Joy in the Midst of Terror
Faith Under Fire: What the Middle East Conflict Has Taught Me About God
May 9, 2011
160 pp., $11.56
Nicknamed the "Vicar of Baghdad," the Reverend Canon Andrew White oversees one of the most dangerous parishes on earth. During Easter weekend of 2010, he secretly baptized 13 adults, most of whom were dead within a week. Despite frequent kidnappings and killings in his church, White gives thanks for St. George's, the only Anglican congregation in Iraq.
First Things online editor Joe Carter recently spoke with White, author of Faith Under Fire: What the Middle East Conflict Has Taught Me about God (Monarch), about the persecution of Iraqi Christians, the struggle of ministering in a war zone, and the lessons learned from suffering from multiple sclerosis.
You have concerns that most pastors can't begin to fathom. How does working under such extraordinary conditions affect ordinary ministry?
So many of our brothers and sisters here in Baghdad have been killed, kidnapped, or tortured even in the last few months. Members of my staff have also been killed. Just this morning, I was trying to sort out post-hospital care for our former chief of security, who recently had a leg blown off.
We cope because the Lord is always with us. When you are where the Lord wants you to be, he always enables you to cope. Look at Daniel. He had not planned to come into exile in Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. God still provided him with all that he required. He had not intended to be an interpreter of dreams, but God gave him the knowledge to do all that he needed and enabled him to serve with joy.
In the same way, I had no intention of coming to Iraq. But God brought me here 13 years ago, and now there is nowhere in the world I would rather be. Even in the midst of terror and persecution, we have the joy of the Lord.
Your book describes a climate of persecution reminiscent of the first-century church. Yet you say that St. George's is the happiest and most loving church you've ever served.
I wrote about the persecution of our people, a persecution that is far worse than anything we read about in the Bible. A few months ago, 58 people were gunned down and killed during worship at the Syrian Catholic church just down the road from ours. What followed were several weeks of Christians being killed, including our own staff and church members. Despite these atrocities, we are such a happy church. When you have lost everything, you realize that Yesua (as we call Jesus) is all that you have left.
How has suffering from multiple sclerosis affected your work?
When God wants you to do something, he will provide you with all you need to do it. As he provided for Daniel, so he has provided everything for me. Having multiple sclerosis played a part in getting me to Baghdad. And it also has much to do with the fact that I have never feared for my own life.
In Iraq, churches provide food, health care, and education to members. How does that change the dynamic within the congregation and the broader community?
Our people have four main material needs: health care, food, education, and living accommodations. We have a clinic, a pharmacy, and a laboratory. If they need surgery, we pay for care at a private Christian hospital.
Everyone is given a bag of groceries after services on Sunday. We have almost finished building a large Christian school on our compound. And when people cannot afford their rent, we help them pay it. We have no reserves, but we manage to always provide these needs each month. We can do this only with the help of the Almighty and his people.
We provide for our neighbors because that is the work of our Lord. Everyone who receives help sees the love of the church, and thus the love of God. Many non-Christians come to our church, but they know that our Lord loves them.