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Interview: Ray Barnett, founder, the African Children’s Choir and Friends In The West

20 December 2019

If I need a doctor, a lawyer, I can call up one of my children

I love what I do, and just can’t seem to stop doing it. I could be visiting our projects in Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, from my base in Coleraine; or at home making phone calls, or on the road when the choir is touring.

I was persuaded to write Don’t Tell Me It Can’t Be Done, my autobiography, so that the children of the choir could know my story.

I’ve done a lot of things that people said couldn’t be done. We prayed for Christian leaders during the Cold War, and that led to taking action during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when we helped thousands of Shia families. Then when people like Terry Anderson, an AP journalist, and Terry Waite were kidnapped in Lebanon, we had a connection which provided an opportunity for me to negotiate with leaders of Hezbollah and talk to Lambeth Palace.

I’ve been involved in a lot of war zones in Africa and the Middle East, but the meeting in Beirut was one of the most intimidating moments. We’d already helped 24,000 Shia families on the coast. A couple of years later, I got another call, asking me to come again.

I said I can’t do much because of the Western hostages. If they could be freed, maybe help could come. Within weeks, I was invited to Nigeria where the Hezbollah went for R & R, and met their leader, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. I wondered what I’d say to him. I told him that we had something in common: “You’re considered as a radical Muslim, I a radical Christian. What can we talk about?”

The sheikh said something that changed my life. “Worship is not just when we are on our knees. Worship is every action we take during the day. You being here to talk about the hostages is an act of worship.” I told him I believed in prayer. He was very forthcoming, and that built a relationship that lasted till all the hostages got out. I found out later that he knew I’d served in the south of Lebanon helping Shia families, and had great respect for people doing genuine humanitarian work. I felt he trusted me.

I had a few supporters who prayed with me and funded me,
and there was always the money to go. I had practically no budget, just asking God for wisdom and guidance. Yes, the work continues because the persecution of Christians is worse than it’s ever been in many countries in the world.

I started an organisation called Friends in the West in the late 1970s, when a Canadian journalist challenged me to help imprisoned Christians in the Gulags. I wanted to be a voice for them and get them released, which I was able to do with the help of German lawyer Wolfgang Volger. A United Nations diplomat said: “Ray, nothing will happen at the UN; but I like what you’re trying to do.” He introduced me to Congressman John Buchanan. They didn’t think anything could be done, but we wrote out a resolution on a brown paper bag in his office. Suddenly, he had over 100 Congressmen wanting to back this bill, the first of its kind. It helped secure the release of many more people like Georgi Vins and the Siberian Seven.

I read about the “lost boys” of Sudan in Life magazine. Five thousand orphans were sent to Ethiopia, but were not accepted and turned back. One thousand were lost, but the rest ended up in Southern Sudan. I wanted to find them, and we did find them. We set up a school, and got food and support from over the border in Kenya. They all got immigration status to leave for American and Canada.

While I was there, I was ordained a deacon in the Church of Sudan, because the bishop wanted me to be able to speak out for Christians in the civil war.

I’d been involved in Idi Amin’s Uganda, when half a million Christians were put to death. I went back during the Ethiopian famine which was impacting Uganda, which was in a civil war. The Ugandan prime minister asked me to go to Lueuro, the killing fields of Uganda, to help there. I was so discouraged by the pictures of the emaciated Ethiopian and Ugandan children, but I wanted to show their potential. The idea just came out of me: why don’t we start an African children’s choir?

Two years before, we’d given a little boy a ride, and asked him if he could sing. He sang a beautiful chorus to us, and we recorded it. The image of this bright, beautiful, articulate child is what people needed to see. I said to the prime minister: “You’re in a civil war and a famine. How can we get passports and visas for these orphans to come to Western countries?” He said: “I’ll get the passports; you get the visas.”

A year later, in 1984, our first tour came to the UK and Canada. There’s never been a day since when there hasn’t been one of our choirs touring somewhere in the world.

We really look after all the boys in the choir programme. Three boys showed up in bad shape, but I said, take them in. I’m proud to say that one is now a specialist doctor at Yale. His brother became a teaching consultant in Kampala, and the other is one of East Africa’s leading civil engineers. Another of our children is the top anchorman in Kenya, and another baby, the sole survivor in a Rwandan massacre, is now a nurse in the American air force. If I need a doctor, a lawyer, I can call up one of my children.

We never wanted them to say they were orphans. They were part of our family, and I’ve been the legal guardian for every child. We put them through university as far as they could go. Now we’re working with a major-general in the Marines to provide an ongoing mentorship programme for them. Every one of our children has performed for queens, presidents, the Diamond Jubilee, Live 8. . .

We’re now on the 50th choir. They still tour the UK. They’ve performed at the Royal Albert Hall and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert, and we have several CDs of their music, including a Christmas album with Annie Lennox. They were once invited to Betty Boothroyd’s house for a wonderful party with all the MPs, and there was a front-page picture of them in The Times, bouncing on her bed.

I joined a marching band in Ireland, and couldn’t keep time with a triangle; but I went to one of the new intermediate schools under the Labour government, and a music teacher showed me the first kindness I’d known. I was dyslexic, before people knew what dyslexia was, but she realised something was wrong and arranged lessons for me with her father, who was a retired teacher. We became lifelong friends.

When I was on Esther Rantzen’s Hearts of Gold, I thought it would be a little clip about the choir; but there were 2000 people for me, and my kind teacher, Miss Lee.

When I was 13, someone asked me if I was a Christian. I told them I went to Sunday school, to which they replied that I needed to be born again, and told me the story of Nicodemus. I went home to my bedroom and asked the Lord Jesus to come into my life. I was inspired by the story of David Livingstone, but while I aspired to be like him, I never dreamed I’d work in Africa and help others.

I grew up in a poor area of Coleraine in Northern Ireland as a member of the Ross family, without realising that I wasn’t born into that family. I believed my mother had been killed in the London blitz, but, through a strange series of events, I discovered her and met her in London when I was 16.

Today, I live in Vancouver and Coleraine. Sadly, my wife passed away a few years ago, but I have three grown-up children and grandchildren.

I want the young people who’ve grown up through the choir to continue the work of healing through music, and helping people who are marginalised for their faith. There are greater divisions today than we’ve ever seen before. Peace nee ds to be made — that’s the Churches’ challenge.

Seeing people communicate with each other despite their religious and political differences gives me hope for the future. That’s what politics used to be like. We had the joy of being entertained at 10 Downing Street, where one of the wives was up early cooking for the children, and she told me that her daughter was volunteering overseas. Normal people with families are out there serving, and you never hear about that.

I’m happiest when someone finds faith in Christ.

I love the sound of trumpets.

I’ll be celebrating Christmas at home in Vancouver with my children and grandkids and members of the African Children’s Choir, who I consider family.

I pray for people to find peace in their hearts.

If I was locked in a place of worship, I’d like it to be with all of the disciples in the Upper Room.

Ray Barnett was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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