Twenty-five years ago today, 27th December 1990, I left for my first visit to the developing world. Flying from Belfast to London Heathrow, I spent a night with a friend in London. Much of the evening was taken up with a meeting of an ecumenical group who prayed for change in the Philippines, it was a strange experience, a diverse group with very different theological views.
The next day, 28th December was the the Feast of Holy Innocents. Seeking somewhere to pray before going to Victoria Station for the journey to Gatwick, I had stepped into Westminster Abbey, only to be confronted by a demand for payment for entry. Deciding that the Church of England wasn’t much interested in praying, I went instead to Westminster Cathedral, where a beautiful Latin Mass for the feast day was being sung. There were clouds of incense and a sense of the transcendent.
A day later it all seemed a travesty of the Gospel, as I travelled through the streets of Manila in the heat of a tropical night, I wondered what abbeys and cathedrals had to do with anything. No matter how much I had tried to prepare for what was to come, I couldn’t cope with the reality of what I met.
It was a haunting trip, people living on the streets, people living on the city dump, people with nothing. A priest who spoke for the poor was murdered and we went to his wake, his bishop said that unless people were like the priest, they were not Christians at all.
Returning in late January 1991, I had repeated flashbacks, panic attacks in the early hours of the morning. In retrospect, the taking of the anti-malarial drug, Larium might not have helped, although it was the best option and had come with a warning.
I devised a strategy for coping with the attacks: I imagined being in a refugee camp with a dying child, trying to conjure up each detail; I then looked around at my five bedroomed Victorian Rectory, I counted each thing I had, I then thought on my greatest treasures of all, my wife and baby son. The attacks would be dispelled and I would return to sleep.
The panic attacks mercifully went away but the thought process remained useful. In days when I think there have been horrible things, I look at the news pictures from refugee camps, what do I know of anything horrible?
I look around now and there are so many good things. May God be with those who really need him.