In his rural New Jersey home, Wafik Habib carefully laid out his letter collection before us, now more than a half century old. Handwritten by the late Bishop Samuel to the physician, they represented the bishop’s pastoral care to a nascent diaspora Christian community started in 1950s North America. We could sense the bishop’s presence in the words of comfort and exhortation set to pen and paper.
A few years before our visit to Habib to read his letters from Bishop Samuel, we opened up our own airmail from Egypt. It was a greeting card from Abadir El-Souriany, an elderly monk at the Syrian Monastery of St. Mary. (In the Coptic tradition, bishops are denoted by a single name at ordination and monks are referred to by their first name and the monastery where they serve.)
The card smelled of the Egyptian desert. In it, we found words of blessing.
Abadir had pastored our family in Sudan decades before. Now, newly ordained and assigned to a Coptic Orthodox Church in New Jersey, we received the warm words of Abadir’s letter. They ministered to us as only words from a lifelong pastor to diaspora congregations could.
Of course, sending letters from a distance to churches the Coptic church leaders planted or communities they served follows an apostolic tradition that dates back to the New Testament. Though these letters were addressed to individuals, rather than entire congregations, they achieved the same end: the spread of Christianity, the planting of new churches in new places, and the spiritual growth of these new congregations.
Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Bishop Samuel, Abadir maintained the relationships he built through letter-writing. The Syrian Monastery—located in a region called Wadi El-Natroun between Alexandria and Cairo, the center of modern Coptic monasticism—served as Abadir’s home base, where he had retired to minister to churches in the Middle East and Africa. In 1969, three years after becoming a monk, Abadir was ordained as a priest and sent out to serve parishes in Egypt and Sudan. He also served Coptic diaspora parishes in Libya and Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s before retiring to the monastery.
Two decades before his ordination, in 1948, Bishop Samuel joined the same monastery before also being commissioned by Pope Kyrillos VI, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, to represent the Coptic Orthodox Church in social services and ecumenical affairs, the first position of its kind. Bishop Samuel was also sent to serve the Coptic diaspora communities forming in North America during the first wave of Christian Egyptian immigration in the 1950s and 1960s.
Abadir and Bishop Samuel both entered the ministry under the papacy of Pope Kyrillos VI (1902–1971), who was also well-known for his letters to congregants in Egypt and abroad—many simply Psalms copied down in his own handwriting. Pope Kyrillos rarely preached sermons. Biographer Daniel Fanous nicknamed him the “silent patriarch,” also the title of his biography. Those who wanted to hear his words found them in his letters.
Many Copts in North America treasure dearly their letters from Bishop Samuel, taking even more care of them as living memories of his pastoral care after his assassination in 1981 alongside Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Many of these Copts, like retired physician Habib, collectively formed lay congregations until they could sustain a trained Egyptian priest. Handwritten letters from Egypt uplifted their weary souls. Habib showed us all of his correspondence from the bishop during the 1950s and 1960s, each one filled with words of Scripture, encouragement in his relationship with God, and sage advice.
One such letter, originally written in Arabic in 1966, includes hopes that the young doctor has relaxed after finishing an exam so that he could practice medicine in the US. Bishop Samuel encouraged perseverance in the challenges of carving out a life in a new country, but he was also keenly aware of the perennial struggle of loneliness in any place. In 1953 he wrote a letter to Habib addressing the deep human loneliness that cries out for the Creator.
“How I was glad with your last letter,” he wrote, “in spite of the pain that it contains, except that it is filled with the good longing for the complete fellowship with God, thirsting for the refection of his sweet love, and for the sitting between his hands day and night.”
Rather than advise Habib to look outside himself for support in his loneliness, Bishop Samuel instead pointed out that the loneliness is a “good longing” that is “heard by the Lord Jesus.” Instead of decrying the loneliness and isolation, he wrote,
Then prepare yourself to enjoy these opportunities whenever you are able to. Be alone with yourself, and whenever you feel the ignition of the heart moving you to the prayer and the sitting between his hands, do not postpone these moments. They are blinks of light that ignite in your heart, whenever you have the opportunity, respond to them quickly. Then you will taste the meaning of joy in the bosom of the beloved Jesus.
