Interview: Canon Andrew White
November 30, 2017
How did you develop a relationship with Wheaton College?
Dr. Tony Payne, who was the director of the Conservatory of Music, wanted to perform Britain’s War Requiem. Britain’s War Requiem was established when Coventry Cathedral was bombed in the war. So he came, and he wanted to know about Coventry and I was director of the International Center for Reconciliation … and another thing, which was really strange, was that Saddam Hussein’s deputy, you know Saddam Hussein, the bad guy, well his deputy, one day said to me, “you come here, you meet all these religious leaders here. I want you to take our ayatollahs, imams and patriarchs to Britain and America.” I said I can cope with Britain, with the Archbishop of Canterbury — America, I don’t have any links. He turned around to me he said “Oh don’t worry, there’s a guy called Billy Graham who’s very well known. And he’s like the American Pope. So you contact him and you’ll sort it out.” So I contacted him and he did sort it out. He arranged for me to come spend time with him and bring all the ayatollahs and patriarchs to be with him. And this was quite a few years ago. And one of the things he said to me was, “Now you have to go to Wheaton.” And so 19 years ago I came to Wheaton.
In chapel on Monday you explained that you reluctantly prefer Wheaton over Cambridge. Why do you love Wheaton so much?
Why?! Why do I love Wheaton so much? It’s because Wheaton is a place of great academic prowess, and yet huge spirituality. Here you find the spirit of the living God. And in Cambridge there might be a fellow of Cambridge University, or might be fellow of Harvard as well, but I do not find that spiritual dimension there. We have lots of chapel, lots of church, we sing beautiful carols, we have great services; but here you have a great relationship with the living God.
When you visited a couple years ago, I remember you encouraging students to take risks. What do you mean by this? What kinds of risks are you talking about?
I’ve always said here, take risks, don’t take care — because taking risks is to transcend your barrier of safety and do the things which others think it’s too dangerous to do. And it’s when you are doing things which are too dangerous to do that you’re really doing the things of God. Whether you are working in politics, the legal profession, you can even take risks being an accountant, and that is very hard for me to understand.
Since you’ve been suspended from the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation, has the charity been able to continue its work? Did the Foundation give money to ISIS to free Yazidi sex slaves? Do you think you will eventually be able to resume your work there?
I was suspended, do you know why I was suspended? Because they said I was getting back sex slaves from ISIS and paying for them. And I got them back without paying anything at all. I managed to get some of them back, but I didn’t pay the terrorists any money. The fact is that I have started a new foundation now called Jerusalem MERIT, Jerusalem Middle East Reconciliation International, and that is doing all the same work. Everything I was doing before I’m still doing now. The foundation still keeps going, but it doesn’t have the on-the-ground work like it did, because a lot of that has to do with people and people related to me because they’ve known me for years. They won’t just relate to anyone else.
In your experience, at what point do moral considerations ever trump legal implications? If they do, when do they?
Yes, they do because often or sometimes we are faced with an issue of life and death. And salvation of individuals, spiritually, physically, mentally, — and yet it might be against, in our case, charity law. And so you cannot do things like support organizations supported by terrorists, you can’t do things like give money to terrorist organizations, but you cannot stand back and do nothing because law says you’re not allowed to deal with slaves. Well the fact is that throughout Christian history, Christianity has dealt with slaves, fighting the slave trade and that is one of the issues we are faced with today.
Can you tell me about the school and clinic you run for refugees in Jordan?
A very major part of our work is supporting the persecuted church and a key part of the persecuted church are those Christians who’ve had to flee, run away from Iraq and run away from ISIS, and so we actually started from scratch a school there because none of the Iraqi children were allowed to go to school so we started a school. We provide education, food, healthcare; we have a clinic and we provide housing so it’s a very comprehensive endeavor which aims to meet all the needs of the community.
What would you say is one of the greatest barriers to reconciliation in the Middle East?
I would say the greatest barrier is people who think that Christianity is not truly monotheistic. They think we have three gods, not one God. So the Muslims think we have three gods, the Jews think we have three gods, and for us, our foundation is that God is one.
What is one passage or verse of the Bible that has meaning to you right now or has been one of your favorites?
A passage which is really important to me is Romans 8:17. The sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to come. That even if things might be terrible and painful, the glory of God is so great and so wonderful and so real that it will always drive us forward.
What have you learned about mediation?
I have learned that you can never plan it and say that we did this, this, this, and this. Never works like that. It’s always a matter of being led by the Holy Spirit all the time. Everything is way out and different. Nothing is by the book. People ask me, “Now, can you write us a book about how you go about mediation? What are the skills?” I say, “No, I can’t,” because you never know. Everything changes all the time.
What were you thinking when you invited ISIS to dinner?
Well, a very important part of my life is: When you meet, you eat. You have to try and get along with people as friends. And so much of my work of engaging with the “other” has started by simply having dinner with people and getting to become their friends. And I thought I could try with ISIS. Didn’t work. They said, “Right, we’ll come, but we’ll chop your head off!”
What is the greatest need you see where you’re working right now?
Well, the need is to simply be able to provide all the needs of our people. So we need money for their schooling, for their housing, for their feeding, for their healthcare, and we need to be able to continually provide true living worship. So all we need is money and worship! As I say: Pray for peace and pay for peace.
How has God surprised you?
How has he surprised me? Well, he really is new every morning, and every day there’s a new implication to the wonder of the Almighty. All the time, he surprises me. And I could go through the various things which have been a big surprise. The way God has answered prayer, to the surprises by the bad days, like when I’ve been kidnapped. And good and bad, God is always there and it’s all about Him and not about me. That is the thing. It’s all about him. Not about me.
How did you find yourself switching from being an anesthesiologist to a pastor?
I was thanking God for giving me the most wonderful job in anesthetics and resuscitation medicine, and thanking him for being at the most wonderful hospital (university hospital) in England. And suddenly I remembered I needed to say, “What next, Lord?” So I said, “What next, Lord?” presuming he’d say you’re doing a good job here, stay forever. He said, “Come, I want you to follow me into the church. And he said he wanted me in the Anglican church. And I said, “They’re not even all saved, Lord.” And he said, “I know, that’s why I’m sending you there.”
What advice would you have for college students when they’re thinking about vocation and career?
Once again, I’d come back to those two words: Take risks. Know that whatever you choose to do, you have to not just be a mediocre person, you’ve got to be the best. So always aim high. Always aim to achieve greatly. Always aim to be the best. And you will!
Is there anything else you would like the Wheaton community to know?
The only thing I’d like the Wheaton community to know is: Having spent so much of my time going around to universities, colleges, academic institutions around the world — there is nothing like Wheaton. They really must know and believe the great significance of Wheaton and what a privilege and an honor it is to be here. It’s like nothing else in the world. And I’ll be back!