Photo: A woman who is HIV-positive is assisted by a home-based care volunteer. These volunteers are supported by a Presbyterian World Service & Development program and help with household work, bring food and provide medication for pain relief. Photo from PCC Communications.
This address, delivered at Knox College’s convocation on May 12, 2004, first appeared in the October 2004 issue of the Presbyterian Record
It is a nostalgic moment to stand before this 160th anniversary convocation at Knox College. Exactly 40 years ago this morning, I put down my pen at 11:41 a.m. after writing my last ever exam before graduating from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto, in 1964. I was chomping at the bit to start my career and to confront the challenges ahead. As it turned out, career challenges often became more exciting and challenging than I had imagined. The ’60s were a famously adventurous time in which to start out—but so is today.
Forty years ago, we young journalists were pretty cocky. We thought ourselves good at sorting out how the future would unfold. For instance, we were certain:
- the Cold War would outlast our lifetime, and the Soviet Union would just get stronger. They might beat the Americans to the moon but at least they’d never threaten our Canadian game of hockey.
- India and China would sadly face nothing but decline, having no possible economic prospects ahead. Nor were there long-term prospects for that improbable long-haired rock group from Liverpool we’d just seen on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. They would disappear into oblivion by Christmas. As for Hollywood, well, certainly it had produced its last biblical film—no market for those in future.
- and the old institutions would fade away: the monarchy would be gone long before the end of the century and so would most of the church except for the pope who, needless to say, would be yet another Italian.
How’s that for foresight? Actually, few firm predictions prove accurate over the years, whether from journalists, futurologists, sociologists or, need I say, intelligence agencies. This suggests an obvious note of caution: be wary of bold predictions about this or that “trend that seems irreversible” and don’t take too much to heart the gloomy “death knells for a way of life.” The media loves these. But we all see through a glass darkly. Over the years, I’ve found many institutions, like great university colleges, mainstream churches, even the old hyper-modest Presbyterian Church, are a lout tougher, more flexible and formidable than we think.
I’m no theologian, so forgive any blunders on that ground. But what has truly surprised me over many years is not the triumph of trends, which flicker and fade like shadows at summer twilight, but rather the survival of spiritual hunger. This, and a religious “force field” that springs from it—the human drive to serve and to help others. It is so much greater than I had imagined. I’ve seen it blaze forth in places far darker and more threatening than I could have imagined. The surprise, I suppose, was my surprise. For this force has been there, after all, from the very beginning of Christianity and, mysteriously, never seems to weaken or grow weary.
I want to tell you something I have observed as a reporter and finally come to believe very deeply. For many years, I’ve been struck by the rather blithe notion, spread in many circles (including the media) and taken up by a large section of our younger; population, that organized, mainstream Christianity has been reduced to a musty, dimly lit backwater of contemporary life. You’ve all heard the arguments. In a fragmented society, the church drifts unclear of direction—a fading force. Well, I’m here to tell you, from what I’ve seen in my ringside seat at events over the decades, there is nothing further from the truth. The notion is a serious distortion of reality. I have found there is NO other movement or force closer to the raw truth of wars, famines, crises and the vast human predicament than organized Christianity in action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and laity, when mobilized for a common good. These Christians are right on the front lines of committed humanity today and, when I want to find that front, I follow their trail.
It is a vast front, stretching from the most impoverished reaches of the developing world to the hectic struggle to preserve caring values in our own towns and cities. I have never been able to reach these front lines without finding Christian volunteers already in the thick of it—mobilizing congregations that care and being a faithful witness to truth. The primary light in the darkness and, so often, the only light.
This is something the media, diplomats and government officials rarely acknowledge. For religion confuses many. So front-line efforts of Christianity usually do not make headlines and, unfortunately, this feeds the myth that the church just follows along to do its modest bit. I repeat: I’ve never reached a war zone, famine group or crisis anywhere that some church organization was not there long before me. Sturdy, remarkable souls, usually too kind to ask, “What took you so long?”
I don’t slight any of the hard work done by other religions or those wonderful secular NGOs I’ve dealt with so many times over the years. They work closely with church efforts; they are noble allies. (All working together last year  brought emergency food relief to 47 million people around the world! The greatest relief operation in history, the United Nations tells me. But bet you didn’t see that success trumpeted in the news.) Yet often, in desperate areas, Christian groups are there first, laboring heroically during the crisis and continuing on long after the media and the visiting celebrities have left.
I came to this admiring view very slowly and reluctantly. At the start of my career, I’d largely abandoned religion for I, too, regarded the church as a rather tiresome irrelevance. What ultimately persuaded me otherwise—and I took a lot of persuading—was the reality of Christianity’s mission, physically and in spirit, before my very eyes.
It wasn’t the attraction of great moments of grandeur—although I admit covering this Pope [John Paul II] on six of his early trips abroad, including his first trip to Mexico and his epic returns to Poland, certainly shook any assumptions I had of Christianity as a fading force. The millions upon millions gathered was impressive, but I was more moved by individual moments of character and courage that seem to be anchored to some deep core within Christianity.
