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Lutheran regional reps in Egypt flown to the Twin Cities

The world was watching as pro-democracy young people and workers in Egypt demonstrated in the streets in an effort to overthrow the dictatorial control of Hosni Mubarak. But some Lutherans with Minnesota connections had a front-row seat.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) employs Global Mission regional representatives in its Middle East office in Cairo. The Rev. Peter Johnson, his wife Michelle, and their three children, along with six other Americans, including a Wartburg Seminary student on internship, were stationed in Cairo where they were employed by St. Andrew’s United Church and Refugee Ministies. The Johnsons are members of Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church, where Peter Johnson was pastor until 2008.

The Rev. Peter Johnson, regional representative for the Middle East for the ELCA Global Mission, speaks at a potluck at his former parish, Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, following the evacuation of ELCA personnel from Egypt. The regional staff are in the Twin Cities being debriefed. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Leaving Cairo proved to be more difficult than it sounds.

As the situation began to devolve in Cairo, especially when pro-regime elements began to attack the protestors, it was necessary for the staff to consider evacuation. While there was a significant desire to stay and support the local people in the midst of the conflict, in many ways the presence of foreigners added another dimension for the protesters. “But there was uncontrolled anarchy,” Johnson told Nokomis Heights members at a potluck the Sunday after the group landed in the Twin Cities for a time of debriefing and preparation for their return. “Eventually the Middle East rep Robert Smith said, ‘You have to get out.’”

Actually leaving proved to be more difficult than it sounds. The group of 11 took cabs to get to the airport, and the taxis needed to pass through neighborhoods where entry was being checked by residents, wanting to protect their property. “We primarily put our hands to our hearts to express our shared concern for each other’s safety,” said Johnson, describing the travel through these neighborhoods.

Things didn’t get easier upon arrival at the airport either. Although they had tickets to Amman, Jordan, it was clear that they would not get out on their Royal Jordanian flight, as it was prioritizing Jordanian citizens.

After several attempts to find other commercial flights, the ELCA made arrangements for a State Department flight. After a 36-hour wait, the group was finally on its way. A very friendly Nokomis Heights crew was at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to welcome the returning travellers.

Watching democracy unfold

Augustana College’s (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) band program was on a five-concert tour of Egypt as the protests broke out. “We had 71 band members and a group of about 20 alumni,” band member Rachel Hurley told Metro Lutheran. “We had almost completed the tour, only needing to cancel the final performance.”

The group was staying in a downtown hotel, but tour guides, anticipating what would be happening, moved the group to a hotel closer to the airport. Still, the band group was able to feel the excitement of the pro-democracy demonstrations. “Quite a few students have kept up with the demonstrators we met on Facebook and Skype,” Hurley reported.

“It was a humbling experience to realize what it feels like to live with political instability,” she added.

Peter Johnson agrees. But, he also feels the need to be a healing agent as the movement moves forward. At press time it appeared Johnson would soon be headed back to St. Andrew’s and his colleagues there.

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