A few years ago, I took a short Bible history course at a college in Jerusalem. Afterward, I followed in the footsteps of a classmate who, before our course had begun, had solo-ventured through Egypt. Despite the diarrhea-related emergencies he suffered during his trip, it sounded like an adventure I’d like to have too.
I crossed the Israeli border on foot and walked into Egypt, starting my journey. I snorkeled in the Red Sea, joined a group in the middle of the night to hike Mount Sinai to reach the summit before sunrise, traded my Dollar Tree sunglasses for a knickknack a teenager was trying to sell me next to the Sphinx, and boarded an all-night train to see the Valley of the Kings and Queens.
One of the briefest moments I had in Egypt has always stayed with me. After checking into a hostel in Cairo, following a long bus ride through the Sinai Peninsula, I found a McDonald’s and then wandered the streets, my mouth probably gaping with awe at the masses of people everywhere. The sun had set and the day had cooled. It was the time everyone came out and did their shopping. Pedestrians filled the sidewalks. Cars clogged the streets. A small girl approached me, tapped me on the arm, and pointed to the McDonald’s cup of apple juice I was holding. She held out her hand, reaching for it, and I gave it to her. Then she ran off.
I think of that experience as one of my first face-to-face encounters with someone who was really poor. It has stuck in my mind because of the desperation I sensed behind her desire for a leftover drink from a stranger. Or maybe she didn’t ask me for a drink because she was thirsty, but rather because she didn’t get many opportunities to have something from McDonald’s—luxury food in some countries. Maybe she thought I was drinking Coca-Cola. At least it was a distraction from the regular burden of begging that I imagined she was accustomed to. Really, though, I’ll never know her needs.
Later in that trip, I rented a bicycle for the day, not realizing how far it was to where I wanted to go or just how hot it was going to be that day. While crossing the Nile River on a ferry with the bike next to me, I met a man who operated a taxi service with his personal car. I accepted his offer to drive me around, the bicycle strapped on top.
At some point, his employee began driving, and this man invited me to have tea with his family. When I agreed, we went to his home—a hut of sorts, with mud walls and a dirt floor. He smiled and kindly invited me inside to meet his family. I sat in their living room, on something like a wooden bed with rough posts and a thin mat, next to a TV with a cable box on top. A large poster of a baby was tacked to the wall, along with something like a carpet. His young daughters wore long red dresses, and their heads were covered with black hijabs. His wife served me tea in a small glass, along with a cookie. I had never been in a house made of dirt, and I looked carefully at the outside wall, touching it, before leaving.
Despite our many differences, I think that taxi driver and I shared several things in common. An interest in sharing time with others. The giving and receiving of hospitality. A desire to know and be known. Love for our families. Hope for health, happiness, and prosperity. An interest in serving God.
These were all similar, if not the same.
I was never quite sure why the taxi driver invited me to have tea at his home, though I know hospitality in many parts of the world can be different than where I grew up. Spontaneous invitations, drinking tea, and passing time together—even with strangers—seems normal in Egypt.
Understanding similarities we have with people who seem very different from us isn’t always easy. Maybe it’s because we often focus on what we see on the outside rather than what’s on the inside. We look at what people have, or don’t have, rather than who they are—their wants, hopes, disappointments, memories, and feelings. We don’t see the invisible aspects of their lives—their relationships, the love they have for a child, the joy they get from friends, their physical pains, their sadness from loss, their hunger for food.
What’s on the outside may look very different, but what’s on the inside is nearly the same for all of us. Remembering our commonalities can help us see beyond our differences.
(The above is an excerpt of 7 Attitudes of the Helping Heart: How to Live Out Your Faith and Care for the Poor)