Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 14, 2013

The Writing On The Wall

Among the Zabbaleen, South of Cairo, Egypt

For the past 70 to 80 years, the Zabbaleen have collected Cairo’s waste. Every morning they venture from their slums and into the city to collect garbage door-to-door. At the end of the day, they return to their homes where they spill out their filthy bounty. With bare hands, men, women, and children sort through piles of garbage to pick out any items that they can recycle or resell. The work is difficult and yields barely enough for the poor Zabbaleen to survive another day or two. They cannot rest from their labors.

South Slum Burden
Today, we visited a third Zabbaleen slum area, this one located about 50 kilometers south of Cairo. This slum village is situated next to a cemetery for wealthier people. It was immediately apparent that the elaborate tombs were far nicer than any of the hovels in the slum. Ironically, the cemetery is located on higher ground as if to suggest that the dead have it better than the Zabbaleen. In many ways, they do. This is a place where death and disease and desperation are all close neighbors.

South Slum Church
We did however, find something beautiful in the midst of all the garbage today. When we arrived we heard the sounds of worship. Our friend Jamal pointed to a little building where some friends recently started a non-denominational church. What struck me was the writing on the wall outside the building. The words scribbled on the wall simply state: “The Lord is here!” My heart jumped when Jamal read those words to me. “Yes,” I said, “He is indeed here among the poor, despised, and rejected.”

South Slum Trash Men 2
As we walked through the slum and met the people we have come to help, my thoughts turned to one of my favorite movies, “On The Waterfront.” In the movie, Marlon Brando plays a character named Terry Malloy, a prize-fighter wanna-be who ends up working as a longshoreman who witnesses a murder. Later, when a key witness is murdered, Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, is called to the scene of the crime. As dozens look on, a voice in the crowd calls out, “Go back to your church, Father.”

South Slum Cart Driver
That cynical line is followed by one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. Father Barry, standing beside the dead man, looks at the crowd and says, “Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront you’ve got another guess coming!” There is more, but I have never forgotten these lines in particular. Father Barry was right. The Lord was on the waterfront and the waterfront was his parish.

South Slum Cross

Scottish clergyman George MacLeod would agree with Father Barry. MacLeod wrote these memorable lines:

I simply argue that the cross be raised again
at the center of the market place
as well as on the steeple of the church,
I am recovering the claim that
Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral
between two candles:
But on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
At a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan
that they had to write His title
in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek…
At the kind of place where cynics talk smut,
and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died,
and that is what He died about.
And that is where Christ’s men ought to be,
and what church people ought to shout.

South Slum Doors 3
The writing is indeed on the wall for the Zabbaleen — “The Lord is here!” They are not alone, and they know it. As we walked between the rows of crudely built houses in the slum, we noticed crosses either carved or painted on the doors. Most of the Zabbaleen are Christians. It is the hope that they have in Christ that keeps them from drowning in the sea of garbage that surrounds them. They know that the One who was crucified on a town garbage heap understands their plight and sustains them from day-to-day.

South Slum Doors 5


  1. I have no words. This is amazing.

    • What a beautiful message on the wall. The moment Jamal read the words to me I was touched. Jesus is indeed among the Zabbaleen. That’s good news!

  2. Humbling, inspiring, convicting, challenging to be the church of Jesus following His actions. Church, repent and go out following Jesus. The end quote by McLeod is truth. God help the church to be the church of Jesus.

    • Amen, Beth. May we indeed get out of the salt shaker and into the world.

  3. Overwheling and so very beautiful! What beautiful people our Creator has made for a beautiful purpose. I hope to go … soon! 🙂

    • The Zabbaleen are good and hard-working people. It’s been a blessing to walk among them these past few days.

  4. Very Humbling, I Suppose brother!

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