a divided kingdom

I am not a film buff. What I watch is selective. So, it was a serendipitous moment when I stumbled on A United Kingdom on Netflix one leisurely evening earlier this year.  The film portrays a true-life romance set in post-WWII England – the sort of love story in my view, that supersedes even the greatest Shakespearean drama or a modern-day Hollywood concoction of romance. It crosses racial barriers, is riddled with high level political manoeuvres, and culminates in love tested and refined, that which also protects the integrity of a nation in the beautiful continent of Africa. Never have I seen love that was sharper than a double-edged sword, yet gentle enough to make even a cynic cry.

But there was more, much more that gripped me to my TV screen. A sentiment, I had come to experience which I knew prevailed in history in the context of colonialism that continues even to this day, was a key phenomenon that pervaded this cinematic drama, albeit in real life.  The practice of ‘divide and rule’.

Seretse Khama was heir to the throne in the then Bechuanaland, now Botswana. His uncle, Prince Regent was waiting for Seretse to return after his education in the UK, to marry a local princess and rule the land. However, a chance encounter with an office girl, Ruth Williams in a dance hall of the 1940’s, changed Seretse’s destiny. Ruth was equally smitten by this suave African lawyer, but there was trouble ahead….

Ruth Williams, to me was a heroine like no other.  Leaving home with parental blessings that escaped her, she was happy to marry this young man despite the warnings imposed even by the British government! After betrothal they leave for Africa into the unknown, probably expecting a welcome from the Khama family. Being White and British was not easy for Ruth when faced with African aristocracy. This too would have been an eye opener where the opposite was true in the streets of London, where Seretse faced racial harassment. Hailing from a simple working-class family, this union was not akin for Ruth’s family to bear either.

The film and history show that the politics of neighbouring South Africa dictated the protocol of the surrounding smaller nations. Apartheid was the order of the day and the marriage of another African would-be-king to a White woman would just tip the scales of expected order by those in power.

I was reminded of the trail of societal damage that has been left behind in many former colonies due to this method of dividing communities to rule a land. Could there be a residue of this phenomenon in church communities in the UK where diaspora groups separate themselves and are not actively encouraged to join the larger community? Does this form of existence unwittingly perpetuate the divide and rule governance style thus creating a neo-colonialism that can be harmful to all concerned.

Back to the film. The British officials’ stance was that they were trying to keep peace between Seretse and his uncle who also did not agree to the mixed marriage.  The uncle’s allegiance to them was a useful tool for them to stop the young couple from being in the public eye. This way of control was masterful, sophisticated and even appeared just! The fact that this young couple loved each other escaped everyone’s judgement. The highest priority was to keep the colonisation principles in place which yielded much benefit in the likes of natural resources, that the subjugated countries bestowed, channelled to the desired places of power. The human suffering that this caused, in this instance a couple’s desire to live their lives, did not matter an iota to anyone.

The British diplomatic corps, in an attempt to remove the couple away from Africa, offered them free travel back to London to sort out the differences with the foreign office in London. But Seretse knew that if they both left that he would never be able to return to his people who had unanimously voted to hail him as king.  He travels to London leaving Ruth behind in the hope that he will return after negotiations.  However, the story twists here and he is detained for 5 years. 

Left alone in their marital bungalow which was the ‘palace’ for this young African queen, with her husband exiled in Britain, Ruth discovers she is expecting a child.  Ruth gives birth to their firstborn, driving herself to a local hospital. This strong, young, adopted African royalty engages so beautifully with the local women who had grown to love her.  

Ruth was well and truly committed to be part of the day-to-day life with the local people. She ventured out with baby in her arms to help the villagers build their tribal homes made of cow dung mixed with sticks and mud.  She experienced the rugged savannahs of Africa laying down the comforts of the privileged life she enjoyed. The unexpected adoration and gratitude the local villagers displayed to Ruth with their tribal singing and dancing affirmed this young woman’s efforts, which seemed like a dance of the Trinity. It is a scene of true cultural unity and acceptance that will remain in my heart for many years to come.  

The cultural recognition of another human being for who they are, is a powerful symbol of Christlikeness.  This was only possible because one person stepped out in faith to a place which was unfamiliar and embraced it for better or for worse.

