us keeps us alive, and we experience that in our spirituality and how God leads us. I believe theology is the language of transcendence. Theology is the language that says that we are not limited by what is going on. That has been very helpful to me in supporting these families and in supporting myself, too, in terms of how I can be of help to these people.”
The Egyptian family had told Tawadrous that their child who attends public school in Kansas City was being bullied by his classmates, who told him that the new president would “kick him and his family out.”
“That was really painful,” says Tawadrous, “but I see my congregation as a source of healing.”
“Perhaps especially in anxious times the church needs pastors like Amir, who offer the best in both pastoral and prophetic ministry,” observes the Rev. Marvin Ellison, director of alumni/ae relations at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “Union has a strong national and international reputation for preparing faith leaders who make a difference, from the early ANC freedom leaders in South Africa to today’s Christian clergy who must be prepared to work inter-religiously as well as ecumenically, and to reach out to the alienated as well as the affiliated. As a recent seminary graduate, Amir appreciates how ministry requires enlarging the circle of community and being prepared for anything and everything.”
In the congregations Tawadrous serves, the services are held in English. Recently, however, he has started occasionally reading scripture in Arabic and English, “not because these families don’t know English, but because it helps the Anglo people in the church realize that God is not limited by a language.”
The Rev. Cynthia Cushman, coordinator of the Small Church Residency Program, says that one of the joys of the program is having all of the new pastors come together from different places and share with one another their joys and struggles in ministry.
“Amir’s story of his congregation welcoming these refugee families was very much one of joy and struggle—joy that these families found a welcoming community in that church, and struggle as the church tries to be in solidarity with them in our current political climate,” Cushman says. “We all learn from each other’s stories, and Amir sharing his unique story with the group opens all of us up to new possibilities in ministry that we may not have thought of before.”
After listening to the stories of his SCRP colleagues, Tawadrous is ready to embrace new possibilities in ministry.
“The Small Church Residency Program was a step that I wanted to take that would introduce me more to the culture here—introduce me more to a new beginning,” he says. “I was also hoping that what the scripture says, ‘no slave, no free, no Greek, no Jew,’ would be true in my ministry, bringing these people together from the Middle East with all their diversity. I believe that this is one of the main sources of hope for the people here and for the future of our church as well.”
Emily Enders Odom, mission communications strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Refugee Families
Let us join in prayer for:
Heartland Presbytery Staff
Rev. Charles Spencer, executive presbyter
Rev. Sally Wright, acting associate executive presbyter
Sally Hinchman, stated clerk
Brian Hathhorn, financial administrator
Jessie Echavarria, administrative assistant
Michelle Jones, administrative assistant
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
O God, we are bound to each other as much in the needs we express as in the work we do. We are your people in vulnerability and in strength; in receiving as well as in giving. Help us to bring our whole selves to all that we do in service to you, and also to the community we share. Amen.