Egyptian-American Documents Coptic Christian Life in the West

SAN FRANCISCO – Growing up as an Egyptian-American and Coptic Christian in America presented a cultural challenge on many levels to Andrew Ishak, who has documented his struggles in a new film.

The few bridges that linked 25-year-old Ishak to his heritage were the memories his immigrant parents, who left Egypt 30 years ago, shared with him and the stories he heard from friends and priests at his home church, the St. George Coptic Orthodox Christian Church in Campbell.

So although he had no formal training in filmmaking, Ishak set out to preserve a unique heritage he felt was historical yet ever-changing.

"Our generation grew up in the United States, we don't have this immediate tie to Egypt that my parents have, so as our generation goes on and on, the tradition is going to lessen," said Ishak, the Bay Area News Group reports.

"The church has changed in the last 20 years, and I want to see how it changes another 20 years from now."

Andrew's father Waguih said there are about 150 Coptic churches in North America and eight in Northern California. Considering how few Coptic Churches there are compared to other Christian congregations, the film offers a rare profile of Coptic Christian life in the Bay Area.

Ishak observes that Coptic Church in America plays a double role of serving as a place of worship and a familial community that resembles how his parents lived in Egypt.

"When they left Egypt, they left their extended families behind, so when they came here they formed extended families with their churches," he explained.

While Ishak never lived in Egypt, he has experienced his share of culture shocks from being a Coptic Christian with an Egyptian background living in a progressive America. Some of those shocks have come with marrying a white Methodist.

After he married his wife Heather, he had to learn to balance the two faiths and cultures.

The Coptic Church has strict customs that date back to 2,000 years. Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 and abstain from eating animal products for two weeks prior to the holiday. But Ishak made a difficult decision to forgo these customs to have Christmas dinner with Heather's family.

Still, his father complimented his son.

"I admire Andrew and his generation for being born here. He was so good at picking up the happy medium," Waguih told Bay Area News Group.

"I want myself and others to understand what we actually have here, because we talk about how our church is different and special," Ishak said, "but we never really put it in writing – we never document it."

"Out of Egypt: Coptic Christians in America" is scheduled to premiere at 9 p.m. on July 25 at Camera 3 in San Jose, the city where Ishak grew up in and now resides.

Screenings will also be available in Austin, Houston and Dallas – cities close to University of Texas-Austin, the graduate school where Ishak attends.

On the Web: More information at outofegyptmovie.com