Perhaps you have heard of “Garbage City” in Cairo, Egypt. It is a community of Coptic Christians, the “Zabbaleen,” who for generations have been the trash collectors of Cairo. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, recently wrote of Garbage City in his pre-Christmas article, “Christmas Amidst the Rubbish.”

“Each day,” he wrote, “the fathers and their sons go out into the city and collect the garbage in beat-up pickup trucks or donkey-drawn carts. They bring it back to their community, where the women meticulously sort through all of it.” They recycle as much as 80 percent of the garbage, selling what they can, while allowing poor families to look for food to eat.

If you have seen one of the recent television documentaries on the Zabbaleen of Garbage City, you will know that their town truly is, as Lowry describes, “a town built atop an active landfill….It’s as if, as someone has mused, Cairo had been picked up by one end and shook so that all the rubbish fell on the homes of the Zabbaleen. They live among their livelihood, the waste that no one else wants and that few would dare touch.”

“Few Would Dare Touch”

Lowry’s article became my own personal backdrop for celebrating Christmas this year, one that can serve at any time as we now count the days since Christmas. It adds a dimension to Christmas that we may not always remember, given the romanticizing of nearly everything about Christmas, from stable to shepherds to starry night.

It may even be a helpful exercise (and we would probably shudder) to think of spending some time in rodents-ridden, flies-swarming Garbage City. While likely overwhelming, it would at least be a very small measure of how it was for our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, accustomed to the accoutrements of heaven, to agree to carry out the plan developed in eternity to immerse Himself into our sins-ridden, devils-swarming world for 33 years. This was wasteland that no other than a loving God would even have wanted, much less touched so intimately. And His Son would pay for this stay in our garbage city with a death we cannot even imagine.

Christmas was a rugged affair, its true nature touched upon by the line in the Christmas carol, “Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?” It was the most extreme of extreme measures, “God invading our planet” (as a pastor wrote to me before Christmas) to subject himself to a world disgustingly foreign to His nature, that we might have new life.

New Life in Garbage City

The most remarkable thing about the Zabbaleen of Cairo is their boldly Christian community. Historically they have been oppressed and repressed, and life hasn’t gotten any easier of late. They worship in a cave, they suffer from government interference, and they recently were set upon by deadly Muslim gangs. They may face, as Lowry states, “the same slow-motion, largely ignored extirpation as their Christian brethren in Iraq.”

But their new life in Christ continues. One garbage collector spoke of the Zabbaleens’ life together in a recent video: “We are one community, and we all know and love each other.” Theirs is the dignity of  a community of simple Christian people against a trash-strewn backdrop—and a way for us to think of our new life as a result of God’s amazing grace in Christ, “who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6–7).

Life “from Below”

To quote Rich Lowry one more time, with reference to the time that German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent in Harlem in 1930, it was here, Lowry writes, “among a shunned but vibrant Christian community” that Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below.” It is an important vantage point for Christians. Lowry notes, “There is no other vantage point from Garbage City.”

We will do well to view Christmas similarly, “from below,” but also from above. A resident of Cairo’s Garbage City (for whose residents we should regularly pray) described well his Christian life (and ours) in response to a question from the Voice of America about the future of Garbage City: “We are the garbage collectors, but we live on a mountain of faith.”

Ray Hartwig (12/26/2011)