En Route to Porto Alegre

My parents had hit on a way to keep their expression of loyalty to Jesus as simple and unpretentious as possible by the time they got married and moved to Strabane. They took up with fellow-travellers who saw things the same way – the Plymouth Brethren.

This was (and is) a gloriously modest movement of Jesus-followers whose simple approach emanated, not from Plymouth, but from North Wicklow of all places. This simplicity principle seems to have worked since they have poured out an astonishing stream of linguists, public servants, writers, university academics, missionaries, poets and scientists.

The Wilsons didn’t join – nobody “joined”; there was no joining to do. They were never interested in some sort of denominational “signing up”. Their guideline was, “Any friend of Jesus is a friend of ours”.

I’m not sure that Joe and Annie were unnecessarily worried about Plymouth or Wicklow. They just wanted to meet and work for God with a few like-minded friends. The friends in Strabane didn’t look at all like poets or scientists – more like tradesmen, farmers and shopkeepers. They referred to themselves as “the Assembly” which sounds rather grand and was better captured by the everyday word we so often used, “the Meeting”.

And boy, did we meet. On Tuesday evenings we met to study the Bible (obviously), on Friday evening to pray, on Sunday morning for a super-simple version of Communion, Sunday afternoon for Sunday School (which was indeed like school) and, wait for it, Sunday evening again for someone to expand on a Bible passage with personal application. So what would we do on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays? Fear not, we had the occasional meeting for international visitors to deliver a report, because this small (you’d have to say miniscule) group supported missionary work all over the world.

It was not at all unusual, although it was exciting, to hear from a visiting missionary about the latest situation in Venezuela, Congo, Malaysia, Tibet or wherever. Just by sitting there for a couple of years, any child would get a crash course in human geography. This is as good as you’d get in a lot of secondary education.

You got history too. Simply by reading the Bible a child would encounter the civilisations of the ancient Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Roman empire and the first millennium of the Jewish people. Tranquil Strabane wasn’t a bad place to get this kind of cultural grounding. And kids without any additional schooling would get those same basics (and indeed they still do) if they are in a similar upbringing in Congo, India – or New York for that matter.

What the Meeting lacked in quantity it made up for in colour. You had the McMonigle family from a farm halfway to Derry where the ancient Mr McMonigle senior made short shrift of the argument of a couple of young Jehovah’s Witnesses who made it as far as his farm door, They claimed that Jesus had reappeared years ago. But, unlike Mr McMonigle, they were too young to be eye witnesses.  “Do you people believe that the church of God went home to heaven in 1917?” asked the farming pensioner. “Yes we do – exactly.” “Well I joined the church of God in 1913 and I thinka woulda heerd aboot it.”

His home-spun theology was nothing like as thorough as Lottie McCreedy’s whom I remember fondly as my Sunday School teacher. She started me on memorising Bible passages – just a little at first, then longer ones – like a whole chapter. When I was about ten I was asked, in all seriousness, which book of the Bible I would now like to learn. And I said, also in all seriousness, “The letter to the Hebrews”. That used up the next year or so, but I got there in the end. It’s funny how, still to this day, the ancient wisdom in that book comes back to jog my memory and caution my steps.

Or take the case of Harry Wilson (no relation – Wilsons are as cheap as chips!). Harry was a figure of fun to some of the customers in the draper’s shop where he worked because he was “always going on about the Bible”. Harry hadn’t had a cross-cultural communications course in how to deal with regular human beings. He had no fancy education at all. They called him “The man of one Book”. But, lo and behold, he decides one day that God has guided him to become a missionary to Brazil.

