This case study from ‘Faith and Family Philanthropy’ explores the role and impact of the Coptic Christian church on family philanthropy. Church and Coptic families often encourage even the youngest children to consider charity a central element in their lives. The Mansour family, profiled here, established a family tradition that the first paycheck each family member receives – no matter how big – goes entirely to charity.
Amal and Momtaz Mansour recall vividly their wedding ceremony in St. Mark Christian Coptic Orthodox Church in Heliopolis, Egypt, a wealthy suburb of Cairo. Since that day 37 years ago, little has changed in that historic church. Hand-painted ceramic tiles form intricate mosaics on the four vaulted arches in the center of the church. Oil paintings depicting biblical scenes hang on every wall. And, just as it did on the day of their wedding, a hand-painted figure of Jesus, bordered in tiles, peers benevolently at parishioners from the domed, vaulted ceiling above.
With their wedding, the Mansours continued a tradition of family and service to others that began nearly 2000 years ago when St. Mark spread the Gospel to Egypt. Coptic Christians, as Egyptian Christians are called, steadfastly maintain their unique form of Christianity, complete with their own Pope — currently His Holiness Pope Shenouda, III.
The seeds of Christianity planted in the deserts of Egypt grew differently from those that became the mainstream church. The monastic tradition that defined early Coptic Christianity helped to isolate it, ensuring that its practices have remained closer to how Christianity was practiced near the time of Jesus than any other sect. A significant aspect of Coptic Christian faith involves charitable works as exemplified through Jesus’ life of service and teachings on compassion.
Giving Is a Response to the Blessings of God
Amal and Momtaz Mansour are now American citizens and part of a growing population of expatriate Coptic Christians that numbers more than a million in the United States alone. They live in the upscale community of Columbia, Maryland — ideally located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Both are successful businesspeople who run a high-tech company they founded. They have had similar success raising three children, ages 29 to 35 — all of whom are professionals.
Reflecting the view of Coptic Christians worldwide, Amal says, “I feel that the blessings God gave us are not ours to keep. We have to distribute those blessings and we have to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.” Whether returning to Egypt to visit family, or traveling to impoverished nations, the Mansours are keenly sensitive to poverty and homelessness. “What did I do to deserve the blessings I have? Why am I better than them?” Amal wonders. “The answer is that I’m not. God gives us these blessings and expects us to share with those he did not give as much to. Many Coptic Christians even consider these blessings a test of one’s faith.”
Like most Copts, the Mansours take literally the passage “You must tithe all of your crops every year” (Deuteronomy 14:22). “We also take seriously the parable of Jesus and the wealthy man,” Amal adds. “The man asks Jesus what he must do to follow his teachings. And Jesus says to him to go and sell everything he owns and give it to the poor. This incident is part of our church readings every year.”
Church and family encourage even the youngest children to consider charity a central element in their lives. The Mansours, for example, established a family tradition that the first paycheck each family member receives — no matter how big — goes entirely to charity. They have also taught their children to put 10 percent of their allowance away for charity, a carryover from their own childhoods.
But tithing is only a starting point, not a goal, for Copts. In fact, wealthier Copts often wonder about campaigns like Give Five, which encourage Americans to increase their charitable giving from an average of 2 percent to 5 percent.
“The 10 percent figure is so ingrained in us, we consider it a minimum — a baseline,” says Momtaz. Amal agrees, “I firmly believe, and again this is ingrained in us, that if you have the opportunity and the capability to do good, to help others, and instead you walk away, that is a sin.” As a reflection of their faith, the Mansours regularly try to give 20 percent of their income to charitable causes that range from assistance to the indigent in their home and adopted countries, to support for their church, and to donations for initiatives designed to help others understand Coptic art and history. They are also active in organizations that are working to raise people from poverty in Egypt through micro-enterprise training and loans.
“The Mansours put their money where their beliefs are,” says Susan Tibbels, executive director of New Song Community Learning Center in Baltimore — a Presbyterian nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive community development services to a distressed Baltimore neighborhood that is being revitalized. “At Christmas, instead of exchanging gifts with her husband, Amal makes a contribution to a nonprofit organization in his name. For the past 2 years, she has very generously contributed to our organization. They’re comfortable with the fact that we’ll pass the funds along as a direct gift to families in need, which is important to them.” Tibbels sends Amal a note indicating which families were helped, and the problems that her anonymous gift helped the family overcome. Amal includes that note in her Christmas gift to Momtaz.
Faith Calls for Giving Time and Wealth
The Mansours are guided in their philanthropy by the importance the Coptic Christian church attaches to giving one’s time and wealth to help those in need, intricately weaving together charity and faith. The centrality of that connection is, in turn, guided by the life and works of Jesus, as reflected in such New Testament writings as:
Urge those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant, nor to place their hope in the uncertainty of wealth, but in God, who generously supplies us with everything to enjoy. To do what is good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous and willing to share. They will store up for themselves a treasure for providing a solid foundation for the future, so that they can take hold of the true life.
