It was a memorable text and had been sent in haste. It read simply, ‘Thank you, brother, for the god dregs.’ As so often, Nancy grasped the meaning of the message sooner than I. We had just come back from a return visit to Aden and had been distressed to find the two guard dogs there covered with fat, feasting, grey ticks. As soon as we got home from Aden we bought some potent anti-tick treatment and dispatched it with a friend going out there. The text acknowledged its safe arrival. On our most recent trip to Aden a few weeks ago, we found the dogs healthy and still tick-free.
Today’s agenda is not tick repellent but research into the purchase of a new ophthalmic microscope for the eye clinic – a need identified when Bishop Michael and representatives of the Council of Reference for Aden visited there in early November, and which we were asked to look into on our visit over Christmas. There is a particular model which our young surgeons trained on in Aden and which is widely used there called, for those interested in these things, a Takagi OM-8. The manufacturers have a good agent there but it may prove cheaper to purchase in Britain and we have tracked down an enthusiastic Takagi agent in Chesham, not far from where we are now living in Reading. But whether purchased from Aden or from Chesham, the price at nearly US$20,000 is not cheap. Still, it would be a huge improvement over what we have now and would make training of surgeons much easier. ‘Add it to your shopping basket …!’
Our most recent visit to Aden – our fifth in the last two years – was shorter than previous ones – barely three weeks, compressed by the need to move house and to be on hand for the anticipated arrival of the second grandchild. Photos of the first, Jessica, we found to be the screen saver on several clinic computers. It was a timely, useful and happy visit, not without its dilemmas or difficulties but shot through too, with moments of heart-aching beauty. Our impressions on our return after a gap of eight months, wholeheartedly endorsed those of our friend Stefan Poldervaart on his return there with the Bishop as a member of the Council of Reference. I quote from his report of that visit:
It’s about four years since we were forced to leave Aden suddenly with our four young children. In the beginning of November I had the privilege of visiting Aden again, coming back to a place in which we served for several years and it felt just like yesterday. It’s been a great blessing to once again be part of this very special place – even if it is in a very different role – as a member of the Council of Reference for Christ Church and the clinics. One thing that really struck me was the fellowship on Friday. A small group of people and deeply committed to serve Christ Church have continued faithful at prayer. Nazir and his family gave us a very warm welcome. It was a blessing to share communion and experience the unity of Christ.
Nancy and I were, in our turn, most thoughtfully and warmly welcomed back by Nazir too. We shared Christmas with the congregation – about 25 on Christmas Eve, including children and several local friends, who came along gladly and stayed on readily to enjoy a wonderful Christmas meal of many flavours. We sang carols in Urdu and Amharic and processed through the garden to ‘Bethlehem’ to a hauntingly lovely one in Spanish, and in the stable – all far from home – heard again the promise of Emmanuel, God with us, and knew that he was.
Stefan wrote also of time spent with the staff. ‘Talking with the staff made a great impression on me. The commitment of the staff is amazing. They told me that God called them to serve the poor and needy of Yemen. The Ras Morbat Clinics which local people now much more readily call, simply, ‘The Church Clinic’ (ayaadit kaneesa) is a real blessing to the people of Yemen. Thinking over this visit, I think that this place needs much prayer. If more people get involved in one way or another, the church clinics can bless many more people.’
The utterly wonderful thing is that worship has continued at Christ Church and the work gone on – with courage, imagination and great dedication – cleaners and doctors alike, and worshippers on Friday having often to run a gauntlet of stone-throwing youths and burning tyres to get to work or worship. On several occasions bombs have gone off on the routes staff take to us – either just before they’ve set out or thankfully just after they have got home. Sometimes strikes and skirmishes between police and protesters have effectively shut down the public transport system on which our staff rely and then Mansour has ventured out in the bus and, by taking quieter roads, brought them in. He is, we say in English, ‘a brick’ – a substantial and most precious one. And all this – the faithful worship and costly service – has been offered day in and day out, week after week, and now, year on year without the presence of a priest/director on site. This is not an ideal nor a responsible way to continue but it is a remarkable and wonderful thing.
Nancy and I have made our occasional visits back when we have chivvied and chased, loved and shoved, retired some staff and recruited others and hopefully assured both staff and congregation that they are appreciated and not forgotten. While funds for the Aden project do come in generously from across the Diocese and the world, and are paid in to the church and clinic account most diligently, we could not help feeling over Christmas a twinge of sadness that as far as we were aware from nowhere in the Diocese was there sent to staff or congregation a Christmas greeting or note of thanks. Our Muslim staff are enthusiastic senders of e-cards to their Christian friends, complete with jingly music and swinging crescent moons….
