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Interview: Jeremy Moodey, CEO, Embrace the Middle East

24 October 2014

'I love football, but I've always been rubbish, so I got qualified as a referee'

Embrace the Middle East is the fairly new name for BibleLands, the 160-year old Christian charity. Most people have seen our Bethlehem Carol Sheets, but our core mission is as an ecumenical development charity. We fund hospitals, schools, refugee centres, and community programmes run by indigenous Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Syria.

I became chief executive almost five years ago. I met a headhunter at a cocktail party at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

My career at first glance was no preparation at all for running a development charity. I served with the Foreign Office as a diplomat, and then I spent 15 years as a City investment banker. But God's planning is unimpeachable: my networking skills from the Foreign Office and my financial skills from the City have been invaluable at Embrace. And I have learnt a few new skills, too. 

Our biggest change, of course, was to rebrand the charity from BibleLands to Embrace the Middle East in 2012. It was bold, but one that we needed to do, as the charity's image seemed out of date.

Most people think charities are run by cuddly amateurs, but we must attract supporters, just as companies must attract customers. We compete with other Christian charities, and secular ones who know that Christians give more generously. For instance, Tearfund and the Children's Society produce carol sheets, like us. Of course, the ideal is not to fight for a bigger share of a small cake, as it were, but to make a much bigger cake. 

We've changed a lot under the bonnet, too. Our iconic Bethlehem Carol Sheets are free now, to attract new supporters; and we're more professional in our grant-making and programme work. There's still much to do, not least because there are still many Christians who don't realise that we are the biggest UK Christian development charity focused exclusively on places where Jesus walked.

The Christians through whom we work are often tiny minorities in their communities; so most of the people they serve are from other faiths, particularly Muslims. This is most obvious in Gaza, where 1.8 million people are effectively imprisoned in a space no bigger than the Isle of Wight. The Christian community now numbers just 1313 - we conducted a survey recently - so they are less than 0.01 per cent of the population. But they serve their community.

Many supporters have been with us for 30 or more years, but we're also attracting many new supporters, especially at festivals such as Greenbelt. 

It is never easy to raise money. We're a fairly small charity. There are just nine in the fund-raising team in our office in Buckinghamshire, many of them part-timers, with two regional managers out on the road. We're also blessed with a committed volunteer team. But our supporters are very loyal and generous, especially when it comes to remembering Embrace in their wills. Legacies accounted for a quarter of our voluntary income last year. 

People have been incredibly generous in responding to our recent emergency appeals for Syria and Gaza. 

The situation in Syria has had an enormous impact on our work. The terrible civil war has led to the displacement of ten million people - about half of the pre-war population. The needs of the many refugees and internally displaced persons are almost overwhelming. And yet, in both Lebanon - where there are maybe 1.2 million Syrian refugees, swelling the population by a quarter - and in Syria, there's a vibrant Christian response. 

One of the questions we are confronting, given that we focus on a part of the world which is in almost constant crisis, is how we balance the demand for humanitarian relief with longer-term development needs. 

Many people see the Middle East in terms of religious conflict; but there have been times in the region when the different faiths have co- existed perfectly happily. The long-running sore of the Israel-Palestine conflict is, primarily, a political struggle over how to share the land. This leads to major economic problems, and, in particular, youth unemployment, which was one of the key drivers of the Arab Spring uprisings.

As Christians, we have to hope that peace is possible in the Middle East. At the last General Synod in York I gave a talk, "Ten Reasons for Hope in the Middle East", and my audience were surprised that I could come up with ten.

I am not sure what I think of the West's latest military action. All violence is to be deplored. I spoke out forcefully against Western military intervention in the Syrian civil war against the Assad regime, arguing that it made no sense to try and end the bloodshed by more bloodshed. Western interventions in the Middle East have often been disastrous. But the militant extremists of the Islamic State are a new and frightening phenomenon, and the international community needs to respond quickly and forcefully. 

I never had a Damascus-road conversion. I think I always knew that God existed. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. At university, I got involved in the Christian Union and drawn to fairly Evangelical Anglicanism, and what I hope is a more intimate knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ.

I was adopted with my twin brother as a baby; so I don't know much about my biological family, although I did meet some of them later. But not my natural mother or father, who had both died by then. 

I grew up with my adoptive family in Essex, and went to a comprehensive in Clacton-on-Sea. The principal merit of Clacton was the endless supply of summer jobs. I worked as a bingo caller and as a barrow boy at Butlins. 

I love football, but I've always been rubbish at sport, having two left feet and zero co-ordination; so I got qualified as a referee. I'm a long-suffering fan of Tottenham Hotspur and try to see them sometimes with my children. I still referee amateur matches at the weekend, and I absolutely love it, notwithstanding the abuse that's regularly hurled in my direction. I just like to be in charge.

My favourite activity is fell-walking in the Lake District. I love its remoteness and the sheer beauty. I'd have to opt for Italy as my favourite country, though. I was posted to Rome as a diplomat for three years, so managed to pick up the language. I fell in love with the people, their slightly chaotic but laid-back lifestyle, their cuisine, and, of course, their beautiful country. 

For many years, I wanted to go into politics; and, at one stage, I tried to become a parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives. I came second in seven successive constituency contests, so decided that God had other plans for me. But not before I wrote a rather splenetic piece about the chaotic selection process for The Guardian. It was quite rude about the Tories and how they chose their MPs. 

My other burning ambition is to become an actor. Directing and acting in a production of The Elephant Man in my first Foreign Office posting in Islamabad was my thespian high point. 

My favourite music is the theme tune to Match of the Day. It's been playing for 50 years now. When I was a child, to hear it meant that I had somehow managed to persuade my parents that I could stay up after Kojak to watch the football. 

My greatest influence was my adoptive mother. She wasn't the easiest of women, and she had many sadnesses in her life, but she was strong and determined and always wanted the best for me, while pushing me hard. I'm quite a driven personality, which has its downsides, but it's also due in large measure to Mum. 

I love reading history, which was my subject at university, especially Middle Eastern history. Richard Rohr's book about middle age, Falling Upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life, has had a big impact on me recently. I found his call to transition from the egocentric and dualistic first half of life to a soul-centric and more reflective second half compelling: something I'm still working on. 

I try to pray every day, although I have often struggled to find a good prayer routine. I particularly love praying with my wife, Ruth. We pray for friends and family who are ill or in need, and, of course, for the situation in the Middle East. I also pray a lot for my three grown-up children. Once your children are older, the one thing you can do as a parent is pray daily for them.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with St Francis of Assisi. I hope I'd have enough Italian to communicate with him, and I'd love to hear how he had the courage to cross enemy lines and meet the Sultan of Egypt. 

Jeremy Moodey was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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