Mentors on My Journey in Mission: Swailem and Sameera Hennein
by Jeff Ritchie
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt has been in existence since 1854 when the first Presbyterian missionaries came to Egypt. Their aim was to renew the 1,800 year-old Coptic Orthodox Church for mission to the Muslim majority. Their efforts did not accomplish that purpose. Instead, an evangelistically oriented Egyptian Presbyterian Church came into being.
Until the 1950s the Egyptian Presbyterians evangelized their own people, including colonies of Egyptians in what is now the Republic of Sudan. However in the 1950s the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt appointed a couple to work cross-culturally among people groups in what is now South Sudan. The couple chosen, the Rev. Swailem Sidhom Hennein and his wife, Mrs. Sameera Rizk Hennein, were fully funded by the Egyptian Church and spent seventeen years in Sudan and Kenya.
Their missionary colleagues in Sudan were American Presbyterians. For the first time Egyptian missionaries were on an equal footing with American missionaries in a land not native to either. Together they served Shilluk, Nuer, and other primarily nomadic peoples for ten years, baptizing and catechizing new believers, training leaders, translating the Bible, and engaging in education and community development work.
A civil war forced Swailem and Sameera to leave Sudan. They continued their missionary service in Kenya among the Masaai for another seven years. Then their lives took a different turn. Swailem received a doctorate in public health and taught for over twenty years at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Sameera worked among “Lost Boys of Sudan” through refugee ministries in the Chicago area. They were involved in planting several Arabic fellowships in Chicago as well.
I first came to know about Dr. Swailem, as he is ordinarily called in Egypt, when The Outreach Foundation began to develop mission relationships in Egypt in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Evangelical Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Cairo and The Outreach Foundation were partnering to establish a department of mission and evangelism at the seminary. The idea was accepted in principle on my first trip to Egypt in 1999, but it began to be implemented in 2000 when the Rev. Dr. Atef Gendy was called to be President of the Seminary.
The aim of the partnership between The Outreach Foundation and the Cairo Seminary was to find and train a person to teach mission and evangelism. They would select the person, and we would fund that person’s Ph.D. studies. However, Dr. Atef decided to form the seminary’s Mission Department even before that person was found and trained.
So he called Dr. Swailem, now retired from teaching, to return to his native Egypt and help the seminary begin its mission program. Dr. Swailem responded to the call, and he was a whirlwind of activity in the early 2000s:
• Casting a mission vision for how graduates of the seminary could engage the communities to which they would go in mission and evangelism
• Adopting the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement as the basic mission curriculum of the seminary and overseeing the first translation of that curriculum into Arabic
• Working with Egyptian Presbyterian denominational leaders to address a key need in the church, a critical shortage of rural pastors, through implementing a program to train lay pastors with a missional orientation and giving them support to carry out their mission vision to the churches where they would be sent
• Most importantly Dr. Swailem, together with Dr. Atef and others on the faculty, was part of the selection and mentoring of the Rev. (now Rev. Dr.) Tharwat Wahib Wahba, the person who became the future professor of mission and evangelism for the Evangelical Theological Seminary
Not only was Dr. Swailem a mentor to the seminary and the church in Egypt, he was a mentor to those of us who frequented Egypt in those years. Having grown up in a community where Muslims and Christians lived side by side in peace, but where it was also clear that Christians were second-class Egyptians, he was able to share a positive vision for engagement by Christians with everyone in the community, an engagement which would not shy from a positive presentation of the gospel, but where the focus would be Christians taking the lead in working for the common good in ways that Muslims would also be able to join.
He also knew how to get people from different departments and institutions of the church to join together in a common effort. Why was this? He and his wife were heroes of the Church in Egypt. They had responded to the call to go to a place unlike their native Egypt. Further, they had responded to the call of God again in retirement to help the Church in Egypt renew its mission vision. When Dr. Swailem spoke, people listened.
The Egyptian Church has honored and continues to honor this extraordinary man. He continues to impact the mission of the Church in Egypt through his disciples and those whom he has mentored, people like Dr. Tharwat Wahba. For example, in his doctoral dissertation on the history of the missionary work of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, Dr. Tharwat Wahba, now Chair of the Mission Department, devoted one chapter to the missionary work of Dr. Swailem and his wife. Dr. Tharwat’s purpose in this dissertation was to rekindle the same mission passion in the Church in Egypt of the 21st century that led it to send Swailem and Sameera to Egypt midway through the 20th century.
Also making a difference in the Church in Egypt today is another of Dr. Swailem’s disciples, Dr. Sherif Salah. Dr. Swailem brought Dr. Sherif, a psychiatrist by training, to the Mission Department of the Cairo Seminary in 2003. Now an Associate Professor in the Mission Department, Dr. Sherif is doing the kind of mission research that Dr. Swailem has challenged the seminary to do. One example of this research is that Dr. Sherif has looked at all the political communities of Egypt (the government’s mapping of where people live) and discovered that the Christian Church has been planted in less than 10% of Egypt’s communities.
These two professors, Dr. Tharwat and Dr. Sherif, have been casting a mission vision for more than a decade, and the seminarians are responding. A new church planting movement has begun in the past 10 years that has resulted in over 50 churches planted – this in a primarily Muslim country.
The effect of Dr. Swailem and his key disciples in the seminary is that the whole seminary has developed a missional heart. This vision is articulated from the president on down to the students. They see their mission as that of equipping servant leaders to serve existing churches or plant new ones that transform their communities.
While these communities are still primarily in Egypt, the seminary trains leaders from churches in other Arab-speaking countries. Additionally, some of the Egyptian seminary graduates are looking at service beyond Egypt. Missionaries have already been sent to Gaza and to Iraq, and Dr. Tharwat will be exploring mission opportunities in South Sudan with The Outreach Foundation on our next trip to South Sudan.
Let me share some of the lessons for mission that Dr. Swailem has left us with:
1. Dr. Swailem has a deep humility about him. It is a very endearing quality. But it also served a powerful purpose. For Dr. Swailem poured himself into the development of others who have become today’s leaders in the Church in Egypt. Dr. Swailem has become for me a living example of the words of John the Baptist, who said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The mentoring that Dr. Swailem did at the Cairo Seminary in his seventies may be the most enduring legacy he leaves the Church in Egypt.
2. The story of Swailem and Sameera Hennein also illustrates that the call to cross-cultural global mission is for all churches in all places throughout all times. The Egyptian Church, still a very poor church in the early 1950s, fully funded Swailem and Sameera Hennein throughout their time as missionaries. Today’s churches in the Majority World are increasingly responding to Jesus’ last command, “Go…make disciples of all peoples.” They may gain inspiration from this couple and the Church that sent them.
3. The call to mission is also a call for the church wherever it is to move outside itself into its surrounding community and make a difference. Our communities may contain many people like us. They may contain a majority of people who are from another religion that itself is missionary (the case of Islam in Egypt). They may be full of people of no religion (the “nones”) or who are done with any form of organized religion (the “dones”). But wherever it is, the church is still called to build relationships with the people of their communities and discern how the Holy Spirit wants them to bear witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ in word and deed.
Dr. Swailem and Mrs. Sameera, you have been faithful in every era of your life. Thank you for your legacy. May we be as faithful mentors and fruitful missionaries as you have been.
Associate Director for Mission