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Love & Loneliness: Two minutes is a long time



Love & Loneliness

October 1999

The most decisive moment in my life took place in a public reception in the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Final exams had begun along with training for Henley Regatta as stroke of the Isis crew. I was planning to spend two years in the Antarctic with the Falkland Island Dependency Survey (FIDS - now the British Antarctic Survey). The moment was about two minutes in duration. I had seen a film that did not stir me. I was talking with a man whose outward appearance did not impress me, though I remember his eyes. They had a sparkle. He was a complete stranger. However, within ten minutes of talking with him, he had discovered that I believed in God and even prayed. So he asked me, 'Do you think that if you can speak to God, he can speak to you?' I suddenly felt trapped, not by him, but by a theological consideration that was blindingly obvious, but which I had never considered before. I said 'Yes', and hoped that that would be the end of the matter. He said, 'Would you like to listen to God then?' I again said 'Yes', and began to move away. 'Why not try now, and write your thoughts down so as not to forget them?' Here, surrounded by all these people, in a crowded hotel? How preposterous! I sat with him and was silent. 'Don't go to the Antarctic', was the hammer-blow thought that hit my head from nowhere. I wrote instead, 'God is love'. Theologically true, I am sure, but not what He was saying to me at that point.

Looking back, that was the point at which my life changed direction. My enthusiasm for the Antarctic, really a glamorous escape route for not knowing how to be effective in a world I knew to be in a helluva mess, disappeared. Ever since wanting to go, the thought had been at the back of my mind that it was the wrong thing to do. I didn't cancel the interview with Sir Vivian Fuchs (FIDS) but arrived 20 minutes late and was failed.

Instead I went to the 'Moral Re-Armament (MRA) conference in Caux, Switzerland, where I met many who were evidence that people could change for the better. They also were convinced that God could use us to make a better world, and that He had a plan which we could find and fit into. I decided to do anything that I felt God wanted me to do, even if it meant washing dishes for the rest of my life.

There have been many dishes to wash but God had some other things in mind too. Being human means by definition we get things wrong. Yet the most important thing is to try to follow God's will. Life has been an unexpected adventure ever since and, contrary to the time at Oxford, I no longer altered myself to suit the company I was in; it was the same Patrick all my friends now saw.

I have dwelt in some length on this part of the story, as it is fundamental to all that has followed since. There has been both a conscious and an unconscious commitment to do the inspired thing. Just as ambition, greed or bitterness can govern our decision-making processes so can this deep commitment to do God's will, coupled with the belief that - however often we continue to miss it - there is always the right way forward, even in the most awful situations.

So what has happened since? Within five days of arriving at Caux, I had invited myself to work full time with MRA. No one asked me to, and probably many wish I hadn't. The decision was made in a matter of moments - a response to an inner calling that was always there, and which finally surfaced.

An early milestone was going to India for a year to work with the writer Rajmohan Gandhi and his colleagues. I will never forget the young Hindu who came one day and said that he was beginning to hate his Moslem friends. We asked him why. He replied by listing the Moslem atrocities (it was the time of the worst Hindu/Moslem riots since Independence). We said this was no reason to hate the Moslems, let alone his Moslem friends. He replied that he hated his parents. We asked why, and he said that his father slept with the maid and his mother went out with an Englishman. We said this was no reason to hate them, why did he? He instantly replied that he hated himself. We asked why, to which he replied that he had been going out with prostitutes. By this time the Moslem issue had disappeared, as had his hatred of his parents. Indeed he then put things right with them. The whole conversation took no more that five minutes, at the end of which he was a different man. His honesty allowed God to work a miracle in him.

While in India there passed a decisive fleeting second. At approximately ten minutes past seven on the morning of 8 January 1964, after three years of remaining affection free, a hand grenade exploded in my heart and I fell in love with Frances Cameron, and knew that one day we would marry. After seven years and some perseverance - being once turned down and learning to give to God even what I knew to be right - we got engaged and were married. It was an incredibly faith- building experience. Frances' different perspective on life is enormously valuable. Our home in Cambridge, that other place, is an open one and over the years we have enjoyed having hundreds of friends to stay as well as being entrusted with two super daughters. My Oxford studies covered the Soviet Union. I was deeply interested in and concerned by the suffering of millions under communism. My new born faith gave me a vision and hope that things could change in that part of the world despite the fact that MRA could not operate openly there. The Soviet dissidents were deeply inspiring. Another milestone occurred the day I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize for Literature Lecture. It took about an hour to read and it changed the course of my life. I gave copies to many people. My wife and I felt it lent itself to visual interpretation. Others responded. They not only kept the idea alive, they also made a film dramatisation of the lecture, 'One Word of Truth'.