The wise ones of the Meeting mulled that over for a while, a good while, and eventually let him go, wondering, just a little bit, whatever would happen to our Harry. Contrary to expectations, Harry landed in Brazil, learned Portuguese, and launched into years of giving successful Bible courses all over the place. Before long we were hearing of his grateful listeners from the most tropical-sounding locations like Rio Grande Do Sul and Porto Alegre

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A Chemical Christmas

Both my father and mother imagined that all of us children would surely want to be involved in our back garden – sowing, weeding, all that kind of thing. My laziness and impatience (I had no time whatsoever for weeding) were expressed in my planting choice – gladioli. I could just stick a few of the big bulbs in my assigned front-row plot in the spring and in the summer – bingo. Visitors to our back garden never said, “Oh, I do like the potatoes and carrots”. They couldn’t see past the gladioli doing their ostentatious thing. I always felt like I was somehow cheating but I could never figure out to whom I should confess.

One afternoon when my parents were away for the day, they left clear instructions as to how I was to weed the shallots, of which we had a long, raised bed. Like I said, I was not a natural weeder – I thought of my approach as being more scientific and effective. To me weeding seemed like work and not suitable for a pleasant Saturday. So I roped in my friend Philip Brown to help – he was our doctor’s son who was visiting and surely he would share my technical approach to things. My brainwave was to remove all the plants of every kind from the raised bed – shallots and weeds alike. Then, once the weeds were discarded en masse one could clean off the shallots and pop them back in again. I couldn’t imagine how no-one had ever thought of this before.

Apparently, there’s a good reason why our novel method had remained untried. It doesn’t work. It ruins the planting of the shallots. It causes your parents to have to plant new shallots all over again. For me the only good thing that come out of this exercise was Philip’s presence. My parents held his father the doctor in very high regard so his association with the weeding venture somewhat took the edge of blame off me.

The back garden also accommodated two sheds. One was a henhouse. My mother wasn’t about to put all that good Donegal hen-keeping training to waste. The other was the “coal-house”. This had originally been designed to house our coal. In those days the “coal-man” would come on schedule and manhandle the required number of bags into a bunker within the shed. By the time I was attending secondary school I regarded the rest of the coalhouse as my own exclusive scientific laboratory.

Some kind relative had given me a chemistry set at Christmas and that was enough to get me going. I tried every experiment in the instruction booklet and then set off on a teenage-scientific career of my own. It beat weeding any day.

I started with making cuprammonium crystals – ridiculously easy to make by adding copper sulphate to ammonium. You can easily grow them up to half an inch long and you can easily convince your mother that such a lovely creation makes the whole coalhouse lab a worthwhile pursuit.

Thus emboldened, I went on to make coal-gas using the test-tubes supplied in the set. You could set fire to the little flame of gas. I thought this was appropriate for a coalhouse, never imagining the havoc that would have been wreaked had the whole shed gone up. Manufacture of hydrogen was now calling and I rose to that task too. It doesn’t burn with a small flame but it explodes with a hopefully “small pop” – well, the booklet said it would be a small pop. Now it was time for pharmaceuticals.

It had become known to me that you could write away for mail-order supplies of chemicals if you wanted to mix a new compound (I think it was written on the original cardboard box the set came in). And there was indeed a new compound I wanted to make. Our parents long had extolled the virtues of Andrews Liver Salt and I discovered that it tells you on the tin exactly what’s in there (I guess they legally have to). My supplies duly arrived and I did the mix and drank it. I waited and waited but it never produced the normal laxative effect. Either I got the formula wrong or I had, by that time, developed a cast-iron constitution.

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The Jackdaw Showdown

Although we spent the first two years of my life “downtown” at No. 18 Church Street, Strabane, my father then decided that he didn’t want his children “being brought up by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street” but by himself and my mother. So we moved about three quarters of a mile up the hill outside the town, to a house rented from my father’s uncle, Johnny Kee.

This sounds like the idyllic country life (the address, after all, was “Greenhurst, Curly Hill”) but it had its challenges. We were not connected to the town’s sewerage system (thus involving my father in recurrent monkeying around with a septic tank), a previous tenant was said to have been murdered there, the building was surrounded by a jungle that would have done the Amazon proud and, most ironic of all, we had no electricity – in 1950 the service just hadn’t made it that far out of civilisation.

