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Comboni Priest Says L.A. Helped to Prepare Him for Egypt

Comboni Father Giovanni Esti poses for a photo on 8 November in Cairo. Father Esti, a native of Italy, says the 12 years he spent in Los Angeles working with homeless people and juvenile gangs beginning in 1991, prepared him for strife-ridden Egypt. (photo: CNS/James Martone) 

02 Dec 2013 – By James Martone

CAIRO (CNS) — From his apartment overlooking a major Cairo thoroughfare, Comboni Father Giovanni Esti has witnessed the different stages of Egypt’s revolution: from mass demonstrations and the toppling of a 30-year-old autocratic regime in 2011, to the rise of an Islamic government a year later, its takeover by the army in July and the ensuing violence which has wounded thousands and claimed hundreds of lives.

Undeterred throughout, the Catholic priest has carried on his mission to create a social development center for young people in the heart of the Egyptian capital, refusing along the way attempts by well-meaning colleagues and friends trying to brand him “a hero.”

“To be a hero, go to South Central L.A.,” he tells them, referencing the 12-years he spent in Los Angeles working with homeless people and juvenile gangs beginning in 1991.

The 50-year-old native of Italy said the U.S. experience marked him profoundly and, in many ways, prepared him to serve in Egypt.

“I appreciate the civil rights tradition in the states. You can be who you want to be as long as you respect others,” he told Catholic News Service in his residence in a building attached to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, which St. Daniel Comboni founded in 1880.

“The other thing I learned is … a sort of entrepreneurial approach. You can make something out of the nothing. If you work hard you will get somewhere,” said Father Esti, who holds degrees from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and Claremont Graduate University in California.

In Los Angeles, Father Esti was a true entrepreneur, finding ways to fund his ministry. He was innovative enough to persuade local government officials and community leaders to help fund a shelter for homeless people. With funding in hand he helped a crew of volunteers to build the shelter.

“We said if you give us half the money we will meet the rest,” Father Esti explained. “I did a lot of advocacy, meeting people who were interested in supporting the project. You work with them and when people get together, the resources are more available.”

When Father Esti arrived in Cairo in 2007 he said he quickly saw the need for a center where Egypt’s youth could learn social skills to improve conditions in impoverished communities. Relying on lessons learned in Los Angeles, he convinced his superiors to allow him to refurbish the adjacent church’s defunct foyer and — in a break with the norm — reopened it not only to Egypt’s Christian minority, but to the predominantly Muslim community as well.

Profits from the facility’s cafeteria allowed him to renovate some of the church’s long-vacant offices. In 2010 Father Esti, along with a small group of volunteers and a few paid staff members, launched the center, called Markaz Comboni in Arabic.

He stressed that the center’s primary goal is to enable young people to effect change for the common good.

“You create the conditions for a change to happen, for people to make the change they want,” he said. “I don’t make the change. I just create the conditions as best I can.”

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