He added, “Then remember me in your prayers too.” After this, his advice then became practical, exhorting the young doctor to organize his time, balancing this time with God with work, study, church, service, and physical activity.
Bishop Samuel’s letters often addressed the worries and troubles his recipients might be facing, as well as perhaps some of his own. He asked for prayers for his growing ministry—not just in establishing the Coptic Orthodox community in North America, but also his work in Africa. In another letter from 1966, he wrote:
Pray a lot for my weakness, especially for the service in Africa which God opened it before us in His miraculous way which was not in taken into the account. As while we were preparing and thinking from years ago, there are now before me 16 youth from South and West of Sudan (some of them are 2 meters tall). “I hope that they will be giants in faith and work too.” [2 Cor. 8:7] … There are 21 teachers now teaching them the religious and scientific sciences together.
The fruit of this form of pastoral care by Bishop Samuel is now evident. The immigrants he wrote letters to helped establish the first Coptic Orthodox churches in North America. And only 65 years after he prayed the first Coptic Orthodox liturgy in North America, more than 250 congregations have started there, with approximately 1 million adherents.
The Coptic immigrants who established the North American churches thrived on the ongoing pastoral care from the church in Egypt, the commissioning of priests, and the engagement of the Coptic community with the broader society. But many of the earliest immigrants point to Bishop Samuel’s letters as important sustenance during the dry period several decades before the growth of the Coptic community.
In contrast, Abadir served communities in environments more hostile to Christianity. In Iraq, he survived an airport bombing in Baghdad in 1976. Later, many Copts fled the country before the US invasion of Iraq, which also left the indigenous Christians of Iraq vulnerable to persecution. Many Abadir served in Libya were forced to return to Egypt or settle in other countries after the 2011 overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi and the subsequent civil war, which left Libya vulnerable to the growth of violent extremist groups like ISIS.
While there still is a large congregation of Copts in Sudan, including those served by the same tall Sudanese youths Bishop Samuel wrote about, many left during the civil war in the 1980s, fearful of reprisals against Christians in the North as Christians in the South rebelled.
Abadir maintained many of those relationships despite the turmoil of these countries. He did so through phone calls and letters, even as new technologies made communication faster and more efficient. Old-fashioned letters from spiritual mentors had a special stamp that an email, text message, or televised sermon couldn’t provide.
One such letter came in 2006 from the Syrian monastery to our home in Cairo, before Bishoy was ordained. Abadir sent it to express his condolences on the repose of Bishoy’s father, Lamie Mansi Mikhail. Like Bishop Samuel, Abadir opened with Scripture, quoting Song of Solomon 4:16 to remind Bishoy of where Lamie had gone—“Let my beloved come to his garden and taste its choice fruits”—and asked for the Holy Spirit to comfort him and his family. But he also acknowledged and shared in our grief:
My nonstop tears share your love during the departure of your dear father—I hope that this sentimental participation reduces this hard trial—as I count myself one member of this precious family—though I am not worthy.
The rest of the letter asks about the circumstances of Lamie’s sickness and death, recognizing how painful sharing this information might be: “I do not dare to call by phone.” He concluded by sending his love and peace to our mother and brothers, promising to also send a letter to Lamie’s family in Canada to console them.
When part of his jaw was removed due to cancer, Abadir’s letters reached where his voice could not. After his death in 2011, his letters became a lifeline from heaven to their recipients—read and reread not just for their encouragement and advice, but because of the concrete connection to the writer.
For those who emigrated from Egypt to new lands, those letters also carried a scent of home. Our memories of their voices and words of encouragement might fail us, but letters revive them again.
We can re-read emails, but we can’t touch them like we can touch letters—the same paper touched by the writer. Letters take patience, but they are a physical connection in times of discouragement, loneliness, or grief that can’t be replaced by faster technologies. They are, in their own way, sacred.
Phoebe Farag Mikhail is the author of Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church (Paraclete Press). She was born in Egypt but grew up in the Northeast US. She is a writing instructor and freelance writer, and blogs at Being in Community.
Bishoy Lamie Mikhail is a priest at St. Antonious & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He was born and raised in Sudan and Egypt. He is also the coordinator of the ordained diaconate service for the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.