The Faithful on the Frontlines
From a convocation address by Brian Stewart, a Canadian journalist who has covered wars, famines and disasters.
“Do you think you could ever get us to a story, somewhere, anywhere where those Christians aren’t there first?” I was never able to. I rather regret the term “muscular Christianity” has gone out of use, because a lot of the Christianity I’ve seen is very hard, muscular work, where there’s lots of sweat and dirty hands.
Many people think that organized mainstream Christianity has become a fading force. But from what I’ve seen as a reporter over several decades, nothing is further from the truth. I’ve found there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, when mobilized for a common good. It is these Christians who are on the frontlines of committed humanity today. When I want to find that front, I follow their trail.
This vast front stretches from the most impoverished reaches of the developing world to the hectic struggle to preserve caring values in our own towns and cities. I have never been able to reach these frontlines without finding Christian volunteers already in the thick of it, mobilizing congregations that care and being a faithful witness to truth. So often it is Christian groups there first, that labour heroically during the crisis and continue on long after all the media, and the visiting celebrities, have gone.
“I saw the reality of Christianity’s mission before my very eyes.”
At the start of my career I had largely abandoned religion, for I too regarded the Church as a rather tiresome irrelevance. What ultimately persuaded me otherwise was the reality of Christianity’s mission, physically and in spirit, before my very eyes.
I remember covering the murderous civil war in El Salvador in the early 1980s – a war of almost casual massacres. Death squads would kill any they imagined in favour of real reform, from landless peasants to Archbishop Oscar Romero in his own cathedral. And pity the journalist they ran across. So we always made a strict rule to be back in the capital before dark; it was suicidal to be on the roads at night.
One afternoon, while interviewing a small group of landless refugees well to the north, we misjudged the time. The light began to thicken; jungle sounds seemed to grow heavy with menace. As the air grew clammy we could all sense each other’s growing nervousness. Just as we were furiously packing up, a delegation of refugee elders begged us to spend the night because, they pleaded, death squads were active in the area and perhaps our presence might just avoid the kidnapping of males, or worse, a massacre.
It was these moments when I cursed the day I’d become a foreign correspondent. We too were targets. So we debated and rationalized, as scared people do: “We needed to get back, a satellite feed was waiting, jobs were on the line, what good would it do if we too were killed and the story never got out?” Yet how could we leave?
We were still debating when an old station wagon raced into camp in a cloud of dust. Out stepped three Christian aid workers bearing a Red Cross flag. They listened to the discussion, and finally insisted, “No, the journalists must go. It’s critical they get word out that you’re at risk here. We’ll stay the night and perhaps we can protect you.”
All over that awful war there were small Christian groups trying to stave off killings. And so we left, with inexpressible relief. Later we learned the protection that night by these Samaritans worked. There were no killings. But I’ve often wondered what I’d have done if that battered station wagon had not arrived at that moment.
“You don’t harm them without coming through us first!”
I can hardly tell you how common such action is. Somewhere in El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala or Brazil volunteers from a local parish are out trying to protect the weakest from political or criminal attacks, saying, “You don’t harm them without coming through us first.” When there are human rights abuses anywhere, the Church is often the first into action – for who has better sources on the ground, after all? Church reports often help galvanize Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations into effective action.
In 1984 I, along with BBC’s Michael Buerk, first carried the story of the Great Ethiopian Famine on television. The world reacted, as we all know, and TV was given much of the credit for saving millions. But we were not the first. We went because for months church and aid groups on the ground had seen famine coming and had been beseeching the world to take notice. When we finally managed to get in, against considerable Ethiopian government resistance, it was these groups that showed us where to go, gave us rides on their relief flights into the mountains and mapped out where and how the world had to react.
Once, flying to a disaster story, our twin-engine plane had to make an emergency refueling stop at a nearly deserted landing strip in the dense jungle in central Africa. We stepped out into the middle of absolutely nowhere, only to be greeted by a cheerful Dutch Reformed minister offering tea. My veteran cameraman, Mike Sweeny, later sighed in exasperation, “Do you think you could ever get us to a story, somewhere, anywhere where those Christians aren’t there first?” I was never able to. I rather regret the term “muscular Christianity” has gone out of use, because a lot of the Christianity I’ve seen is very hard, muscular work, where there’s lots of sweat and dirty hands.
“Strange people those. They’ve got something that we don’t.”
Many of us in news crews noticed something else. After a day in the field, filming volunteers at work, we’d be sitting back over our nightly drink and one of us would say something like: “Strange people those, know what I mean? There’s just something different about them. They’ve got something that we don’t.”
I believe that a form of human happiness emerges in a flourishing life in which spirit and intellect are used to the full, for the purpose of the good of all. Yes, they seemed to be “flourishing.”
C.S. Lewis wrote of Christianity producing “a good infection.” Christian work on the frontlines infects those around them, even those who are not Christian, with a sense of Christ’s deep mystery and power. I’ve felt it. It changes the world. Still.
Joel News International, No. 835, October 25, 2012