JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
“I LOVE serving God, but I didn’t imagine myself being a priest, I didn’t imagine myself being away from home,” says Father Fam Abraham. He is a priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church in Lusaka.
Fr Abraham has a kind-looking face hemmed by a bushy beard, and his devotion to God and his ministry is unmistakable.
He is wearing a black cassock with a cross dangling around his neck. His small office adjacent to the church building is cluttered with books and religious symbols.
Established in the first century in Alexandria, Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church is still steeped in old traditions of the first Christian church.
And so the priest and the way he conducts his worship seems a bit at odds with modernity.
“When people see me in a black robe they think that maybe I’m not right, but they forget to see that there is actually a cross that is hanging around my neck that has Jesus Christ on it,” he says.
“Black does not mean anything negative, it is something honourable,” he adds.
The church at Alexandria in Egypt is believed to have been established by St. Mark, who also authored the book of Mark in the Bible, and in whose house the Last Supper was held.
Due to various theological and political differences, the Roman Catholic Church broke off from the rest of the early churches.
The church at Alexandria would later be known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The church has the same doctrine as the Greek Orthodox Church and shares many similarities with the Roman Catholic Church, with a pope at its helm.
One of the differences in their worship relates to icons and statues. The Orthodox Church pays homage to icons, while the Roman Catholic Church has statues. The church also follows a different calendar.
On January 8, the Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas in following with the Orthodox Christian calendar.
The Coptic Christians pride themselves in keeping with the original traditions of the early Christian Church.
“God gave us an original first century church with beautiful teachings and it’s our job to pass it to the next generation, not to give them emotional Christianity,” says Fr Abraham.
“Our goal is to take the ancient Christian faith and teachings and bring it to the modern world,” he says.
But he has to admit that sticking to old traditions has its own challenges in terms of attracting young people.
“Our challenge as the Orthodox Church is that we have to be relevant to the modern-day young person without changing the faith,” he says.
He says it is hard to capture the youth.
“The hard part is that people are suffering and are looking for hope, and I believe that the Church is the hope of the world. And as the Church is the hope of the world, it has to bring true teaching and honesty when they preach,” he says.
ROOTS IN ZAMBIA
The Coptic Orthodox Church was consecrated in Zambia in 1994 by Pope Shenouda III, although it has existed since 1989.
Since then, the church has grown to five churches, with another one to open soon.
“I think it is now time for us to spread our wings and to spread the faith throughout Zambia,” he says.
Fr Abraham’s vision is to get to 20 churches by the year 2020.
His desire is meet not only the spiritual needs of the communities, but their physical needs as well.
“So many people are broken, and it hurts to see broken people lose hope,” he says.
“We have to pray for our great country to do better bringing our people up and giving them more opportunities. I’m not saying anything no one already knows, I’m just saying what I see. The brokenness is too much – prostitution and alcoholism, lack of jobs, lack of food,” he says
When the church opened in 1994, it also opened a hospital to help the poor.
The hospital started as a small clinic, and eventually grew to a 20-some-bed hospital where the poor pay subsidised fees or no fees at all.
“People who pay for their care allow other people who can’t afford to pay for the care to get it for free or at a cheaper price. The rich who are coming to the hospital are helping the poor,” says Fr Abraham.
The old hospital is now overshadowed by a seven-storey modern building coming up on the same piece of land. Once completed, the new hospital will provide specialised treatment for patients.
The church also runs three schools in Lusaka.
But he does not like the schools’ reliance on donations from abroad.
The church is now looking at ways to generate income through projects such as farming to support the schools. Currently, the school project runs a bakery in Chawama to supplement its incomes.
Fr Abraham believes that “a church is genuine when it is out for the interests of the people.”
Fr Abraham was born in New Jersey, USA, and he was raised in the Coptic Church.
When he grew up, he usually went to serve in church after work hours.
“I love serving God and I wanted to do it full-time,” he says.
Then later, he had to give up his job as a business consultant for a big company in Washington DC, in order to become a priest.
He was ordained as a priest in 2007 and sent to various mission posts in Africa before coming to Zambia.
“People say I’m crazy for leaving all that money,” he says.
His wife, Dalia, also gave up a lucrative job as an intellectual properties lawyer in Washington DC to work as a missionary.
Does he regret the couple’s decision?
“I never regret and my wife never regrets,” he says.
But he does not dismiss the fact he would probably be rich if he and his wife had kept their corporate jobs.
“We would be rich on earth, but not rich in heaven,” he says.
Fr Abraham’s passion is to see people turn to God.
“If I can get to use my life to encourage and help people, that is more treasure than money,” he says.
“It gives me more fulfilment than I can ever imagine,” he adds.
He says serving as a priest in Zambia is “one of the best things that has happened in my life.”
But back in Egypt, the Coptic Christians face persecution from hardline Islamists.
“The church of Alexandria is still a persecuted church, but it is a church whose members are strong, they will not deny their faith, they will hold it to their death. It shows a depth in their spiritual life and strength from God,” he says.
According to Open Doors, a Dutch organisation that supports persecuted Christians around the world, 128 Coptic Christians were killed for their faith and 200 were forced to flee their homes in Egypt in the past one year.
“What they [Coptic Christians] are experiencing in Egypt is unprecedented levels of persecution and suppression,” the organisation says.
Last April, during prayers marking Palm Sunday, 44 people were killed in two bomb attacks at the cathedral of the Coptic Pope and another church.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Coptic Pope Tawadros had been leading the mass at Saint Mark’s Cathedral at the time of the explosion.
Fr Abraham says he is not frightened by the persecution back in Egypt, but “it hurts to see our brothers and sisters going to church to worship and a bomb going off.”
“It is troubling. But it is our job to love them and pray for them,” Fr Abraham says about the people attacking his church.