While you’re munching on hot dogs, chasing the kids around the yard with a Super Soaker and generally enjoying a 3-day weekend benefit of the Founding Fathers, remind yourself (at least once) what a gift religious liberty is. Come Friday night, Saturday or Sunday morning, you can (or not!) go to the mosque, synagogue or church of your choice and peacefully enjoy the service. You can sit and be a vaguely interested participant or you can go full-throttle with song and prayer. You can go home and ponder whatever you’ve learned, or not give it another thought. You are free to pray, praise, worship, meditate.
Sometime while you’re doing all of this, think about a man named Andrew White. If (God forbid!) all our religious liberties disappeared this weekend, Andrew White would be the guy who stayed behind to tend to the flock, the faithful who are forced to sneak about to pray and worship. How do I know this? Because that is exactly what Andrew White does for his flock in Iraq.
The “Vicar of Baghdad,” as he is called, carries out his work in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. He does the kinds of things every pastor does: He preaches, performs weddings, baptizes, offers communion, gives counsel and comfort to his congregation, makes mince pies for his church members at Christmas. He also presides at funerals—lots of funerals. One Sunday on his way to morning worship at the church, Canon White counted sixty dead bodies strung up on lampposts and discarded along the road, victims all of the latest round of post-invasion sectarian violence.
Andrew White is the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, the only remaining Anglican church in Iraq. He not only serves as pastor to his congregation, but has been significant in helping patch together what little peace there is in the region. He says he loves Iraq “more than anyplace in the world” and is willing to risk his life for this war-torn country where there is little liberty, religious or any other kind. His wife and children live in England, where he travels to frequently. He wanders about Iraq in a flak jacket, his clerical collar and pectoral cross visible. Timothy George of First Things calls him a “gospel-toting James Bond.” He was recently awarded the William Wilberforce Award by the Chuck Colson Center. The award is annually given to someone whose life and witness to the Gospel have made a lasting impact.
Christians in Iraq are disappearing. Over the past decade it has shrunk from nearly 1.5 million to less than 200,000, and 200,000 is likely an optimistic number. This weekend, as we head off to beaches and barbecues, think about those men and women whose freedoms are gone, who must worship in secret and who are left without good leaders, political or religious. Think about Andrew White…the one who has remained behind.