Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Vicar of Baghdad

It seemed to be just another noise from the troubled Mideast, those reports of fighting in Iraq and Syria. If we were aware of them at all, they seem to be the continued sectarian warfare in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. And then an Anglican priest in Baghdad raised the alarm.


We started paying attention, and realized that was something far beyond the norm of what seems to pass for normal life in the Mideast. An army. Atrocities. Massacres. Every bit as bad as Boko Harum in Nigeria. And then Mosul, a city of one million people, fell to ISIS.

The Anglican priest was Andrew White. And he is a vicar – of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. But he’s also known as the Vicar of Baghdad. He’s seen his face on a wanted poster, has to travel with a bodyguard of some two dozen soldiers, has experienced explosions and bombings, and has seen friends and colleagues be kidnapped and never heard from again.

Few Christians have experienced that kind of call to service.

He’s written several books; I’ve now read two of them: The Vicar of Baghdad (2009) and Faith Under Fire (2011). I found the first in the gift shop of Southwark Cathedral in London, where White was ordained, and the second at St. Martins-in the-Fields.

He tells amazing stories. Many read like thriller suspense fiction. Except his are true.

Andrew White was just completing training as an EMT with St. Thomas Hospital (just south of the Thames across from Parliament and Big Ben) when he experienced what he could only describe as a clear call to the Anglican priesthood. He had been attending an Anglican church but had been raised Baptist. He’s become something that’s neither Baptist nor what we expect of Anglicans – a priest who’s seen miracles among the people of his church in Baghdad, experienced and seen angels of protection, and recognizes when believers speak in tongues.

In The Vicar of Baghdad, White describes how he came to be a priest, and the rather surprisingly short route he took from there to his first experience in Middle Eastern politics, working to secure agreement and cooperation among the various faiths represented in Israel and Palestine. Part of that short route including training and study in Israel, and it was there he came to understand the need to study and understand Islam. During this time he also realized that God had called him to mission in the Middle East. From the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, White moved to what was happening in Iraq. He was already involved in Iraq but was in England when 9-11 occurred. The war in Iraq followed in 2003.

White moved, and still moves, easily among household names – leaders in Israel and Hamas, Yassir Arafat (while he was still alive), politicians, church leaders and imams.

In Faith Under Fire, White repeats some of the framework information of The Vicar of Baghdad, but this is more about his faith and the faith of the people he cares for in Baghdad, as it plays out in the day-to-day reality of civil warfare and unrest. I’m glad I read the two books together, because the first is largely an account of what he does while the second is more about what he believes – and how his faith suffuses and motivates what he does.

And while he refers to it only rarely, his service comes with a cost. One is separation from his wife and two sons, who live in England. The other is that he has multiple sclerosis, diagnosed shortly before his first Mideast experience.

Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, would tell us that he’s just a man. And he is. But he’s been used by God in amazing ways.

Photograph of Andrew White courtesy of The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East

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