I devoted much of the 80's to first raising the money to make the film and then developing its distribution worldwide, especially in the field of education. As well as being an invited feature at many educational conferences on both sides of the Atlantic, there were showings of the film in the White House; in Lambeth Palace; to the South African Police commissioner and to heads of 14 of his 18 departments; in convents, schools and the Maize Prison in N. Ireland. The occasion that perhaps meant the most was when I delivered a copy of the video to a young unmarried English mum in Ontario. She had seen it on TV and commissioned a friend to find a copy. It took him two years and as I was about to go to Canada I delivered it myself. She told me that seeing it had been an inspiration for her; that it had been the one thing that had kept her going during the two previous difficult years. It was worth making the film just for her.

In the Czech Republic, the film is currently a recommended resource for their new Civic Educational Curriculum and is in the process of going to all 5,000 schools. So far 2,000 have been covered. It goes out through seminars entitled 'Jedno Slovo Pravdy' (One Word of Truth) for teachers of Civics, History and Literature. I undertook to raise the costs involved 100,000 - 20 per school which covered video, Resource Pack and seminar support. The job is yet to be completed - we still need the last 66,000. The film, available in 17 languages, is popular in the compulsory 'Theory of Knowledge' module of the International Baccalaureate syllabus. A massive distribution in China, yet to happen, could have a huge impact there where 12 years ago the word dissident was barely comprehended. There's an opportunity for someone who loves China to see this through.

In December 1989 the world witnessed a violent revolution (often referred to as the 'so-called revolution' in Romania. I, like millions, was moved by the events. A five-minute conversation two months later was another milestone which altered the focus of my life, without changing in any way my basic commitment. I was in Scotland in the home of an old school and university rowing partner. His wife said she wanted to do something for Romania and I offered to be a driver. I returned that evening from showing 'One Word of Truth' in a school, and she said that a friend of hers would come too. We were 'on'.

That five-minute conversation led me to start the medical charity 'Medical Support in Romania' (MSR). Since then 95 medical special ists and engineers have made 154 visits to Romania under MSR's auspices and over 50 Romanians have been to the UK for training. I have been a driver for all 17 supply-runs to the 1148 bed Salaj District Hospital in Zalau and made 27 visits in all. Seven X-ray units have been installed in Salaj Hospital and a year ago we replaced the entire laundry with 10 tons of refurbished equipment. We have an as yet unfunded '6.5 million Infrastructure Project at the hospital which has been accepted by the Romanian Ministry of Health as a pilot for the whole country. It will be managed by Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge.

The medical specialists as well as the eleven who have gone out to teach English in the hospital all raise their own travel costs and give their time free. This volunteering activity not only enables MSR to achieve much more than would otherwise be possible, it also sets a fine example to a nation where the State used to do everything, and volunteering is neither commonplace nor well understood. One Romanian doctor even asked a mutual friend whether I was a spy!

The big gift from the 80's and 90's has been friendship with many people from Eastern and Central Europe, especially Russia, Romania and the Czech Republic. These countries suffered hugely under communism, and yet I have always felt enriched by such friends. It is a reality that those who have suffered the most have the most to give. All that we do in Romania is tempered by this realisation. Those who go to assess needs and give training return feeling they have received far more than they have been able to give. A Norwegian friend who knows many of the Soviet dissidents once said that for Russians friendship always has to be more than just words. This is why I was glad that my first visit to a post- communist country involved practical help.

Aid is potentially corrupting but in the right spirit it need not be. Indeed it could be the lever to reducing corruption in the receiving countries. The aid given to UK National Health Service (NHS) hospitals by their 'League of Friends' is massive and non-corrupting. It can be the same for Romania. Salaj District Hospital is MSR's partner in seeking to improve Romanian hospital health care. As new standards and techniques are piloted there, the hospital's weaknesses are also exposed, making it vulnerable. We salute the hospital for being such a willing partner.

Ten years ago my only experience of hospitals was as a patient. If anyone had asked me whether I would ever be involved in such work I would have looked blank and questioned their sanity. The truth is that we all need anvils on which to work out our calling. Change does not happen in a vacuum. Others may find their calling within education, business, the civil service or elsewhere. Wherever it is, people exist and need care, vision and challenge. The nature of the friendship we give those we meet will define our effectiveness in this world where people are the key to a 21st century that works. I recently heard a description of the process of giving friendship - the widening of our inner space for others. We can all do that, and there is no knowing where it will lead.

My great grandfather, Admiral McClintock, spent nine years in the Arctic searching for the remains of Franklin. He had a motto, 'Persevere unto the end'. I have made it my own and would recommend it to anyone. His motto was the most tangible benefit I gained from my interest in matters Arctic and Antarctic. I have no regrets.

Patrick Colquhoun, UK

E-mail: patrick.colquhoun@ntlworld.com


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