I remember a dim stairwell in Gdansk, Poland. The first, unbelievable crack in the mighty Communist empire, which had so often proclaimed triumph over religion, occurred in Poland in the early 1980s when the Solidarity movement, supported by the church, rose to challenge tyranny. A most unlikely little shipyard electrician, Lech Walensa, led the movement. Later he’d win the Nobel Prize and become president of Poland; but, when I met Walensa, he was isolated, had been jailed and his life so often threatened I thought he was a dead man walking. We all assumed security forces were arranging one of those convenient “accidents” that really did happen in that frightening climate of oppression. Just like the movies.
A few of us met Lech Walensa alone on this stairwell as he slipped out to mass. “Are you frightened?” one of us asked.
He stopped, looking surprised at the thought. He answered in a voice of steel: “No, I am afraid of no one and nothing. Only my God.” And he walked out alone into the night.
It was a transcendent moment. Here in this dingy stairwell was purest courage and conscience backed by Christian faith. I suddenly realized no force of empire or terror could ever extinguish it. Years later, in Poland again, in East Germany, in Czechoslovakia, in Romania … I watched that empire crumble away before civil rights movements that often began in equally dingy little church halls and basements. The outside world never even knew about these early gatherings—and would not have taken them seriously if it had. A lot of good things start out quietly in humble church halls.
There were other moments. I witnessed Bishop Desmond Tutu in Soweto, South Africa, under apartheid, as he counselled Christians of all races how to mobilize against injustice without losing their humanity. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had done this in the American segregated South, after he’d got his movement rolling in some Birmingham church halls.
I witnessed so many other church efforts—saving children in Mozambique from life on garbage dumps, schools for illiterate ex-field hands in the slums of Brazil, the quiet comforting of runaways and addicts in a thousand asphalt city jungles, small groups of Christians visiting the lonely and mentally fragile in low income boarding house flats, the Out of the Cold groups in many churches, famine camps where Christians feed, save and comfort the dying, somehow keeping everyone’s morale up on the worst days. In my mind, I was struck by some words tolling again and again like a bell: “Even here,” churches seemed to say, “Even here,” however remote or wretched or dangerous, “Even here,” we will be by your side, even to the end.
One memory. The murderous civil war in El Salvador in the early 1980s was a war of almost casual massacres. We carme to quake before the term “right-wing death squads” that would kill any they imagined in favour of real reform, from landless peasants to Archbishop Oscar Romero in his cathedral, even to nuns. And pity any journalist they ran across. We always made a strict rule to be back in the capital before dark; it was suicidal to be on the roads at night.
One afternoon, while interviewing small groups of landless refugees well to the north, we misjudged the time. The light began to thicken, and jungle sounds seemed to grow heavy with menace. As the air grew clammy, we could all sense each other’s growing nervousness. Just as we were furiously packing up, a delegation of refugee elders begged us to spend the night because, they pleaded, death squads were active in the area and perhaps our presence might avoid the kidnapping of males or, worse, a massacre.
It was one of those moments when I cursed the day I’d become a foreign correspondent. We, too, were targets. So we debated and rationalized, as scared people do. We needed to get back as a satellite feed was waiting and jobs were on the line. What good would it do if we were killed too and the story never got out? Yet, how could we leave?
We were still debating when an old station wagon raced into camp in a cloud of dust. Out stepped three Christian aid workers bearing a Red Cross flag. They listened to the discussion and finally insisted: “The journalists must go. It’s critical they get word out that you’re at risk here. We’ll stay the night and perhaps we can protect you.” All over that awful war, there were small Christian groups trying to stave off killings. And so we left, with inexpressible relief. Later, we learned the night’s protection by these Good Samaritans worked; there were no killings. But I’ve often wondered what I’d have done if that battered station wagon had not arrived at that moment.
Courage facing down terror. I can hardly tell you how common such action is. This very night, somewhere in El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, some hillside in Brazil, volunteers from a local parish will be out trying to protect the weakest from political or criminal attacks, saying: “You don’t harm them without coming through us first. ‘Even here’ God’s message will be heard.”
Today in Southern Sudan, aid workers are likely guiding bands of women and young children across rivers to safety as they flee modern-day slave raiders from the North. I’ve worked behind the lines there, filming such gangs in flight. Incredibly, the Christian anti-slavery work of Dr. Livingstone has to continue.
When there are human rights abuses anywhere, the church is often the first into action—for who has better sources on the ground? Church reports often help galvanize Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations into effective action.
I’d like to state clearly something about how the outside world usually gets to know of famines and mass suffering. In 1984, along with my friend Michael Buerk of BBC fame, I first carried the story of the great Ethiopian famine on television. The world reacted as we all know, and TV was given much of the credit for saving millions. But we were not the first! We went because, for months, church and aid groups on the ground had seen famine coming and had been beseeching the world to take notice. When we finally managed to get in, against considerable Ethiopian government resistance, these groups showed us where to go, gave us rides on their relief flights into the mountains and mapped out where and how the world had to react.
