Dianne Frances D. Powell
TERRE HAUTE —
On a typical Sunday in the United States, families often gather at churches in the morning before going out to eat at restaurants or spending some time at leisure.
But Sundays — and life — are different in Iraq, about 6,500 miles and a 14-hour plane ride away. Not only do people go to work and school on Sunday (considered the first day of the working week), they also, in recent years, have to dodge bombs and gunfire to get there.
On Sunday — yesterday — “The Vicar of Baghdad” was in Terre Haute.
“This isn’t the kind of place I usually come to on a Sunday morning,” the Rev. Canon Andrew White told hundreds of Wabash Valley residents gathered for Sunday service at The Life Center, 3000 College Ave. in Terre Haute.
At one point while on stage, White wrapped his arms around 17-year-old Zoe Rebekah Puerner, whose Clay County family he was visiting. He unofficially recruited her 10 years ago to work for him as an intern for the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. White is currently its president.
Bill Puerner, Zoe’s dad, said in his introduction that one of the amazing things about White is “how he calls young people into their identity and destiny.”
Dressed in his signature attire — a suit and bow tie — White quoted Psalm 23 to explain his message.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” he told the Tribune-Star. “So to the people of Terre Haute, I say, do not fear; the Lord is near.”
“And I say that I have come to show some of the glory of Iraq because there we are in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of war but in the midst of the almighty,” he continued. “And I hope to take back some of the glory of this place to that place.”
White, the leader of the only Anglican church in Iraq, travels frequently from place to place for various purposes. Sometimes to visit his wife and children in England, sometimes to engage in peace talks in the Middle East, and other times to raise funds for St. George’s Church in Baghdad, which also operates a medical clinic, a dental clinic and a school. Its food and clothing assistance programs serve more than 550 families each week, according to a brochure.
“We need to tell the story,” White said with a British accent and a faint impediment resulting from his fight against multiple sclerosis.
And the story he told was not only of himself but also of the children, adults, Christians and Muslims in Iraq.
The number of Christians in Iraq have been going down, White said.
“We’ve lost most our Christians,” he said. There used to be 1.5 million Christians, and now there are fewer than 200,000, he said.
While some have sought asylum in other countries, particularly in the United States, many other Christians have lost their lives. About 1,000 members of his congregation were killed in the last five years., thousands in the last 10. At one point, when bombing occurred around the church, 163 people died, White said.
“You’re in the worst war zone you can imagine,” he said.
The “Vicar of Baghdad” is a tall figure with a commanding presence and a dry sense of humor. He walks around with a cane and a large, silver cross on his chest. Born in Kent, England, and educated in Cambridge, he now calls Baghdad his home.
“They are really a wonderful people,” he said.
While sitting on a couch in one of the rooms at The Life Center, White explained that church services for Christians in Baghdad are usually on Sunday afternoons after work and school. The services consist of preaching, singing and communion, very similar to what many Christians in America know.
“After the service, lots of people come to see me,” with all kinds of problems, he said. Some have no food, others need medical help and others had their family members killed, so they need not only spiritual but also financial help.
His favorite part of the service? Seeing all the children, he said. Talking about them makes him emotional.
“I love my children so much. I’m so close to the children,” White said. “Just to be with them is the highlight of my life.”
But these children also live in constant peril, caught between the crossfire of feuding factions in the war-stricken country. Checkpoints and searches are a constant part of their day. The worst part is when children are used as terrorist bombers, White said.
“They don’t know anything else … apart from living in war,” he said.
Many children — and adults — in Iraq are in “terrible situations.” They live among rats, mice, pigeons inside their own homes, he said.
“It smells terrible,” he added.
“The one bizarre thing,” he said, using an exaggerated voice upon saying “bizarre,” is that there are many sheep but not a lot of grass.
“Do you know what they eat?” he asked a reporter. “Garbage.”
On school days, the elementary-aged children are taken by bus to the school operated by St. George’s Church. Both Muslim and Christian children attend the school, White said. Although the children attending the church every week are predominantly Christian, a few Muslims attend, too.
White said the emphasis is not on conversion but on showing Muslims that “we love them and show that we care for them no matter what.”
Operating side by side the school is the clinic, which opens on Monday. It has dental units, a pharmacy, X-ray units, labs, surgery area a general medicine area — all rolled into one. It sees about 150 patients every day, White said.
‘God is with us’
While speaking to the Tribune-Star, the “Vicar of Baghdad” held in his hands large, brown-colored prayer beads called sibha. White said they are very common in Iraq.
“It reminds me that God is with us,” White said.
God and the people of Iraq are his inspiration in continuing the work, which also includes mediation and peace talks.
Just last month, he said he met with religious leaders of Iraq and Israel. “They had never met before,” White said.
“The whole process is trying to prevent violence in Iraq … but also prevent violence in the Middle East,” White, an author of several books, added.
One root of problems, he said, is that “people don’t know each other.” Communication and sharing each other’s stories are important, he added.
Right now, the future looks “very bleak” for Iraq — with its corrupt, rich leaders and poor people, White said — but he is hoping things will get better.
His prayer at night?
“I pray: Come, Lord Jesus, come,” he said. He prays for the protection of the children, in particular.
“However bad things are, and everybody experiences bad things, we must not fear because our Lord is near,” White said. “And He who has called us will not fail us.”
Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.