How does this story of more than half a century ago impact us today? In most parts of the world, a marriage of two different cultures is commonplace.  Yes, Nelson Mandela will go down in history as a hero to have challenged the evil of racial segregation, but the story of Seretse and Ruth, to me, fulfilled the work of the many unsung heroes and heroines that combat the evil of racism and live their lives with integrity, challenging even the highest powers fearlessly.

“No man is free who is not master of himself”.

Seretse quotes Greek Philosopher Epictetus

God bless Botswana!

the crowning glory of beauty and conflict

An event that took place in the Easter weekend this year in Sri Lanka which hit the world news platforms, had a stark difference to the news of Easter events which took place two years ago, when several churches were ambushed by suicide bombers. 

An event that took place in the Easter weekend this year in Sri Lanka which hit the world news platforms, had a stark difference to the news of Easter events which took place two years ago, when several churches were ambushed by suicide bombers.

This time the camera was on the glitz and glamour of a beauty pageant.

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paper lanterns

When you watch a movie that resounds reconciliation, peace, love and forgiveness without ever hearing the words being mentioned, it is pretty hard to know where to start to gather one’s thoughts to scribble about it.  I am writing this as a record for myself and if anyone else reads it – may you be blessed.

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These are Covid times, the screening of Paper Lanterns organised by the Japanese Anglican community was on Zoom. 

I had a recent memory of watching the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima bombings on the news; how dignified, pristine and orderly the gathering was, commemorating a horrific incident that took place in their country at the end of WWII. This part of world history did not feature too extensively in my learning in school, so I was curious when Yuki, a fellow Anglican invited me to the screening.

When the ‘A bomb’ fell on Hiroshima at 8.15 on 6 August 1945, Shigeaki Mori was an eight year old. His life was saved whilst some of his close family perished in the nuclear cloud that enveloped that region.  He had just moved schools, and the one he just left was marooned with all teachers and children perishing in a flash. The carnage he witnessed as a child, now immortalised as paintings and drawings in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum formed part of the film. I have seen artwork of horror, but nothing can compare to these illustrations of human life melting away in the aftermath of the bomb. They were unapologetically gruesome, yet had huge artistic merit. The music composed by Chad Cannon was a fusion of Western and Japanese sounds and captured the sentiments that conjures up in you as a viewer.

Mr Mori was a gifted researcher and was more than curious of the history of this world event of which he was a part as a young boy. Along with the 140,000 Japanese people who perished in Hiroshima, there were 12 American POW’s who were captured by the Japanese army when their bomber Lonesome Lady crashed near Ikachi. Mr Mori was fuelled with compassion for the families of these 12 POW’s who he was convinced, knew nothing about the last moments of their loved ones’ lives ending in Hiroshima. This led him to delve into numerous historical records and copious amounts of letter writing scouring all 50 States in the US to find the next of kin of these 12 young men who lost their lives – it took him 40+ years!

There were two young men out of the 12 who survived the bombing, and were re-captured by the Japanese army. They were found to be extremely week and unwell. These men were taken to a doctor who tried to attend to them but they had all the signs and symptoms of nuclear radiation and died soon after. The men were given a proper burial, and in the film you see their families visiting the place where the hospital stood, now marked with a memorial plaque. The dignity offered to the enemy in such dire situations is palpable in the movie. Mr Mori’s efforts of finding the families of these POW’s have brought people together from across the United States who never knew each other before.

It was heart rending to hear them say that when they visited the village where the plane came down and met other Japanese people whose lives had been impacted by the bomb, there was absolutely no sense of anger or the expectation to hear the words of apology or repentance.  They only wanted acknowledgement that it happened and that it will not happen again and that both sides will not forget the effect nuclear war has on life.

The Director of the movie, Barry Frechette was present at the viewing, and was able to talk us through the making of the film, which he said was more fulfilling than seeing the finished product. The extraordinary people he met and visiting places that were once decimated, now flourishing with life gave hope for humanity.

The film captures the 2016 memorial service at Hiroshima when President Obama visited. Mr Mori is seen hugging the President after being honoured for his efforts in his memorial speech. A scene I recall on the news as it was only 4 years ago.  If only I knew then the depth of love, commitment and the reconciliatory spirit this human being had, I would have savoured the news item much more.

