Cover Story

The edge of extinction

"The edge of extinction" Continued...

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

White spent time in Iraq before the war as director of the International Centre for Reconciliation based at Coventry Cathedral in England. From that post he supervised the reopening of St. George’s, which Saddam Hussein had closed when he invaded Kuwait in 1991. 

White worked with local Iraqi lay leaders and Col. Frank Wismer, a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain (and Episcopal priest) then serving in Baghdad. They cleaned up the looted and decrepit St. George’s and started services there in 2003. When I visited at that time, congregants filled plastic chairs over a bare floor as sound ricocheted off the tall byzantine walls. Today congregants fill wooden pews—made by a carpenter who used to work for Saddam—and both altar and baptistery have been restored. 

MUTUAL AFFECTION: White with kindergarteners.
Mindy Belz
MUTUAL AFFECTION: White with kindergarteners.
When the church’s Iraqi lay leadership disappeared, White took up what for most people would be a full-time role as the church’s rector, leaving behind for most weeks of the year his wife of now 23 years and 2 teenage sons. When he does travel back to England and elsewhere, the church has an Anglican-ordained Iraqi curate, Faiz Jerjees.

White also serves as president of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, a U.K.-based relief group (with offices also in the United States) that helps to fund the work at St. George’s, which includes a medical clinic, library, kindergarten, and a food distribution program that serves 500 families twice a month. The foundation also supports other Christian ministries in Baghdad, as well as reconciliation work among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish clergy across the region. 

The Baghdad vicar maintains the roles of pastor, teacher, relief director, reconciler, worldwide speaker, and fundraiser—all while managing a 17-year battle with multiple sclerosis. When his Anglican overseers in England learned he had MS, they wanted to sideline him: “The Church of England doctors said I was not well enough to be a clergyman in the Church of England—so I went to Baghdad.”

Over time MS has slowed White’s speech and made it hard to stand very long without assistance. White uses a cane on visits to church families or to see other clergy in Baghdad, and often sits while giving sermons. Ironically, he says the best treatment he’s received has been in Iraq, where he is able to undergo treatment using his own stem cells that’s not yet approved in England or the United States. 

Sunday worship at St. George's.
Mindy Belz
Sunday worship at St. George's.
Little about the disease holds him back: In Baghdad it takes four cell phones to keep him going—two for calls inside Iraq, an international phone for daily calls to his wife and mother, and a Truphone for any others. When I ask White how he manages jet lag, he says flatly: “I don’t do jet lag. Wherever I am I live in the hours the day holds.”

White arrived in the States to accept in May the 2014 Wilberforce Award given by the Virginia-based Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He had never heard of the award when he first learned he was its recipient, but it brings much of his life’s work full circle. Before Coventry, White served in Clapham, where Wilberforce and others formed their community that ultimately provoked England to abolish the slave trade. “Wilberforce used to live on the street where the church is, and I used to walk past his house every day,” said White. “The table we used to serve from is where the Clapham group met.”

TROUBLE: St. George's Church after a bombing in 2004.
Shawn Baldwin/The New York Times/Redux
TROUBLE: St. George's Church after a bombing in 2004.
WHITE IS KEENLY AWARE of the losses in Iraq that make such awards possible. At its peak after St. George’s reopened, over 800 people attended Sunday worship services, often spilling into the garden. The Sunday I attended in April, the church had about 300 worshippers. Most of the attrition is from Iraqi Christians moving overseas or to the north, where Kurdish regions are safer. But White says that about 1,000 in his congregation have died in violence during the last five years.

Everyone in the church has his or her own sorrow. Najat Yacoub showed me photos of her son, bleeding from fatal neck and facial wounds, shortly after he was gunned down in the street outside their home in 2007. Insurgents kidnapped Dawlat Abouna’s sister—twice—and each time the family paid ransom to free her. And a young man who works as a driver for the church (not named for security reasons) watched as his friends died in Baghdad’s streets, then himself received threats while working for a British military contractor. He escaped north in the trunk of his uncle’s car one night, and stayed out of Baghdad four years.


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