We couldn’t understand but a few words of the mass but the beautiful, flowing Arabic was music to our ears, rising up to the heavens along with the sweet-smelling incense. Not only was the language new to our ears, having only studied it for a couple months, but this was the first mass we’d ever attended. A far cry from our contemporary services in our American home church, I thought I would feel out of place when we were invited to this intimate mass. We’d been attending the larger, more contemporary Coptic gathering for a while but this felt like an intimate gathering of believers, seated in front of a towering mural of Jesus. Somehow, without knowing all the meaning of the ceremony or catching every word, I felt the presence of God so real in that moment.
I saw God in the smiling eyes of Abouna (meaning “Our Father”), the quiet and loving priest who welcomed us into his congregation. I heard God in the laughter of the girls begging me to sing another Arabic hymn, not judging my flawed pronunciation. He was so real in the faith lived out so simply and profoundly by our friends who had every reason to doubt as they lived on the outskirts of town in a garbage village, with little to their name except each other and their God.
Though our time in the Coptic church was short and it was years ago that we lived in North Africa, their impact on me has been lasting. When I earlier this year in horror with the rest of the world as 21 Coptic lives were snuffed out along the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean, my heart broke into tiny pieces.
Today, I leaf through my Bible to find the paper where I printed the names of the 21 men killed brutally by those who would seek to rain terror down on the Middle Eastern Church. I read their names out loud, the guttural sounds familiar in my throat. My five-year-old asks me why they had to die, and I don’t have an answer for her, but we say their names, remember them, pray for their families, and promise not to forget them.
Yet another report surfaced weeks later, more lives lost, more crowns stored up in heaven for Ethiopian brothers called Home this time. Their names weren’t initially reported, but as the Reverend Grant LeMarquand, bishop for the Horn of Africa, said, “For now we can note the most important things to be said about these victims. Their names are known to God and they are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
These realities on coasts far away feel like a horror movie, stories that couldn’t possibly be true. Even though I lived in this region of the world and dipped my toes in the same sea where these men died, it feels like another planet on which such atrocities are committed.
But these stories are real, and we have a choice to make. Do we despair and feel helpless, let ourselves stay numb and far removed, or let these lives matter in our own lives? A story emerged in the midst of this horrible news that made my choice for me. It is the story of the only black African killed among the 20 Arabs that day. His name was initially reported as Samuel A. Wilson, but reports from Ghana came to the surface as friends recognized the man as Michael Ayairga. He was a construction worker who traveled to Libya to find work and was arrested sometime in January. Like the Ethiopians who died in April, many migrant workers are fleeing to North Africa in hopes of making it to a better life in Europe.
According to reports, he was not a Christian when living in Libya. But moments before his death he was asked by his captors to follow Islam and reject Christ. His response was captured on video as he replied, speaking of his Egyptian Christian brothers, “Their God is my God.” Moments later he laid down his life for his bold faith.
We cannot possibly know when Michael chose to follow Christ if it was in the moments leading up to his death as a result of the unwavering commitment of the Egyptians he shared the beach with. Perhaps they were imprisoned together in the weeks leading up to their deaths, and he saw their faith in those days and followed the God they served. What we can know is that these men had a faith so strong that He wanted to follow it, even when it meant his death.
My heart’s cry in response to Michael Ayaiga’s story and that of his Coptic brothers is…how contagious is our faith? Do others see the kind of faith in me that they saw on that beach? Would someone see something in me worth following, even if it meant their very lives would be forfeited?
Most days my answer would be no. Most days my life doesn’t look much different than those around me, my faith weak and unrefined. Just like I saw God working and moving so powerfully in the lives of my Coptic friends, I want others to look at my life and see Him. So much so that they wouldn’t have to speak my language or agree with every aspect of my theology. They would just look at me and see Christ. That is how the lives ISIS takes are not taken in vain. They urge us onto unwavering commitment, honoring their lives as we strive to have a boldness more like them and a faith worth dying for.