There were upsides, like the evocative lighting of the oil lamps in the evening with their feathery mantles, the smell of paraffin oil and hiss as the pressure was pumped up. And neither Tom, Dick nor Harry were anywhere to be found.

For a while the bane of this country life, from my father’s point of view, was the flock of jackdaws who took up residence in our chimney every March. Their nests, made from twigs, had a way of rendering our flues all but impassable to the smoke. Not only did the smoke empty out into the living room but, much more dangerous for birds and humans, the twigs caught alight from time to time. As kids we thought this very exciting but our father took a dimmer view because it could set the whole chimney on fire and this could to lead to setting the house on fire.

An idea slowly settled on Dad’s mind. There was only one thing to be done with the jackdaws. Shoot them. Even if you only hit a couple of them surely that would scare off the rest of the flock. Then into the edge of Dad’s mind crept a sub-idea. He knew someone with a shotgun – none other than the son of the Key family, his very own cousin. He was, in effect, our landlord and he surely wouldn’t like to hear of the house being burned to the ground by jackdaws. So a discreet visit was paid to the Keys’ farmhouse.

That’s how a shotgun and ammunition ended up in our hallway. I’m not sure who exactly had the licence for this thing but let’s not get technical. Early the next morning, before he went out to work, my father sneaked out to the garden, loaded the shotgun, took note of where the jackdaws were (not difficult – they generated an almighty racket), took aim and “Bang!” It appears that these particular jackdaws weren’t stupid. Between our Dad’s taking aim and the bang they had transferred from the chimney to a local tree.

He tried again the next morning. Same result. A battle of minds began to unfold, since Dad wasn’t stupid either. He was giving them too much time to re-locate. Why not load the gun in the hallway, thus cutting out one stage and being ready the exact moment he emerged out the front door? (A point of detail here – our house had a little raised threshold in the doorstep)

So the following morning, with somewhat of a swagger, the neophyte gunman loaded the gun, listened for the jackdaws (you could easily hear them from the hallway) and made a run for it. It ended up not so much a run as a step – a step which tripped on that threshold of ours and produced not only a bang but also a hole in the hall ceiling.

I think Joe Wilson was a little late to work that day because, instead of driving his van to the Board’s premises, he drove it straight to Keys’ and handed over a hot shotgun, scared out of his wits but forever chastened on the subject. The jackdaws held a small champagne reception after Dad had safely gone to work.

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The Physics Tutor

The next event on my horizon was to leave home, leave Strabane and go to college. But, before I would go, it seemed the decent thing to do to meet our townful of neighbours on a more individual basis – better than the shallow kind of chat you might get with the crushing crowds on a race day.

Again, the Electricity Board came to my assistance. Because they supplied electricity to everyone in town they needed to know where every single house was. So they made use of a very large ordnance survey map, which was replaced every few years – I guess to accommodate the possibility of new places being built. They threw the old ones away which is how they came into my possession (they might as well have kept them since the likelihood of anybody building new houses in Strabane was pretty remote!)

The map allowed me not to miss anybody over the next few months. I found there was no correlation whatever between what people really believed and their social status, denomination or politics. When I arrived at somebody’s front door unannounced with Bible materials (and of course the Board’s map) on the carrier of my bike there was simply no telling what they would say.

Funnily enough, nobody took me for a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon – I just didn’t fit that image. One guy seemed vastly relived that he could now talk to somebody about the Bible which he had read privately at home for years. One woman told me where to get lost because she thought I was soft in the head. Overall, the experience was an eye-opener, or maybe best said, an ear-opener. There was no such thing as the general public. Everyone had their own sense of where the dial stood as they measured their relationship with God. Some were stuck, some unsure, some open to try a Bible view on the subject. But many were open to chat. I didn’t run into many atheists.

