Canon Andrew White: faith on the frontline
'Don't take care - take risks' is Canon Andrew White's motto. He tells Sharon Barnard why ...
‘The Vicar of Baghdad’, Canon Andrew White, tells SHARON BARNARD why he’s prepared to take risks in dangerous places
“DON’T take care; take risks” has become Canon Andrew White’s motto and the principle by which he lives his life.
And since ordination, he has taken countless risks in his extensive role in the work of reconciliation in Iraq and the wider Middle East, bringing together Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians, Shia and Sunni.
“I love Arabs and Jews equally,” he wants me to know. “My passion is to bring them together and enable enemies to become friends.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how we can continue to work and bring peace with those who bring violence.”
He has a new book, My Journey So Far, in which he recounts some jaw-dropping incidents including the occasion he invited a member of ISIS to dinner.
The man declined, “making it clear that if he came he would chop my head off,” he writes. It demonstrates just how far he is prepared to go to love others – even those people we call enemies – as God has loved us.
Canon White admits he feels “at home in a war zone,” relishing his unique calling despite the ever present dangers, his personal struggles with MS and ME and the long separations from his wife and two sons.
He has faced numerous challenges – in the operating theatre (he was an anaesthetist before becoming a priest), as pastor of St George’s Church in Baghdad, chairing a summit of Iraq’s religious leaders and being involved in hostage negotiations.
Then there is his commitment to work to bring spiritual and material relief to refugees displaced by violence in their homeland.
“Most of the Christians who have escaped from Iraq are now in Kurdistan or Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon,” he explains. “There are probably no more than 200,000 Christians in the whole of Iraq now.”
When I spoke to him he had not long received some news about one of these Iraqi refugees, a close friend.
“She is living in one of the refugee houses we’ve established in Jordan. She has terminal cancer and we’re trying to see how she can get the treatment she needs.
“When I was there, her little boy who is nine years old came to me with the cross I had given him. He told me to take it back with me to tell all the people I meet that ‘Jesus loves them like he loves us’.”
My Journey So Far is full of examples of how prayer changes situations. Canon White describes how, since childhood, as he has prayed simple prayers for guidance, the right people would come along at just the right time, or God would suddenly open a door that had previously been bolted.
What would be his advice for Christians who find prayer a struggle?
“Just say: ‘I’m finding it very hard to pray; please help me to listen to you’. It’s a two-way conversation and you have to learn to hear God’s voice.
“He speaks to us through his Word, through other people and he’s even spoken to me through something that has come up on the television and I’ve thought: I should be doing that. God can use circumstances to show us what he wants us do.”
He describes how the words of the Eucharistic Prayer: “The Lord is here; his Spirit is with us” sustain him and keep him focused on the Lord he loves and serves.
“This is how we start every service in Baghdad and Jordan. It’s a challenge for our everyday lives.
“And that’s what I start my day with. It gives me hope. It tells me that God is with us now and will continue to be with us and direct us.”
More about Canon Andrew White
Until November 2014 Canon Andrew White pastored one of the largest churches in Iraq, St George’s Church in Baghdad, where he is now Emeritus Vicar. He is President and CEO of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, launched in 2005 and the author of a number of books including The Vicar of Baghdad. His autobiography, My Journey So Far, is published by Lion, price £14.99 (hardback).