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franciscan - September 2005

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2005

Ontario to Islamabad

Thomas Anthony SSF

Brother Thomas Anthony SSF was recently serving as the chaplain to Anglicans in St Petersburg, Russia.  In 1991 he left Cambridge, England, where he had spent seven years as vicar of St Bene't's, and since then has worked for the Anglican church in places as diverse as the Diocese of Europe, Syria, Pakistan, Canada (a return visit) and northern Africa.  He provides these anecdotes as signs of hope.

Timmins, Northern Ontario, 1970

A newish, rather diffident priest of the cathedral parish makes his weekly visit to the General Hospital.  Unlike British ones, Canadian hospitals have no paid chaplains.  He checks for any new patients who have put themselves down as Anglicans.  They are often native people, sent down from further north.

He finds a lone elderly Innuit woman in an isolation room.  The hospital has no interpreter, and according to the nurse her condition is incurable.  On seeing the clerical collar her face brightens, and suddenly the shy curate finds himself embraced.  Both pray, she in Innuit, he in English.  The only word both understand is Jesus.  She relaxes, visibly and tangibly.


Two days later he goes back to see her, full of curiosity - but finds the bed empty.  She has been sent home the previous day, with no sign of illness, the nurse informs him.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, early 1990's

The civil war that ousted the communist government of Menghistu has reduced the population of Ethiopia to abject poverty.  Yet hospitality remains a priority, as so often among the very poor.  I am invited to have coffee and, as anybody familiar with the Horn of Africa knows, this is not a casual event but an afternoon-long ceremony.  With the incense burning the ritual becomes quasi-religious.  There's just the hostess and her young adult son.  The husband has been a casualty of the war.  The house is constructed of poles and polythene.

The second round of coffee has been served.  The son, David, acts as interpreter.  The conversation, as it would sooner or later, turns to the present.  Their own house has been let and the rent is their only source of income, apart from the odd jobs David is able to do from time to time.  There is a dignity about these two people, mother and son.  'How do you remain so cheerful?', I ask.  'We are Christians', she says, simply and sincerely, 'and every day we pray: "Give us this day our daily bread."  We ask God to provide, and he does.'

Tangier, summer 2002

On the day school opens for a new academic year I watch children, clean and well dressed for the occasion, as they make their way to school.  They are also watched, with patent envy, by bunches of street urchins: no such luxury as school for them! The Sisters of Charity have a home for abandoned children where they care for some of the smaller ones, before they too turn into petrol sniffing street children.

A British couple are often in Morocco on business.  They take an interest in the work of the Sisters and frequently organize donations to the home.  One sickly baby girl in the home catches their attention, and once back in the UK they convince doctors in a hospital to treat the child.  She is then (illegally) taken to England for treatment, and eventually returned to Morocco.  It took that one couple with faith and determination to give this child hope for life.  Later on they manage somehow to smuggle out of the country and adopt a little boy, now the joy of their life.

Bosnia, 1997

Sometimes life seems to fall apart on you.  Travelling in Bosnia during the war there I was just a mile from the city of Sarajevo.  The going had been good and I expected to be let through the military checkpoint, but no.

I am told to stay there, no reason why given, and no indication for how long…   indignation gives way to frustration: I was so close, but now, splat! all my plans are dashed.  All I have with me to read is a copy of The Guardian, and that was old when I bought it in Split.  Ennui takes over, that cocktail of boredom and anger.  Eventually, too tired of indulging in emotions, I lie down on the bunk bed.  Tiredness becomes reverie and other episodes of my travels so far come to mind, and I remember people's generosity and hospitality and I realise that this episode will pass.  Like the author of Psalm 77 I recall the good things that have happened and, lo and behold, a soldier comes in with a sandwich, a can of beer and a packet of cigarettes.  He affirms my sense of hope.

I am taken to Sarajevo by truck in the morning, and I am none the worse for the incident.

Islamabad, summer 2004

The previous year there had been attacks on Christians, including St Thomas' church, and security was strict.  In 2004 things were a lot quieter, but Pakistan is a volatile country where even Muslims attack Muslims.

Islamabad is a new city, streets are wide, houses modern, gardens very green.  The visitor does not notice (and is not meant to notice) the high walls that enclose some areas: these are 'the colonies', where menials and other poor people are housed.  Many of them are Christians.  True, many Christians in Pakistan belong to the middle class, but many more are descendants of low-caste Hindus, poor agricultural workers who have drifted to the new rich capital.

I am taken on visits to some of these.  There is a lot of self help going on.  Doctors and health workers teach hygiene and other health matters, there are classes for basic skills, literacy and handicrafts.  All this is undertaken under the auspices of the Church of Pakistan, with moral and financial support from churches in Europe and elsewhere.  Our contributions to 'missionary' societies do not disappear into people's pockets. …. Here, there's real Christian love and faith in action.

Narva, Estonia, spring 2005

This is the border of Estonia and Russia.  I am meant to get my visa for Russia at the consulate here.  It was supposed to be all arranged: 'Just go to the desk and show your passport, and all will be ready'.  All I need to do next is walk across the border one kilometre away, where a driver will be waiting to take me to St Petersburg.  Of course communism is gone but bureaucracy is alive and well.  After several trips there, in the end I find that I am 78 euros short of the required fee.  I feel helpless and hopeless like never before.

I tell the hotel receptionist the story.  She is sympathetic, and offers to lend me the money.  After some hesitation I accept her offer, not having any other recourse.  She insists that kindness will be paid with kindness.

My troubles are not over yet.  I cross the border without difficulty and am relieved to find myself in the Russian border town of Ivangorod.  I should have known better: there is neither car nor driver.  After several hours I give up the wait.  I manage to convince a taxi driver that I have money in St Petersburg.  Two hours and I am home.

The poor people in a colony in Islamabad may not be articulate about their faith, the young woman in Narva may not even call herself a Christian, and the taxi driver's faith may not go beyond having a religious medal or two on his dashboard.  Trust, like faith and love, is risky.  Often it's going to be like walking that swaying first version of London's Millennium Bridge - you wonder why you ever started.  Perseverance shows that trust is justified and hope fulfilled. f


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