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The Bow-Tied Vicar of Baghdad or On Loving the Bad Guys

5/15/2014

Love, fear, good guys, bad guys, love, violence, chocolate, love. Yes, mainly love.
 
A week spent with Canon Andrew White who serves as Rector of St. George’s Anglican and Episcopal church in Baghdad, Iraq, is a week spent with the forcefully expressed clarity and simplicity of an activist believer, a week spent juggling the demands of his charisma in multiple time zones, a week spent facing stark facts about a worshipping and caring community sustained through love, a week spent learning about the diversity of bow tie designs, Baghdad fine chocolates, a week seeing how MS can inhibit physically but almost empower mentally and spiritually. Canon White advocates powerfully and tirelessly for the Iraqi people in words and actions. Words and actions expressed across the world at events small and large, to audiences sympathetic and suspicious, to enemies extending a tentative hand of peace, to the fearful on all sides. Words and actions crafted to arrive at a point where “Fear is cancelled” and reconciliation can take place.
The sheer difficulty of scheduling the visit of a celebrity vicar builds a certain mystique and excitement. Who would this Canon White turn out to be, if he actually made it to campus? Known the world over as a reconciler, would he prove so on campus or would his activist clarity sit uncomfortably with the nuanced language of Episcopal theology? Canon White spent one week on Virginia Seminary campus, but it soon became clear that one is always sharing Canon White with the many constituencies he loves and who return that love. Canon White was fresh from a visit to the Iraqi community in Chicago, while with us he was constantly in touch with and missing “his people”, bringing them close to us in anecdote and story after story.
 
He arrived in a dramatic rainstorm, immediately ready to learn everything he could about every single person he met as doors were unlocked and suitcases brought in out of the rain. An ebullient torrent of who are you, where do you stand, what do you do, why do you do it? Not always a comfortable interlocutor, Canon White lives and breathes the conviction that the most important thing we can do as reconcilers is to listen to the stories of others. To know the other so well, that we end up loving them.
 
Love, there’s that word again. In preparation for his visit, I had watched videos and read interviews and time and again was struck by the Canon’s insistence on love as an organizing principle for all he undertakes: Jesus’ love for him and Jesus’ love for the Iraqi people. “I’ve always known Jesus loves me – it’s as simple as that”. This translates immediately in Canon White’s mind and heart into a compulsion to love the people of Iraq who have “lost everything”. It translates into the messy reality of what it means to love your enemy.
 
The facts of Canon Andrew’s circumstances are well known. Out of his work at Coventry Cathedral and almost simultaneous with a diagnosis of MS, Canon White was called to serve in Baghdad. Together with Justin Welby (“who now has another job, I believe”), Canon White reopened St. George’s church in Baghdad in 2005. Founded in 1864 as a church for the British, St. George’s has become a church for Iraqis, numbering a congregation of 4,000. The church operates a school and a medical center, a food distribution service: all serving the community regardless of faith affiliation. A congregation of Muslim women worship in the church, Christian services in the church are full to brimming, “we are a happy church, a joyful church”. Parish calls for Andrew White and his phenomenally talented assistant Sarah Ahmed MD involve engaging a high-security detail from the Iraqi government, armed to the teeth.

It’s not that Christians are targeted, Canon White explains, “everyone is a target”. After 11 persons out of 13 he had baptized were assassinated, Canon White stopped baptizing; trusting the Lord would understand the commitment and belief in absence of the sacramental act. Over 1,200 members of St. George’s congregation have been killed in the past 10 years; those who are able to leave, do so. Resulting in the remarkable factoid that Christian presence in Iraq has shrunk from well over a million to the current 200,000; and the bizarre situation where this priest can visit more Iraqi Christians in his beloved Chicago than he can in Baghdad.
 
Canon White disturbs and endears in quick alternation: with jarring whimsy he delivers the reality of Baghdad life, of the situation now that “everyone’s left”. Jarring because he serves in a situation that most in the West would like to forget persists, most would express in a for-or-against-the-war equation.

In that context “Abouna” Andrew serves Jews, Christians, Muslims alike. “Whoever you are, we all suffer”. There is a sparkle in his eye when talking about celebrating Shabbat with Iraqi Jews, about bringing Ayatollahs and Rabbis together, of explaining to the children in the church compound that his God and that of his Muslim assistant are the same God. He expressed the task of reconciliation as being the task of knowing the other person, often “the bad guys”, so fully that you have to love them. Canon White addressed multiple times the need to love the “bad guys”, to walk a long and difficult road of reconciliation with others, to take their hand.
 
The Center for Anglican Communion Studies is keen to allow all voices across the Communion to be heard, but will be unapologetic in favoring the underrepresented voices and the voices of reconciliation and hope. Dr. Heaney welcomed Canon White to campus and gave those who assembled to hear the Canon at the public speaking event the following introduction:

“While called by God from medicine to the Church, healing remains central to his vocation and ministry. Healing and reconciliation are not simply ideas or concepts in Canon White’s life – they are thoroughly grounded practice.
Not only does Canon White have deep parish experience in the UK, he was also the Director of International Ministry at the Center for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy to the Middle East.
 
He is the President of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME). The Foundation facilitates Canon White’s work at St. George’s Church providing holistic care in Baghdad’s Red Zone.
As chair of Iraq’s High Council of Religious Leaders, Canon White is committed to an integrated approach to peace-making that neither reduces the religious dimension of conflict nor reduces the potential religion has for forging reconciliation.”
 
Canon White eagerly and gladly prays out loud in Aramaic when asked to bless the food, he provides an impromptu public lecture in the National Cathedral on the significance of the Coventry cross of nails, he sings the simplest of Sunday school songs in the midst of a nuanced contextual analysis of the Middle East, he relentlessly turns the question on the questioner. Uncomfortable, inspirational, outspoken, certain, loving, disarming, whimsical, Canon White is someone who has embraced his calling and looks for opportunities to serve, not for the obstacles in the way. With visible glee while speaking at VTS, aware of the future church leaders around him, he affirmed his belief that “everyone is called to the frontline, you just don’t know which frontline yet.” And that, from a man practicing a bold ministry of presence, a ministry of remaining when others have left is a challenge not to be ignored.
 
“You must know. I’m not leaving, I’m not going anywhere.”

Coventry Cathedral Center for Reconciliation

Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East UK and FRRME US

Profile on Canon White on First Things

Rageh Omar documentaries about Canon White

White has written widely on issues of interfaith activity, conflict resolution, and Middle East affairs. His most recent publication is Father, Forgive: Reflections on Peacemaking.