In 1997 Britain relinquished its control of Hong Kong. I remember watching the handover ceremony on television. The last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, stood with his family in driving rain as he and others sang the hymn, ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended.’ It seemed, with its line, ‘earth’s proud empires pass away,’ a poignant, brave and apposite choice.
I thought of that hymn again when we were back in Aden this past month. But it was another line of the hymn that came there to mind: ‘The voice of prayer is never silent’. In Aden we awoke most mornings before dawn with the call to prayer from our neighbourhood mosque – after which we sometimes went back to sleep but sometimes did not.
We managed on this visit to swim at least once a week at Elephant Bay, mostly in the late afternoon when it was cooler. There were often little silver fish leaping in the shallows. We drove ourselves to the beach and to other places in town, something we’d not felt it wise to do on our other recent visits.
We usually returned home after swimming at dusk, often forgetting until too late, and after we had sounded our horn or rung the gate bell for entry to the courtyard, that whoever was on guard duty – Ahmed, Bashir or Mohammed – would then be at prayer. If the young guards resented this interruption they never showed it and quickly appeared – in uniform, but barefooted and with sleeves and trousers rolled up from doing their ablutions – smiling.
Sometimes we wanted to go out at this time, and then we would wait and watch quietly one or other of our young friends kneeling at prayer – unobtrusive, utterly absorbed and quite unselfconscious.
With the opening affirmations of the Muslim call to prayer – ‘God is great … and there is no god but God’ – Christians would surely readily concur. On this, the late Bishop Kenneth Cragg once astutely wrote, ‘Islam rejects the idols to affirm the Unity. Seeing that idolatries of various and devious kinds remain the besetting evil of contemporary society everywhere, this staunch insistence of Islam on the reality of God speaks vitally to our condition.’ (From Mohammed and the Christian)
Every working day at the clinics begins with prayer in the church. There, the Christian members of staff, now just six, meet for fifteen or twenty minutes before the clinics open, something respected and appreciated by our Muslim colleagues, some of whom are not shy to ask if we might remember them, their families or their friends in our prayers.
Then, on Thursday afternoons, the Ethiopian congregation come to worship – about thirty in all – men, women and children. All are refugees. Some, like Gashu and Elyas, who are on our staff and greatly valued, have made Yemen their home. Others, more recently arrived – and Ethiopian arrivals to Yemen’s shores now far outnumber the Somali – hope to slip through the border to Saudi Arabia to find work there, and some still dream of getting to Europe. Relatively few of the congregation have regular jobs, but all come smartly-dressed to worship – many appearing an hour or more before the service begins (and some an hour afterwards!) Those who come early kneel or prostrate themselves to pray and the church is filled with fervent murmurings, sighs and the occasional sudden outburst of praise. With these – the voice of prayer is never silent, ‘nor dies the strain of praise away.’
Twice in our now long association with Christ Church we have found ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly unable to share Easter with the congregation. It was therefore a very great joy to share the feast with them this time, and the memory will long linger in our minds.
We met before dawn in the sanctuary, transformed as best as we could with our potted, but freshly washed plastic trees and flowers, and branches of real bougainvillea into the garden of resurrection, where Yasmin from Colombia acted out the role of Mary and Rex from the Philippines that of Jesus. It was very moving and both played their parts very beautifully. Afterwards, we sang a stirring Easter hymn, and after the hymn the congregation took over: The Pakistani family, dressed all in white, sang hauntingly in Urdu; Yasmin prayed long in Spanish, “Señor, Señor …” There were tears of joy. Gashu made his contribution in Amharic. The simple but carefully prepared ‘liturgy’ in English was laid aside. Later, as the sun rose through the lovely Yemeni stained-glass windows of the church, Rex launched into a vibrant song, “He’s not dead, he’s alive… I can feel it all over me!” And there were great actions to go with the words. Afterwards we shared breakfast together – coffee, hot rolls and scrambled egg with chillies and ginger.
Yesterday was Friday and those whom we were with then, and perhaps a few others, will have met as they meet every Friday, to worship.
The voice of prayer is rarely silent, ‘nor dies the strain of praise away’. The ‘Aden Project’ was conceived in prayer – is sustained by prayer – and at this moment of modest hopefulness in the life of the nation, and of opportunity for wider service to its people through the church and the clinics, we continue to value greatly your prayers for Yemen and for Christ Church.
With love in Christ
Peter and Nancy
“Yemen: Heartbreak and Hope”