We enjoyed this last visit, we ‘chivvied and chased’, but revelled too, in the renewal of friendships with colleagues, congregation and others. Nancy stunned many by producing for staff tea on Christmas Eve a beautiful, snow-iced gingerbread house, photos of which sped across Aden in minutes on Facebook. We swam as often as we could and of course ate fish. When the moment came to leave, we felt both sad and also relieved to be buckling on our seatbelts for the flight home.
The situation in Yemen just now, with the inconclusive conclusion a week ago of the months-long national dialogue is probably best described as precarious and Aden is very far from good. Three weeks ago a very large car bomb was detonated in Khormaksar (the airport area) outside the main offices of Aden security. It killed a few, caused enormous anxiety and blew in the apartment windows of, amongst others, Patras and Yasmin of the congregation. They remain in post.
In the autumn, Bishop Michael wrote to all the clergy in the Diocese, inviting them to consider doing a short stint of duty in Aden. Two responded quickly and very warmly and were all lined up to go but neither was able to for reasons quite unrelated to the political or the security situation in the city. A week ago, one of them wrote expressing a willingness to try and visit again, but when I broached the possibility of his coming with Mansour yesterday, he was adamant that this was not a time for any foreigner to visit, and added with a disarming chuckle, “Al-Q have just announced after they have fixed Syria they will come down to fix Yemen.” Not a happy prospect.
Thankfully Aden is not Aleppo nor Baghdad and we trust may never go the way they have. In Tawahi, where the church and clinics are located, the work goes on. In a few weeks’ time Dr Nada, our senior doctor, will travel with her husband Samir to Jordan to seek help in having the child they so much want. There is already a good locum lined up during her absence, who lives, usefully, nearby.
About the same time as Nada and her husband travel, we shall begin for a six month period and in close cooperation with the university dental faculty, a dental service two days a week – something the staff have often talked of and patients requested. It will essentially be a screening process with patients needing treatment being seen free of charge in the university dental faculty.
Two of our regular visiting eye surgeons have already agreed to return to train and teach later in the year and plans are well in hand for a medical conference to be attended by several of our staff in Cairo in May under the auspices of PRIME and with the energetic inspiration of Dr Edwin Martin, who is on the Council of Reference.
During this past visit, we were, on different occasions and by individuals on the staff or in the congregation asked intently, even urgently, when a “new director”, “pastor” or “priest” would be appointed. We assured them without difficulty that the matter was high on the agenda of the Bishop, his senior staff and Council of Reference, but we cautioned that it was not a propitious moment for recruiting – something of which they were well aware and to which, thoroughly understanding.
Nancy and I responded to an invitation at the height of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to go and work in Beirut. When we told our Irish neighbour in Wembley, where we were then living, she responded refreshingly, “Now that’ll be different, for sure.” It was. We went, not out of bravado, nor with any assurance that we would necessarily be spared any danger, even death, but because deep down we had a gut conviction that this was where God had called us – and we went there with our five year old son. God does call people to specific places, as many reading this will readily testify. In the past months we met a young couple, one of whom is exploring ordination in the Anglican Church; they have worked in Sudan, have first-hand knowledge of Yemen and a deep love for the country. In June I met a Maronite priest in Beirut who has written extensively about Christianity in Yemen in the third century AD and prays regularly for the people of Yemen and would love to visit. Neither are set to come over to Yemen, but they were surprising and lovely reminders that Yemen remains on the hearts of many thoughtful Christian people – in all sorts of places. It would be good to heed Stefan’s urging to pray, and to pray specifically that God in his love and wisdom would call a good person to serve and lead at Christ Church.
In the future, Jen Bourne, also on the Council of Reference, will be looking after the Christ Church entry in the Diocese’s most valuable prayer diary and put things on the website. Stefan hopes to make periodic visits back to Christ Church to keep in touch and have an eye to the state of repair of the buildings and equipment. Nancy and I have said we will for the immediate future continue to handle, with Mansour and Mariam, the correspondence, and to confer with them weekly.
Click on any of the thumbnails below to see the larger image.
The late Bishop Kenneth Cragg was an inspiration to many. We end with a prayer of his own composition, which expresses eloquently many of our thoughts as we think on the work and ministry at Christ Church.
O Lord, whose service requires all that a man has, grant us in our hearts the grace of self-giving and the power of sacrifice.
Fit us for the costs of truth and the labours of compassion. Make us able for the calling which is not by power or might but only by thy Spirit.
Enable us to live in courage beyond the appearance of the present or the entail of the past. Teach us the strength by which to hold with any lost cause of thine until it can be truly won.
Grant us the benediction of the peacemakers in the things of reconciliation that force and state cannot attain. Give us endurance, not grim and hard, but joyous and gentle in the peace of thy eternity. Show us the long-suffering that is more strong than anger, more ultimate than hate.
As by broken bread the peoples of the world are fed, so make us to serve their good by ready consecration of our wills, according to thy purpose, who are blessed in mercy, now and evermore.
With our love and very best wishes in Christ.
Peter and Nancy