Some Donegal people regard Strabane (and not Lifford) as if it were their county town. The border was so thin you could hardly see it. It struck me that people in the surrounding Donegal towns would be as open to talk as the Strabane locals were. So, by the time I left home I had acquired a working familiarity with the hinterland of Lifford. Same bike, same Bible, no need for a map (it’s hard to miss Donegal). But since everything was further away it required a weather forecast.

A few months later I had a sudden wake-up call to the fact that not everybody was as open to chat. I had just left Strabane (and Donegal, the Board, the lot) behind me forever to study in Trinity College Dublin. They processed you in your first week, getting you fixed up with a library card, a schedule of lectures, lab hours (I was going to study microbiology) and an appointment with your tutor who would sign your form as being in loco parentis – in the place of parents (couldn’t help thinking, “Good luck with that!”)

Nobody had told me about this “tutoring” thing. All I knew was what you see in popular culture about Oxford and Cambridge where a ring of dutiful, doting students arrange themselves around an avuncular professor who dispenses knowledge to them in mercifully bite-sized chunks. I was curious to know how they would do this with microbiology. I walked over to what they call the “back” of College to meet my tutor in his office (curiously, in the Physics department).

He signed the form as per normal and then asked me what I’d like to do after I graduated. By now you know that I said. “I want to be a missionary”. That didn’t suit him at all. “I hope you don’t start that kind of thing around here!”, he replied. “Well, actually, I hope to do just that. Indeed, I have a Bible here in my pocket for when I need it”. I had just lit the touch-paper on his explosive rocket.

The next full five minutes was a rant against Christian faith, missionaries and the Bible, to which he took great exception. “If that were to be published today it would be banned as obscene!” he now roared. The onslaught was so total that all I could murmur was, “I believe the Bible from beginning to end so I’m going to have to take my business elsewhere” and I walked out, although I had no idea of where I would “take my business”.

Now I had a new question – had I scuppered my chances of a college education because I couldn’t have a civilised conversation with my tutor? I asked around and found that my tutor would have little to do with my college career. My appointment with the tutor was merely a perfunctory obligation and I already had from him all I needed – his signature on that form. I never saw him again in my life.

Little did he know it, but the tutor’s intervention strengthened my resolve in one matter. I would treat the citizens of Dublin just as I had learned in Strabane and Donegal. Before long I had an arrangement to share time on a city-centre book-barrow that offered a good range of portions of the New Testament on O’Connell Street. Of course, to trade like that on the street you needed a certificate (now called a casual trading licence). Which makes sense of my diary entry for later that year which notes that I had “almost forgotten to renew my pedlar’s certificate”. Horrors!

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The Carricklee Races

The time came for me to transfer to the local secondary school, Strabane Grammar School, which had been opened two years before to great fanfare. The “Grammar” bit sounded posh but it turned out to be simply moving on to “big school”. I went with my father to be interviewed by the shiny new principal, James Wilson (no relation). He was a staunchly self-professed atheist so he was somewhat taken aback when he asked me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and I replied, “I want to be a missionary”.  He adjusted his rimless glasses and said two words to my father: “Passing fancy?” to which my heroic father replied (you’ll just have to imagine his stammer), “No, that’s really what he wants to do”.

My father was holding this conversation in an imaginary world since neither he nor my mother had experienced anything “secondary” about education. Now he was installing me in a lighthouse educational institution that introduced me to George Orwell through Politics and the English language, Seán O’Casey through The Plough and the Stars, and that same James Wilson who instilled in me his excellent vision of a clinically exacting discipline in Physics.

How all this was going to prepare me for missionary work was a question never far from my mind. I had read the old tomes of biographies that told the tales of missionary doctors like David Livingstone. Maybe I should be a doctor and get serious about the biological sciences (after all I had attempted to breed newts, found in a near-by quarry, in a makeshift aquarium under my bed). But it was not to be. My parents’ instinctive intuition woke up and advised me that being a doctor was too much for me to aim for.