When there were celebrations of the end of the war, the families of US POW’s who were marked as ‘missing in action’ could not join in the celebrations not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones. The efforts of one single man who was dedicated to helping total strangers, foreigners who were the oppressors, who lost loved ones in his country find closure, is a feat that needs shouting about; and Paper Lanterns depicted this so beautifully with no bias assigned to either side – just showing the people and the events as they were.

Now an octogenarian, one would imagine Mr Mori would want to put his feet up and relax after the fulfilment of a life long project – but no, his attention has moved to Nagasaki and the POWs who perished there…..! 

to the memory of the 12 POWs

Durden Looper
Joseph Dubinsky
James Ryan
Julius Molner
Hugh Atkinson
Charles Baumgartner
John Long
Raymond Porter
Burford Ellison
John Hantshell
Norman Brisette
Ralph Neal

guess who’s coming to dinner?

I was recently introduced to Ignatian spirituality and a weekly meditation session organised by the Jesuits in London.

At a recent meditation session we reflected on Luke 10 and the story of Martha and Mary with Jesus visiting their home. We used this picture by Dr He Qi to meditate and enter into the story, and I invite you to join me.

Both in the text and the picture I see two women- both devoted to Jesus.  One showing her devotion through preparing to treat Jesus when he visits with the best possible meal and care given in Bethany and the other falling at his feet in worship.

Martha would have painstakingly given full attention to seeing that everything was perfect for her Lord. The tea would be served at the right temperature, bread freshly baked and not allowed to get stale in the hot Middle Eastern climate.  Pomegranates freshly picked and washed and clean.  Tables dusted, linen fresh and the floor swept clean so that when Jesus walked in with his bare feet after leaving his sandals at the door after cleaning his feet, it felt clean to tread on.  Martha loves the Lord.  He is still her first love, she has pondered on it long and hard and had that assurance in her heart – and now it was her turn to show gratitude in an earthly sense.  Worship him with her time and meticulous care of hospitality that is world class yet personal. 

Mary on the other hand falls down in worship at the feet of Jesus and does not move.  She is oblivious to the hospitality that her older sister is so engrossed in providing for their special guest.  Mary is still so deeply moved by the gift of salvation she has received from Jesus.  Her sins forgiven and set free.  How can she give any attention anywhere else than to this man who has given her new life!  She loves her sister, but this moment is too precious, far too precious to be doing anything else. In any case, did Jesus not look after the earthly needs of his followers without them having to tarry so much – has Martha forgotten this?!

Martha is surprised of Mary’s lack of attention to making their guest feel comfortable and draws Jesus’ attention to this.  Martha must carry the burden of running the family home being the older female sibling.  Why does she not complain about Lazarus not helping? Is this cultural? Is it the responsibility of an older female child to attend to the practicalities of a household?  Martha in that sense was not abdicating her duty – is this admirable?

Martha, Martha”. Jesus calls out to her twice by her name.  Martha must have felt special although what followed would have taken her aback. “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

We are not told of Martha’s reaction in the text or what happened afterwards.  Did Martha feel rejected or was she reassured that whilst Jesus was appreciative of her efforts that he was giving Mary affirmation as she demonstrated her undivided devotion?  Did Jesus help Martha himself and get Mary to help eventually?  Was he saying to Martha that cultural expectations of an older sibling needs to be laid aside when it comes to worshiping the Saviour?

Enough of my rhetoric.  Let’s look at the picture.

Both women’s eyes are turned towards Jesus in a reverential pose, but Jesus is looking ahead.  Possibly looking at you, asking you what you think?  Are you going to take sides or are you going to go deeper into the spirituality of the two women and where they are at in this story? 

Whatever the Spirit reveals to you, I sense that Jesus was challenging the accepted cultural norms.  That of a female child being left to take responsibility for hospitality – but oh no, not when Jesus is the guest.  Sitting at the feet of the guru was usually reserved for disciples who were all male, but Mary is now doing just that. Eagerly waiting for the Master to teach her things of the Father and eternity. Jesus affirms Mary, giving value to women who are hungry and thirsty for the Lord to come alongside their male counterparts to receive from him.  Magnificent, isn’t it?

a medieval english abbess and a pandemic

It was around 2008/09 that I received an email from Noeline Sanders, inviting a group of Sri Lankans to join a forum on issues relating to the Sri Lankan civil war, and the effect it bears in the diaspora community in London and the UK. The venue advertised was St Ethelburga’s church in Bishopsgate, City of London.  I made the journey to Bishopsgate one evening not knowing then how much it would change my life.

