In a little shop in Egypt

Feb 17, 2023 | by Brad Rowland

In a little shop in Egypt

By: Major Thomas McWilliams

The three of us were standing in a small souvenir shop about the size of a large walk-in closet. My daughter and I were on an adventure trip in Egypt where we were visiting the archeological ruins at Luxor. This is the location where the pharaohs reigned during the height of Egyptian power about 3,500 hundred years ago. We were on a tight travel schedule as it was just a few days before the start of Ramadan, a month-long Muslim religious observance of fasting, prayer, and reflection. For non-Muslim travelers, this religious holiday was to be avoided as it meant that many businesses, hotels, and restaurants would be closed.

The third person hovering around the small shop was an Egyptian man somewhere in his forties. He was busying himself with dusting shelves and keeping a sharp eye on us as we thumbed through postcards and "made in China" little plastic pyramids. As it was just days before the start of the Islamic high holiday, we inquired about what would happen to his shop during this time of widespread business shutdowns.

As soon as the topic of upcoming Islamic observance was brought up, the shop owner became visibly more animated. At first, we thought we had crossed some religious line seeing that we were American tourists who could easily be offensive due to our lack of cultural understanding. Instead of the chastisement I assumed was coming, the man reached out his arm toward us to show a large, roughly applied black tattoo on his forearm. We couldn't determine what he was trying to show us, so he explained that it was a tattoo of St. George, the patron saint and primary symbol of Coptic Orthodoxy. It was now our turn to be surprised.

Here in the heart of Egypt, days before Ramadan, this shop owner was sharing his testimony of faith in Jesus Christ through tattoo art. After communicating that I was a Christian minister, our conversation changed from the buying and selling of trinkets to the sharing of faith stories. How did he worship? Was the rest of his family of the Christian faith? How did he maintain his faith walk while living and working in Egypt, a place where periodic Christian executions, confiscation of property, and rehoming of Christian children with Muslim families occurred?

Our newly acquired spiritual brother shared that the threat of persecution was an ever-present shadow. In response to this threat, the believers in his faith circle had been meeting for worship out in the desert where they were outfitting a building in which to hold services. During our very fulfilling faith conversation, the shop owner led us to another little store next door where we met a second member of his faith group. The fourth member of our little gathering didn't have a good grasp of English, but he didn't need to as he quickly and proudly displayed his own St. George arm tattoo.

As we stood there talking like age-old friends, I wondered how a family man, living in a place hostile to his Christian faith, could place a sizeable permanent tattoo of St. George on his arm and then wear a short sleeve shirt. His answer to this inquiry filled me with both awe and shame. He told us that the threat of persecution was the "very reason why" they boldly wore a symbol of their Christian faith on their arms. Living under a constant threat of danger, the tattoo ensured they could never retreat from their testimony or deny their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The unrefined look of the tattoo was because his faith community applied the ink to themselves as it was dangerous to visit a proper tattoo parlor.

Listening to his courageous words and studying his arm had me feeling spiritually thin. I reflected on occasions in my life when my actions and words had been selfishly motivated. Moments when I'd demanded that God meet some desire of my heart and then becoming petulant or pouty when He didn't. My new friends were never aware of the effect their tattoos and stories had on me, but the Lord has never let me forget these friends in the faith.

In a little shop in Egypt, two men who had never attended a seminary, never experienced freedom to worship God openly without fear, spoke loudly and with great clarity to my soul. Even today, thinking of them fills me with courage and, yes, chastisement when selfishness directs my thoughts and actions. The primary lesson I learned that day was not that some believers stand firm in their faith amid danger; it was that when life and death hang in the balance, that faith in Jesus Christ becomes a simple matter of, "Do I walk in faith that Jesus Christ is Lord, or do I walk down the path of self?" All the other spiritual issues of life which seem so important to us for a moment are mere distractions to this primary and foundational question.

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