Meanwhile there was a simple realisation hurtling towards me – how authentic would any kind of fancy mission work be if it didn’t work right there in Strabane, let alone on the far side of the world? And how would one address oneself to Strabane collectively? The solution was hiding in plain sight. There was one occasion per year when Strabane gathered itself together, despite any tribal differences – the Carricklee Races.

This was a point-to-point event held every St Patrick’s Day just outside the town. You could have a nice cup of tea in the marquee, maybe a wee drink and, let’s not forget, a flutter on the horses from stables all over Ireland. The chairman of the event was one Dan Smyth. Dan occupied three positions in our firmament. He was the owner of Smyth’s Mills in Strabane producing animal feed (a treasured commodity) and he was the chair of the Carricklee Races and he was a director of the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland – that very Board which employed my father.

I was advised that only Dan Smyth could give the go-ahead for my scheme to occupy one of the stalls at the races for the sale of high-quality, low-price copies of the Gospels. On the appointed day I went to his office in the mill to hear the verdict. It wasn’t the verdict I was looking for. He thought he knew more about racing than I did – and he wasn’t wrong! “It’s not exactly a Bible-reading moment” was his final word and, despite my positive assurance that any moment could be a Bible-reading moment, he wouldn’t budge.

My gallant father, who had fully supported my approach to his boss’s boss’s boss, then also complied with Plan B. The key to this plan was that my Dad, in the pursuit of his everyday work, knew every lane in the Strabane district, including the one that led to the Racecourse entrance. I had a (fresh new) driving licence so he drove me to Derry, we hired a small van, I drove it back, stocked it with the aforementioned Gospels and parked it on the grass verge beside that entrance lane.

The public had a great day at the races that 17th March with unfettered access to great reading material on the way in and out, without the clutter of other stalls. There’s nothing like a well-read race-going punter.

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Thank you, Strabane

The rendezvous between my mother, the original country girl from a windswept mountainside in southern Donegal, with my father, the original city boy from Derry, was unique.

Saturday nights in Derry during the Second World War were a sight to behold. Mainly because there was nothing to behold at all. It was under strict Blackout laws – not a chink of light to be seen. That didn’t stop Guildhall Square filling up with all the girls and guys trying to get in touch with each other. Including Annie Myles and her besotted admirer, Joe Wilson.

The enterprising Joe had found a way to make his presence known amongst all the various voices in the heaving multitude. He whistled. And not just any old whistle. He whistled the hymn “It is well with my soul”. It was almost like a bird call which invariably produced Annie by his side.  By the magic of romance Joe (now a budding Derry electrician) married Annie (the manager of the transport café at Guildhall Square) and moved to Strabane, County Tyrone, a town which would be called “quiet” by travel writers in the unlikely event that they ever get that far.

Eventually Strabane was introduced to the TV-watching public when an unsuspecting reporter, Charles Witherspoon, arrived there in 1970 to check on unemployment. A little group of men obligingly protested in front of the Town Hall.

Their self-appointed spokesman was George Cunningham and he had a little statement ready which was captured on camera. It was never clear who captured whom because our George laid into the reporter at the top of his lungs. It sounded like he had served his apprenticeship in an iron-foundry (you can still see George on YouTube).

So, at 10 out of 10 on the sound dial he gives it the full wellie:

George “My wife is employed but I’m not employed and there’s a Council inside this Town Hall that doesn’t give the…” at which point the valiant Charles from Ulster Television says,

Charles “I’m sorry, yir movin round, yi see, an’ the camera can’t get yi.”

George “There’s a Council in Strabane” (same volume)

Charles “Wait, wait, wait, take yir time, take yir time”

George “Yiss… We’ve got a council in Strabane that doesn’t give work to the people that’s born in the town. They don’t give out the houses to the people that’s born in the town. I’ve been threw out several times in the town and I had to go to the minister in Stormont to fight for fair play”

Charles “Now, just a moment”

Our man in Strabane had, however, put his finger on the town’s main issue, unemployment. Somehow he thought that the Town Hall contained all these jobs that were missing. In the meantime Strabane male unemployment rose to the highest level of any town in the European Union.

