When someone asked the Rev. Canon Andrew White why members are so happy at St. George’s Church in war-torn Baghdad, the response came from Lina, whom White considers his adopted Iraqi daughter: “When you’ve lost everything, Jesus is all you have left.”
The question was not a theoretical one for Canon White (more popularly known as the “Vicar of Baghdad”), his loved ones, or his parishioners. St. George’s Church is a cathedral that has suffered the loss of 1,276 congregants during the last decade. And yet he declares with joy and a tinge of wonder in his voice, “I have one of the most wonderful congregations you can imagine.”
Visiting Washington, D.C., to receive the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview’s William Wilberforce Award, White spoke on “Reconciliation and Peacemaking in the World, Church, and the Anglican Communion” at Truro Anglican Church on May 1. He is the author of several books, including Father, Forgive: Reflections on Peacemaking (Monarch, 2013).
St. George’s is in many ways a center of reconciliation. It spends more than $11,000 a month on programs that include feeding the hungry, providing medical treatment, holding a weekly service for the small Jewish community in Baghdad (White studies a portion of the Torah with them), and often conducting Sunday worship in the midst of bombing.
Iraqis are “the most loving people,” he said, beaming. “For us who are torn apart from war, it is so important that we can be one.”
That unity is costly, however. “Reconciliation is very extreme. … It’s sitting down, eating, and loving people who have killed your people,” he told the Truro congregation. “So often I have had to meet with people who have killed my people. Peacemaking is not easy.”
Neither is being a Christian in Iraq. “The most devout [Iraqi] Christians have been born Christian,” White said in response to a question. “‘Nominal Christianity’ does not exist in Iraq.”
He does not baptize people because they might be killed in response; he laments this curtailment, but “I know they love Jesus.” He explained further to TLC that he celebrates the Eucharist safely because it does not evoke the hostility that baptism does as a sign of Christian identification.
White challenged his audience to think of all Iraqi people, not just Iraqi Christians, as suffering. He called the Iraqi government “very protective” of Christians. The desire to leave Iraq is widespread among Iraqis because the violence is directed against everyone; consequently, people will depart if they have the means. “I used to say to my people, ‘Don’t leave me,’” he admitted, but his love for them and concern for their safety now override his feelings.
Throughout his talk and the ensuing question-and-answer session, White aimed to rectify misunderstandings related to reconciliation. He cautioned the audience not to dismiss him or others involved in his ministry as “woolly liberals.”
“We believe totally in what the creed says — we don’t doubt it,” he said. More broadly, he expressed his belief that Christian liberals and conservatives can find common ground: “We believe in one God — that is the biggest common denominator.”
And while reconciliation involves loving enemies in obedience to Jesus’ command, it “doesn’t just mean that you’re being nice to them,” but that you commit to working with them “until together you find peace.”
White also encouraged Truro parishioners to “be good to your rector” because it is “very difficult to walk the lonely road of reconciliation.” Truro is part of the Anglican Church in North America; its rector, the Rev. Tory Baucum, has drawn criticism for pursuing reconciliation and peacemaking with the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, Bishop of Virginia.
Amid current Anglican Communion tensions, reconciliation does not mean avoiding differences: “We have to be very firm about what we believe and what we feel the Church should believe,” White told TLC. This stance must, however, be coupled with “loving those you believe are wrong.” He believes that despite the large element of risk involved in such an approach, reconciliation is “the only way forward” for the Communion.
Anglican tensions, however, are not pressing matters to Canon White’s parishioners. “The Anglican Communion means nothing to our people in Iraq,” he told TLC. The work there has been costly to the Vicar of Baghdad, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and whose work gives him little time with his wife and two sons.
Still, as he told the Truro congregation, he has been “greatly blessed” by stem-cell treatment he receives in Iraq that is unavailable elsewhere. Furthermore, he remains convinced that “the challenge of reconciliation is something all of us are called to” — a challenge that the ministries at St. George’s attempt to meet.