Don Follis: Baghdad pastor ready to lead church during Lent
With Lent beginning on Wednesday, March 5, I've been thinking of the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Andrew White, the Anglican chaplain in Iraq and the Vicar of St. George's Church in Baghdad. For 10 years, the 50-year-old British-born pastor has been serving at one the few remaining Christian churches in Iraq. Pastor White recently has returned to Baghdad from travels to his native England to be with his congregants during the Lenten season.
Historically, Lent is the time of returning to God and allowing him to purge us in areas where we need refining. Catholic writer Henri Nouwen calls Lent "a time to confess how we keep looking for joy, peace and satisfaction in the many people and things surrounding us without really finding what we desire. Only God can give us what we want. So we must be reconciled with God. ... The season of Lent helps us in a special way to cry out for God's mercy."
If you wanted to characterize, at least in part, the duties of the Vicar of Baghdad (as White is often called) it would be fair to say that Pastor White cries out for mercy for the people of Iraq. In a speech White gave at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington last year, he said, "I need to be perfectly honest with you. I love Iraq more than any other place in the world." Now let's just be real here. Do we know many pastors that would willingly take on White's Baghdad pastoral assignment?
And yet, in this largely Muslim country, filled with way too much violence, it is where this Anglican pastor feels most called to serve. White's congregation is comprised mostly of women and children — widows and orphans primarily — since many of the men have been killed in the decades of violence in Iraq. He preaches, performs weddings, baptizes, offers communion, gives counsel and presides at funerals — lots of funerals. And now he will lead his church through the season of Lent.
A few decades back Iraq had several hundred Christian churches. Today only a few dozen dot the landscape, most of them smaller than 100 people. According to Christian tradition, the apostle Thomas stopped by Baghdad on his way to India and gathered the first Christian congregation there. Indeed, Pastor White's ministry at St. George's remembers those apostolic foundations. The congregation sings not to "Jesus" but to Yeshua. Parishioners recite the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, the language in which Jesus gave it to his disciples. Church attenders call White abouna, "father" (from the New Testament word abba).
With Lent being the church season where the faithful humble themselves and allow God to see them as they truly are, the pastor of St. George's in Baghdad surely serves as exhibit number one. Picture this 6' 3" man wearing a flak jacket, the cross around his neck dangling in front of it. His clerical collar is barely visible above the flak jacket. Notice his decided limp as he walks holding a cane. Listen to his halting cadence as he speaks. In fact, at age 32, White was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Lent is the season of the year where we give up, or at least attempt to give up, control of our lives. Imagine praying this coming Ash Wednesday when Lent officially begins, "Lord, put me in a place this Lenten season where I fully realize that I am not in control. You alone are in control of every breath I take."
And then imagine God answering you, saying, "Thank you my child. I want you to go to St. George's in Baghdad and hang out for the 40 days of Lent with Vicar Andrew White and his parishioners. Watch what the good pastor does; Listen to his sermons and prayers; Be sure and say your own prayers before you go to sleep each night; Oh, I almost forgot, wear your flak jacket at all times."
Clearly, Pastor Andrew White cannot control the violence in the Middle East. With multiple sclerosis, he can't even control his own gait and speech. That's why he is the perfect example to portray one of Lent's most deeply embedded truths: Not one person alive has nearly as much control over life as they may think.
In his February blog entries, White writes about the scores of people killed by bombings around the church, including two friends in their 20s; he writes about his increasing struggles with multiple sclerosis and of several recent falls; he writes "we are in such a desperate situation and all we have is our Lord and each other."
One of the teens at St. George's recently said to White, "We are all your children and God's children and we are just so happy to be together again praising God."
And that is what keeps this pastor's feet firmly planted on Iraqi soil. The brothers and sisters — yes, mostly widows and orphans — at St. George's are joining us this Lenten season, repenting of their sins, allowing God to look deeply into their hearts and asking God to fill them with a deep and abiding love for their fellow Iraqis.
The good Pastor White simply responds, "At the end of the day what casts out all fear is love. And that love comes from the children. They love me, and I love them."
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.