It was, she said, the most exciting journey in her life. The aged Peugeot estate was crammed. The road and dust were visible through the holes in the floor at her feet. Fumes from a tired muffler came into the car through them. The driver’s side window was largely obscured by an old T-shirt to shade him from the sun, and his vision from vehicles approaching on that side. Despite these handicaps and the almost unprecedented absence of a working horn, the journey from Ibb to Aden was managed without incident, which is more than could be said of our journey to Sanaa two days ago with Maggie le-Roy, the Diocesan Retreats Adviser, whose travels we have been describing.
It was Maggie’s second visit to us to lead a retreat and it was great. We shared a little of her disappointment that while twenty four appeared the first evening of the retreat, only fourteen remained till the next morning. But, there were good reasons for the fallout. Several could not get the day off; one person was taken ill, while another cheerful, loyal member of the congregation confided he found the ‘clay modelling and pebble collection too much’. Still, those who completed the course seemed well rewarded and very grateful, both for the teaching and the space for quiet that followed each session.
One friend from Kenya said she had been ‘holding on’ till the retreat. At the end she was radiant, which also had something to do with the signing of a peace agreement back home. Another participant from a Roman Catholic background told how Maggie had helped him merge attention to Scripture with use of extended quiet and reflection. Whether it’s retreats or conferences, it seems there is a good work to be done here serving foreigners across the country who need space, quiet and spiritual refreshment. Maggie is an unfussy, thoughtful and wonderfully encouraging teacher and retreat leader – and good company.
And in the last months we have not lacked for ‘company’! At Synod on Cyprus we reported we had had close to 900 ‘guest nights’ – nights of occupancy of the guest rooms. Recently some backpackers showed us our entry in an up to date German equivalent of the Lonely Planet Guide for Yemen. It was complementary and even stated that Christ Church is ‘a holy place’! At the time of writing, we have eight guests from Latin America, tomorrow a young American family. Nancy handles the bookings while Yerusalim, a lovely young Ethiopian mother looks after the rooms and the laundry.
Significant amongst recent visits to us was that of our new bishop – Michael and his wife Julia. It was their first visit to Aden and after a few days, Bishop Michael ventured that he thought the city ‘endearing’. Interestingly, another person, who visited last year and stayed much longer, pronounced it ‘a dump’. After nearly four years here we think it’s both and a bit more beside!
Little Ben on the hill near us, a smaller version of London’s Big Ben, is cute. The flaking the exterior of the Crescent Hotel with its high ceilings and shuttered windows where a very young Queen Elizabeth II once stayed a night is still lovely. The observant may spot a valiant Bedford truck hauling sacks of sugar from the port, and there’s a retired Morris Traveller that’s a backyard store for a building merchant near us.
Since being here, much has been tidied up in the city. There are pavements, effective street lights, clean main roads and a really attractive harbour side corniche. But off the main streets much remains squalid, scruffy and desperately poor. While the powerful and rich of Sanaa expropriate with impunity for themselves the prime sea view real estate to build villas, the poor scrabble to build cinder block or plywood huts on Aden’s bleak and precipitous crater slopes. An ‘endearing dump’ is perhaps not a bad description. With the Bishop and Julia, we viewed the port on a new pilot cutter, visited the work of the Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa), admired the lonely beauty of the cemetery at Silent Valley and spent time with the local staff and members of the congregation. We seemed do a lot of eating too. It was touching to see how quickly and warmly the staff took to Bishop Michael and Julia. Michael, they feel, is their bishop too – a little like a sheikh.
After meeting people and reviewing the work here, Bishop Michael, who is a good listener and keen observer said he thought it was ‘precious’, not in a negative sense of delicate or pampered, but rather in the sense of something valuable, unique and to be cherished. We were glad.
While he was here we discussed some of the pressure points and needs of the work, amongst them – and long overdue – the need for a consultative medical council, an overall medical director and more. During his visit, we found ourselves approached by a delegation from the Canadian Embassy, who enthusiastically approved our medical clinic as the centre in Yemen for processing medically all those persons accepted here for resettlement in Canada. And this week we hope to formalise an arrangement with the UNHCR to test the eyes of children in the two refugee camps, and when necessary to operate on them.
We did manage a day’s outing to Taiz with Michael and Julia, stopping on the way in the refugee camp of Basateen to meet with forty or more of the 120 Somali fishermen, whose enormous overdue wage claim we are trying hard to settle. Sadly, those who should be championing their case locally seem either unwilling or impotent to help, while the fishermen and their families grow daily more desperate. They have a terribly touching trust in the ability of ‘the church’ to resolve their problem. All are, of course, Muslim.
Involvement in this as in similar cases previously, carries the risk of intimidations and threats but that is part of the course. So does handling people coming through our gates, as they do, enquiring about the Christian faith. We try our best to deal with them openly, honestly and wisely. It seems we are called to this rather exposed way of being. It is perhaps something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when from prison he famously wrote, “we must embrace … this worldliness, abandoning any attempt to make something of oneself … By ‘this worldliness’ I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God …”
I mentioned at the outset our journey back to Sanaa with Maggie le-Roy. We were also accompanied by Pete, our volunteer, and Gabriel, a great friend of our son Tim. Gabriel had just come out to visit us. An hour and a half into the journey, on a steady incline between very bleak rugged hills, we fell in the hands of a small group of about fifteen well armed, Yemeni tribesmen. They had partially blocked the road and indicated that we should pull over and stop. Up until this point we had, as on many journeys, been accompanied by a blue and white Yemeni police patrol car with flashing lights and feeble siren. On seeing our predicament it turned and bolted. The senior tribesman promptly unshouldered his Kalashnikov and prepared to fire after it. He didn’t, but the driver, seeing him in his mirror wove back and forth furiously hoping to avoid any bullets, at the same time managing to throw one of his fellow policemen from the vehicle into the road with the action. It was an unnerving moment. A little later we were reminded not to move and the little armed group proceeded to inspect and process the passing traffic. From time to time they waved or shouted to their fellows posted strategically on ledges or in crevices in the overlooking hills.
Meanwhile, volunteer Pete resumed his reading of an old volume on American democracy; Maggie rigged a sun shield in the front window of the car; Gabriel read his apportioned Bible reading; I tried to be friendly to our ‘detainers’ and Nancy sketched the view through her window. After a while a Russian Embassy pickup was pulled over and told to park in front of us. Then, about an hour after it all began, it ended with a flourish as several police cars summoned, we think, by our fleeing policemen, appeared. Out of them burst two enormous officers who took the tribesmen aside and gently ticked them off – and waved us back onto the road to Sanaa. We still do not know what it was all about. Two days later we passed through the original check point where we had picked up the police escort. We were greeted enthusiastically. There was no explanation of what had happened nor apology for our sudden abandonment. ‘Smile,’ beamed the sergeant, ‘you’re in Yemen.’ We did.
With our warmest thanks for your support, interest and encouragement and very best wishes in Christ
Peter & Nancy