Our MCC footprint seems rather small. Some of you have a much larger one. Yet, our connection with MCC feels significant and memorable to us. It led us to places and people and stories we could not have imagined.
In the mid nineties MCC asked my wife Lydia, then the director of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Center, to help facilitate an exchange between Muslim and Christian theological scholars. MCC had already arranged to have Roy Hange spend several years as a student in the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Instituted located in the city of Qom, Iran. Qom is a “seminary” city, a particularly “religious” city, the center of Islamic fervor. Qom, with a population over 2,000,000 is largely built around producing clerics. MCC through, Ed Martin, asked Lydia to facilitate arrangements for two Muslims scholars from that institute to study here in Toronto – entrance to Toronto School of Theology and providing living accommodations for them. Yousef Daneshvar and Mohammed Farimani entered our world and our lives. During this time Lydia also helped organize a broader theological dialogue between Muslim and Mennonite theologians. Some of you may even remember that memorable scholarly dialogue, held at Conrad Grebel University College, where police sharpshooters stood guard on the campus – because of local Muslim protest. It seemed a bit ironic that pacifist Mennonites and Muslim scholars engaging in dialogue needed police protection.
In the year 2000 I was offered a sabbatical leave by Toronto United Mennonite Church where I served as pastor. The Evangelical Seminary of Cairo (Presbyterian) invited Lydia to teach there in Cairo as a sabbatical replacement. We spent six months in Cairo loosely under MCC’s auspices. Gary was seen as an unofficial “Pastor” to the 10 person MCC unit there (which included our son Kendall who had been a part of the story getting Lydia her teaching position). When MCC learned that we would be in Cairo, they asked us to travel to Iran to help strengthen the Muslim-Mennonite dialogue.
Near the end of our time in Cairo we flew to Tehran. The most “official and formal” meeting in those two weeks spent in Iran was the two hours we spent with Ayatollah Mizbah, the director of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute. In his opening greeting Mr. Mizbah referred to Ed Martin and the Hanges as “opening the door” to the larger dialogue and to our visit with him. “Through them we learned to trust MCC”, he said. Then, he startled us, turning to us and saying, “You are the first Christian clerics (he assumed Lydia was a cleric too) in the history of Qom to be invited by, and hosted by, this Muslim Institute. And it’s all because of Ed Martin and MCC. MCC came to Iran to offer help after our devastating earthquake (which killed almost 100,000 people) - WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED. They just offered much needed relief help. We trust MCC.”
We also spent a day at the headquarters of the Red Crescent Society of Iran, located in Tehran. At first it seemed to us that the director, to whom we were introduced, thought of us as a bit of a nuisance, an interruption to his important work. But when we gave him our greetings from Ed Martin his whole visage changed. “Ed Martin – He is a friend. We trust him. We trust MCC”. He devoted the rest of our time there to proudly showing us the huge scope of the Red Crescent Societies work.
We can’t resist sharing our story of how we met our “Muslim angel”. Our last evening there we were reflecting on our amazing time in Iran. We were anticipating our flight back to Cairo the next morning, and a few days later our flight back to Canada. Our two weeks were almost over. We asked each other about any unfulfilled dreams for our trip. There were a few. One Lydia mentioned was disappointment that we had not been in more Iranian homes and had not been able to talk with more Iranian women. How could we have known that it would take a bit of a nightmare to get her wish. But then, in that nightmare, we also met an angel.
Our hosts had said goodbye. They had arranged for taxi service to the airport for us for the next morning. Everything was proceeding normally and without fuss the next morning at the airport prior to boarding the plane back to Cairo. Customs is cleared. Baggage is checked. We have our boarding passes in hand. The last line up is for passport control.
“You can’t go on the plane. Your visitors visa is no longer valid”. Panic. Cold sweat. “But what is wrong with it?” “Your date is okay, but your visa limits you to a seven day stay within those 14 days listed on your visa. See right here. And you have been here 12 days already. Your visa is not valid now. You must go to the Department of Alien Affairs and try to get your visa extended. We have cancelled your flight.”
Apparently the MCC office manager in Cairo had not read the fine print when arranging our flight. No amount of discussing and seeing higher up officials helps us. We retrieve our luggage. We try to make reservations for the next day. The airline refuses. They don’t expect us to have our visas renewed by then. In some turmoil we take a taxi to Alien Affairs. There, nobody, it seems, speaks English. There will be many hoops to jump through, with nobody to explain where to jump. We are in despair.
“Do you need any help? I speak Farsi and English”. Do we ever need help! Victoria too has come, reluctantly, to that office, not quite convinced that she needs to get a visa extension for her children. She is Iranian, but having married an American, and lived in the United States, her children are American and need visitor visas. She is back in Iran because her husband has died.
Altogether ours will be a 6 ½ hour process. In that time, we get close to 20 signatures from various officials, go to a particular bank twice for receipts, get our pictures taken, go to court, face a judge, and pay a fine (fortunately only a few dollars each). We are now convicted law breakers in Iran. Ah yes, facing the judge. Lydia hadn’t worn socks for the trip home. Victoria tells her she cannot face a judge in Iran without socks on. But a man can. So, Lydia faces the judge with Gary’s socks on while Gary goes sock-less.
Victoria is an absolute angel. She stayed with us the entire time. Had she not, we are sure the process would have lasted days rather than hours. She cancelled her appointments to see us through. She interpreted for us. She rather energetically pled our case when there was resistance. When the last official we met with said we should come back the next week for our visas, she said, “No way. You will have them ready by closing time today”. Amazingly, we got our visa extension just minutes before the office closed for the day and for the weekend. Our next frustration was that the plane for the next morning was already overbooked. We managed to get the last two seats for the following morning.
Victoria was not finished with her angelic work. She invited us to her home for dinner that evening. We had an amazing evening with her and her two children (5 & 7 years of age). Gradually the panic and stress of the day abated, and we relaxed into the enjoyment of friendship and our common humanness.
We tell these stories because they exemplify the genius of MCC. Yes, MCC offers help and aid around the world. But even more basically it develops mutual relationships - relationships of trust and respect. Offering earthquake aid without strings attached led to amazing scholarly dialogue. And then an angel, at some personal risk, returns the favour by inviting us “strangers” into her heart. It is all about relationships.
These many years later we celebrate the story and ministry of MCC, and the life-changing moments of our very small footstep in it.