The world is currently in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, which reminds me of the story of St Ethelburga that I have heard whilst visiting the church. Much like the current coronavirus pandemic, the Plague (c. 664 AD) killed thousands of people in the British Isles, targeting those in the south of the country. 

During this period, St Ethelburga was gifted land in Barking by her brother St Earconwald for the purposes of building a monastery.  (St Earconwald, who later became the Bishop of London, had his own monastery for male monks.) St Ethelburga became the first abbess of Barking Abbey who went on to dedicate her life to the poor and those affected by the dreadful plague.  The Venerable Bede is known to have said St Ethelburga was “upright in life and constantly planning for the needs of her community”.

It is known that the Abbess, at the time of the Plague, encouraged the nuns to step out of the monastery into the community to serve the sick and the dying, knowing the risks involved for themselves. The Plague took the life of the great Saint as well as others in the monastery. The ethos of putting values into action is one of the four key principles of the mission of St Ethelburga even today.

Founded c. 666 AD, the monastery was a place for prominent women in society to take up holy orders in the event they sought freedom from societal norms, such as arranged marriages or in some instances, their families bartering their lives for the release of English prisoners! A dowry for admission to the monastery would usually be paid by a wealthy benefactor.  A royal connection is known to have paid the admission dowry to the Abbey for Elizabeth Chaucer, the daughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The list of nuns associated with the Abbey confirms a connection between the monastery, and royalty and gentry. A decision by the 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan made Barking Abbey follow the Rule of St Benedict.  The Abbey was one of the richest in the country in that time and continued its monastic traditions for nearly 900 years. 

The medieval church of St Ethelburga is dedicated to the Abbess of Barking and dates back to 1250, while having survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz of WWII. The church was extensively damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993 but did not at that time have any insurance cover and closed for several years. It was under the leadership and vision of the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, that the church re-opened in 2002 as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. 

Once the largest building in Bishopsgate now stands small compared to the Gherkin and other skyscrapers in the financial centre of London. However small in size, the longevity of its legacy and the global reach of its work cannot be matched to the value of all the hedge funds and million-dollar deals that occur in its vicinity.

Everything about the church represents St Ethelburga as a saint; great foresight, leadership and above all, compassion. The church continued with this legacy and ‘achieved notoriety as one of the few churches in which divorced people could remarry, in defiance of the Bishop’s strictures’.

The Plague of c.664 AD lasted nearly 25 years. Let us hope and pray that the current pandemic will be over in a much shorter space of time. 

Getting to know some great like-minded Sri Lankan women of all faiths, sitting round in the Tent a decade ago, while discussing matters that affect our lives under the auspices of a female English medieval Saint has been a privilege.  (The Bedouin tent that sits at the back of the church is a must see if you are visiting the City of London). St Ethelburga’s legacy has made it possible for a plethora of fora such as our’s to meet. It is a place where attributes of other cultures are celebrated and valued.  Enjoying food, dance and music and poetry of other cultures and social mingling of people who would never otherwise have engaged with one another yet live in the same city is a jewel in the crown that St Ethelburga has facilitated.

I am thankful for the space St Ethleburga provides for those on the margins of society; the foreigner, the stranger, the refugee. It facilitates a space for dialogue  that which could destroy people and communities and helps to birth renewed vision and energy, and is a place that connects strangers and builds meaningful friendship across faith, culture and other social divides.

This long association with St Ethelburga pointed me to participate in one of the church’s collaborative project areas in 2019 The Journey of Hope Pilgrimage where I met some amazing people from around Britain. We travelled together and learned from the centres of reconciliation in mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the original connections made by Noeline who also now serves as a Trustee of St Ethelburga community.

The Listening to each other: Listening to Earth programme responds to the urgent need for climate justice issues and sanctity of the earth and combines nurturing leadership of people of colour. Based in the country’s financial capital, St Ethelburga encourages financial institutions to take responsibility when navigating turbulent times. A guiding principle of the programmes is seeing crisis as opportunity whilst building community across differences and protecting the sacred.  More can be found here.

The work of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation is prophetic and relevant more so today than ever.