Many years later Channel Four declared Strabane as the third worst place to live in the United Kingdom. Strabane found that hard to take from a Channel that only made it to number Four – and how closely did Strabane ever enjoy the embrace of the United Kingdom anyway? Channel Four executives were invited to the town to judge for themselves. The next year it was the eighth worst.

So, it was against the trend that my father moved to Strabane from Derry in 1946 to take up employment. He started to work with the electricity service, then known as the “Electricity Board of Northern Ireland”. The Board never had a more faithful employee than Joe Wilson. Soon his job entailed being on call every second weekend, ready to respond to emergencies such as outages due to extreme weather.

Those “call-outs” routinely involved my father in driving far into the countryside to switch off the current on the major lines carried by electricity pylons so the system could be worked on. This often meant replacing a fuse.

Now this was not like the fuse in the plug of your bedside table. It was a glass tube about a foot long containing carbon tetrachloride around a spring-loaded coil. And this thing was perched as high as a house on the pylon overhead. You man-handled the tube into position by attaching it to telescopic fibreglass “operating rods” which reached up that high. And of course the reason you were there in the first place was that it was blowing gale-force winds. In the middle of the night.

It wasn’t always in the middle of the night. Unbelievably, my father would sometimes bring one of us kids with him. We would watch in a mixture of awe and apprehension as the storm wrestled with the operating rods which weaved around in the sky till, with a quick lunge of our father’s strength, they hit their target with a satisfying hiss not unlike a strike of lightning. Maybe that was one of the reasons we thought we all worked for the Board. It certainly provided a unique bonding experience with our Dad and made up for missing him on quite a number of Christmas dinners because he was on call.

Changing fuses had a side benefit. My father reclaimed the spent fuses – which weren’t broken – they just weren’t working. So when you took the cap off them you could harvest the carbon tetrachloride which was marvelous as a cleaning agent for textiles. Research later found out that it can affect the central nervous system. Oops. Good job we did most of the cleaning experiments in the back yard.

The Board’s territory in Strabane went right up the border with the Republic on its western side and included a technical enclave in Derry, requiring regular visits to the city of my father’s birth. As he drove up Aberfoyle Crescent one day my father remarked “I was born twice in that house” to one of his workmates in the van. There was no response for half a minute and then the man said, “You what?”. “I was born twice in that house”. “How come?” “Being born the first time wasn’t enough. I needed to be born again”. My father, the life-long stammerer, was never stuck for explanations of his spiritual life.

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Max and the Stick Insect

From the beginning of our visit to Ufa we wanted to understand Bashkir State University.

I was amazed how many students were studying philology and also how many students who had never even left the city could speak English. One evening we were invited to a “student party”. Banish any ideas of student parties in which you may have participated. The only music at this party was soft elevator-type music to enrich the conversation which was to take place around a circular table. The only students attending spoke good English. And, although we were so keen to learn, it soon became clear that they were gasping to learn about the West.

A girl with a loud black and white polka dot dress sat down on my left and, without further ado, asked, “What did you think of the screen-play of ‘The Silence of the Lambs?’” I knew right away that I was going to be a disappointment to her, having never read the screenplay, seen the film, or even developed an inclination to research that genre.

Quite unfazed, she moved on to other topics, asking me what we were doing in Ufa anyway. I told her, without actually saying, “You’re an unreached people group”. Then she surprised me again by volunteering that Bashkir people can be open to new things. “You know, we only accepted Islam fairly recently, around the 13th Century”. “So what did you believe before that?”, I asked. “Oh, we believed in the great Creator God”. I think I looked unconvinced, but she charged ahead, “We still have it in our hearts, and I’ll tell you how I know. When my grandmother is knitting and drops a stitch, she calls out ‘Tengre!’ – that’s our name for the Creator God”.

