Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet twice with the Rev. Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George's Church, Baghdad. As the only Anglican church still functioning in Iraq the sobriquet "Vicar of Baghdad," has become attached to him. The first meeting was a gathering of our diocesan clergy--our regular "clericus--"and following worship and lunch we had about 30 minutes during which Canon White shared a little bit of his life and ministry. He has a sarcastic wit, and shared some wonderful and personal stories woven through the more grim realities of a life dedicated to reconciliation and the celebration of God's presence in the midst of the tragic world that is Iraq.
The second meeting was considerably different, an intimate gathering with a handful of Knights (and Dames) Templar from our priory who could be rallied on short notice to meet with Canon White. (Why the Templars? One of the priorities of the Order is the protection of Christians in the Holy Land, and another is the work of reconciliation. The Grand Priory and its member Knights and Dames lend financial support to Canon White, and for his work he has been awarded the Order's Medal of Valor, as well as the awarding of the Order of Merit.) For nearly three hours I think it is safe to say that we sat spellbound in the living room of a former Prior, drinking in some bitter truths about the world to which Canon White has been called and to which he is utterly devoted.
Among the truths--not new, but more starkly delivered by one who can offer a first hand account--is the abject failure of western governments to appreciate the role that religion plays in the Middle East.What may seem politically expedient to some, for their own ends, yields devastating consequences for the people and cultures of those we seek to "help." Another truth is that many, many people work very hard, each day, to build bridges between opposing religious factions in an effort to forge peace in the fractured lands of the Holy One. And they have had success! Peace may not be lasting, but the forged and changed relationships are building foundations upon which future efforts will be supported with greater stability. I am halfway through the first of three books we now own written by Canon White (The Vicar of Baghdad). It chronicles these efforts to which I refer and for which I have renewed appreciation, along with the people and organizations that support the work of peace. It is by no means a page-turner, but it is most certainly illuminating.
Another experience of the latter meeting was of a different nature altogether. One person was transparent about her disdain for President Obama, though she was genteel in how she revealed it. Her persistence at laying blame at his feet (not to mention extolling the virtues of Christianity in such a way as to demean all other faiths) led, ultimately, to the piping up of another about having a Muslim in the White House. At that point I could no longer hold my tongue. I'm not good at calling people out, especially in an assembly like this, but I could not remain silent. The "exchange" created tension, which was shortly diffused, but not before Canon White wondered aloud if I might be the only person in the room who wasn't a Republican. Interestingly, as the group began to disperse at the conclusion of our meeting two people approached me quietly to thank me for speaking up. Still, my discomfort lingered for several hours that day, and continues to occupy a portion of my reflective thinking here and there.
On a happier note, Ken had brought with him a set of prayer beads that he had made to give to Canon White. The Canon was absolutely tickled to receive them, quickly revealing that he held in his hands two other sets of beads, including one that had been given to him the day before by an inmate on death row. What we learned was that Canon White holds two things absolutely dear to his heart: [prayer] beads and bow ties. Happily, the Priory gave to him as a gift a Templar bow tie! You can see both in the picture I have included above.
I have not done justice here to either Canon White's work, the presence of his person, or the impact of my time with him. I am not good at reporting something that has had such an impact on me--the intuitive has real difficulty extracting information that has melted into the body of what I have learned. I share what I do here because it did have such an impact, and because I want to do what I can to spread the word about his work, and in particular to encourage others to learn more about the Middle East. When I've finished the three books of his that we have I'll be in a better position to make a recommendation about which of those (if not all of them) should be required reading!
Thank you for bearing with me as I've written here. I fear that so few people come to this blog any more that this effort may be for naught, but I couldn't not write about it. I urge continued prayers for peace, and for well-informed minds to make a dent, where possible, in influencing foreign policy.