Timothy I, 6:17-19
For most Copts, part of the connection between charity and faith involves supporting the work of their church. The Mansours are a prime example of that connection, donating to church-related activities, from building funds to youth program initiatives.
“I think the Mansours’ deep beliefs in the Coptic Church have made them very active and energetic and compassionate people,” says Adel Messeh, treasurer of St. Mark Church in Washington, D.C. — the church where the Mansours are members. “Amal deals with life very seriously, but with a big heart and a smile.”
To understand the discipline that Copts bring to their philanthropy, outsiders must consider the practice of Coptic Christianity itself. Through most of its history, Coptic Christianity has had to survive under Muslim rule in Egypt, where Copts make up only 10 to 20 percent of the population. As a result, Copts have to focus on what is important to their religion and culture.
The Copts have more fast days than any other religious group — some 210 in all. During fasts, they eat nothing between sunrise and sunset, and during fast periods they eat no animal products — including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk products.
Celebration of the Coptic Mass is itself an exercise in self-discipline. The three-and-a-half hour Mass is celebrated in full, reflecting a conscious effort by religious leaders to keep it as close to the original as possible. In American Coptic churches, the Mass is celebrated in English, Arabic, and Coptic (the sole surviving language of the ancient Egyptians).
The discipline that Coptic Christians learn from church and family flows naturally to matters of charity. Fasting is designed to teach Copts not to make bodily necessities the focus of life. “It’s a constant reminder of those who don’t have the blessings that we enjoy,” says Amal. “It reminds us to seek out those people. The fasting and the prayers and the giving are all tied together.”
The Mansours also give their time generously, a reminder that the old adage, “if you need something done, ask a busy person,” still holds true today. “If they identify a needy family, they do whatever it takes to take care of them,” notes Adel Messeh. “I’ve seen Amal invite people into her house on many occasions. In reality, the Mansours open their house and hearts to anybody who needs help, regardless of their faith or position in life.”
Time devoted to the church takes many forms with the Mansours. They serve as conduits between church leaders and political and religious leaders in the United States, including arranging the Washington, D.C. segment of visits by Pope Shenouda, III, with whom the Mansours have a close relationship.
By modeling the Coptic practice of caring for one’s neighbors, the Mansours instilled that ethic within their three grown children, all of whom are involved in both church and community causes. Their daughter, Cathy, for example, serves as both a pro bono attorney and Sunday school teacher at St. Mark’s church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Despite their commitment to distribute their blessings to the less fortunate, the Mansours are humbled by their deep religious faith, which explains their preference to give anonymously. “What has come across to me is that they are very humble people, who are not seeking to do this for their own glorification or acknowledgment,” says Tibbels. “They never want any recognition. It’s clear to me that they do this only to serve other people. Amal and I have talked about it, and she’s concerned only that the gift will be something that will really help individual families. In the community we work in, where the median family income is about $10,000, the Mansours’ gifts go a long way. They bring many blessings to the families in our community.”
Philanthropic Decisions Are Answers to God’s Messages
Much of the Mansour’s philanthropy is directed toward supporting organizations that help the destitute. Like others in their position, they constantly face the dilemma of deciding what organizations to support — a decision made especially difficult because of the barrage of appeals they receive regularly through the mail. To make those decisions, the Mansours turn to their faith:
I really believe that when God needs something and he wants to provide for an organization or an individual, you’ll take a piece of mail that you would ordinarily pass on and you stop and you open it and you read it and it tugs at your heart and you write that check. I firmly believe that this is His money and He directs how it’s spent. So there are the recurring ones every year and once in awhile something will move you and you say, “I have to do that.” I have no other explanation for it other than these people pray and say God will provide. That’s a saying that a lot of people live by, that God will provide. It cuts across a lot of religions. I believe that God provides by taking you on a detour. We are His distributors.
The Mansours’ giving also cuts across religious lines; they frequently provide support for Muslim or other Christian causes:
According to the Bible, it’s not enough to love and be kind to those that are only around you. You have to branch out to people you don’t know. That doesn’t make them less needy. Need is need. If a child is hungry, it doesn’t matter what his faith is or which country he lives in. I feel that my family has been blessed because we know the wonderful feeling of helping and giving to others. You get more out of it than those that you help, a lot more. I wish everybody would get a taste of what it’s like, that it’s better to give than to receive. That is really so true.
Taking a break from her administrative responsibilities, New Song’s Tibbels sums up her impression of the Mansours’ faith-based family philanthropy. “To have people like the Mansours who are actually living out their faith and not just talking about it, taking action and not seeking their own glory for it and willing to serve other people, is an incredible blessing for all of us, even those of us who serve as intermediaries in the process. They are just shining examples of the best of faith-based philanthropy, doing it with a servant heart, not for yourself but for other people.”