These Christian “foreign legionnaires,” as I’ve come to think of them, never cease to amaze. Once, flying to a disaster story, our twin-engine plane had to make an emergency refuelling stop at a nearly deserted landing strip in the dense jungle of Central Africa. We stepped out into the middle of absolutely nowhere, it seemed, only to be greeted by a cheerful Dutch Reformed minister offering tea. My veteran cameraman, Mike Sweeny, later sighed in exasperation, “Do you think you could ever get us to a story somewhere, anywhere, where, anywhere, where those Christians aren’t there first?” I was never able to.
I rather regret that the term “muscular Christianity” has gone out of use because a lot of the Christianity I’ve seen is very hard muscular work. There’s lots of sweat and many dirty hands.
Many of us in news crews noticed something else, hard to put into words. So often, after a day in the field filming volunteers at work, we would be sitting back over our nightly drink and one of us would say something like: “Strange people those, know what I mean? There’s just something different about them. They’ve got something that we don’t.” I remembered Aristotle talked of a state of eudaimonia, where a form of human happiness emerges when based on a “flourishing” life in which spirit and intellect are used to the full for the good of all. Yes, these Christians seemed to be flourishing. C.S. Lewis wrote of Christianity producing “a good infection.” Christian work on the front lines infects those around them, even many who are not Christian, with a sense of Christ’s deep mystery and power. I’ve felt it. It changes the world. Still.
I’m often asked if I lost belief in God covering events like Ethiopia, then called “the worst hell on Earth.” Actually, like others before me, it was precisely in such hells that I rediscovered religion. I saw so many countless acts of human love and charity—total respect for the most forsaken, for ALL of life. I was confronted by the miracle of our humanity. And I felt again the “good infection” of Christian volunteers and heard again those words tolling: “Even here … Even here.”
Just witnessing good deeds, however daring, is not quite enough, I know. I felt lost on the front lines without a deeper understanding of Christianity. I needed just the kind of theological guidance that graduates from Presbyterian theological schools will have to give. I once celebrated Christmas in secret, along with five or six colleagues in Beirut, during the worst moments of the murderous civil war in the ’80s. We were among very few outsiders left in the western (Muslim) part of the city. That December, things got so explosive one extremist militia threatened to fire on any Christian celebration they saw—even Christmas lights. (I hasten to add this was completely uncharacteristic of Muslims there who couldn’t have been kinder or more tolerant of strangers, despite years of war’s provocation. But this small minority was murderous in its hate and had patrols out looking for us.)
Well, we foreign correspondents were as wild a carousing band of cynical hacks as you’d find anywhere. But you never fully value Christianity and its forms until they are denied you. So we decided to have our Christmas, whatever the threat. We hung blankets over the window to avoid attention from the patrolling militia outside, bought each other $4-limit presents, even made a funny little tree with real, flickering candles. Lots of fun, homesickness and quiet reflection—a moment I’ll never forget. And, yet, something was missing. We still didn’t know our way through this religious moment. We needed a guide to the Bible, even a small sermon, to fully grasp the overpowering emotion that clutched at our throats.
My experience has convinced me that Christianity is best shared with others. I’m no longer one who can say, I’ll just do it my way. Christianity needs organization and, dare I say the word, even institutions. In Rodney Stark’s study of The Rise of Christianity, he notes that one of the main reasons for the Christian faith’s first rapid growth was the galvanic example it gave the world of its organization for the good of all, Christian and pagan alike.
Beyond organization, the church must also have trained members to deal with the perplexing, endlessly challenging intellectual depths of Christianity—theology that is profound, but also capable of being shared and spread out before all. It needs guides who can mobilize mind and spirit – as well as that humble church hall with its coffee, biscuits and triangular-shaped sandwiches.
The front lines I speak of are not only found on some hilltop in Ethiopia or in the sinister dusk of a distant jungle. You don’t have to go abroad in the “Christian Foreign Legion” to find yourself in the thick of action. The front lines run through our own society, through our cities, through our campuses. Yes, “Even here.” And the church is to the fore, far out in front of the media and the politicians in dealing with the needs of our fragmented society.
In whatever community you serve, you’ll find extraordinary challenges—aging, addictions, homelessness, spiritual despair. You’ll also have fabulous moments as you help celebrate that uplifting spiritual hunger I spoke of—that desire to serve, to celebrate, to sing out and to come together in the kind of flourishing joy that leads to fullness in living.
What life is compressed within a single church! You’ll have to deal with fractious church committees, you’ll be lobbied by this side or that and, all the while, you’ll have to make sure the bills are paid. You’ll face moments of career frustration. But I’ve covered all the so-called glamour professions from show business to high politics and, believe me, everyone gets these moments.
There will be times of maximum challenge when all your skills are tested to the full. Imagine ministers who had to preach right after September 11th. You’ll have to work within a society facing far more stresses and religious and ethnic complexities than we could imagine back in the ’60s. A richer society in so many ways—and the challenges are exciting. Your church hall could be very busy.
And when faced with these challenges, even if they seem overwhelming, I think you’ll find, as I have, an amazing moment comes. When you remember back over all you’ve learned, over the confidence you’ve built up, and you suddenly say to yourself, “Yes, I can do this. I can face this. I’m ready.”
Godspeed as you set out—to the front lines.