Meanwhile, my wife Pam was in a group that was researching high culture. Phil, through music contacts, had reached a Bashkir poet called “Salawat” (named after a Bashkiria’s most famous 17th Century liberator). This modern-day Salawat was blind and much celebrated throughout the republic. He invited the group to meet him for a round of discussion in which he duly recited his material and then enquired about their own interests.

Phil realised that the poet was getting a once in a lifetime opportunity and launched forth with an explanation of what motivated the group – gratitude to Jesus Christ for going all the way to give his life for us. Salawat listened intently till the translator had finished and then exclaimed his approval of the Jesus story, “Wonderful – let’s drink to that!” Vodka appeared from nowhere and, despite the fact that Salawat was blind and that the group included some teetotallers, everybody felt obliged to do the right thing, the Russian way. So that’s how Pam drank her first and only toast to Jesus.

Student appetite for contact with us “Jesus followers” was not going to be satisfied by one visit to Ufa so it wasn’t long before various ones of us returned to the university. Because of my science background I was an object of some curiosity, so I got asked to address the issue of Christianity and evidence. What was the evidence for the existence of God? What was the connection between natural selection and evolution? I spoke in English and their eloquent questions showed how accurately they understood the subject.

Before I went to Ufa to give the “Natural Selection” talk I decided it would be enhanced by having a living specimen with which to demonstrate. So I visited the Zoology department in University of Birmingham (where we lived at the time) and asked for a stick insect. They were very obliging and gave me a good big insect, enough leaves to feed it for a couple of weeks and a sturdy plastic box in which to transport it across the 2,600 miles, Aeroflot permitting.

I just don’t know a more obviously visible case of natural selection. A stick insect can contrive to make itself look like a leaf and will even produce an apparent “leaf” which seems to have a bite taken out of it by the beak of a particular South American bird. Our specimen was an instant hit and the audience passed it around from one end to the other, some grimacing, some enthralled. I had once asked the Professor of Genetics in Trinity College Dublin how many mutations it would take to produce such a stick insect and he said, “Too many”. I passed that on to them.

I presented the insect in all its glory and suggested that somehow God had a hand in its design – and in our human design too. After all, nobody wants to be told, “You’re a nice person but, deep down, you’re just a bag of chemicals”. Most people in that lecture didn’t want to be told that either. But one student called Max held out. In the question and answer time he declared that he was going to stick with atheism. I asked him, “Are you an atheist under all circumstances?” “Yes”. I proposed a few theoretical circumstances to him but he was going to be an atheist in all of them.

Then I took a broad guess and asked,

“Have you ever been in the Young Pioneers?”


“Do you ever go on a Pioneers summer camp in Siberia?”


“Do you ever take your sleeping mat out of the tent at night and lie on the ground and watch the stars?”


“Are you an atheist then?”


I was so proud of Max’s courage and honesty in front of all his peers. A real man. Much later I heard that, after some more intellectual thrashing around, Max became an ardent advocate for Jesus.

And the stick insect? I sought out the Ufa Zoology department and asked them, “Would you like to have a stick insect?” “Yes please!” they said. I then explained, “You’ll need more leaves like this to feed him…” but they interrupted “Don’t worry, we know what to do” and showed little further interest in my instructions about the insect’s feeding regimen. On my way out I couldn’t help but notice that they had a display cabinet of fascinating dead insects with some spaces for new entrants.

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“My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean”

Having actually made it into Ufa airport a couple of us were sent to the person who would process the visa paperwork, which sounded like a routine task. However, the man into whose office we were ushered was the Aeroflot manager. His job was to represent the FSB (formerly the KGB). He explained to us that the piece of paper we had brought was simply a statement by a friendly businessman in another Russian city saying that he thought it would be a good idea for us to visit Ufa. The legal requirement was a piece of paper from some notable person in Ufa inviting us to come and visit them. Now that I think of it, he was very gracious, speaking to us clearly, slowly, no malice.

After meditating on the blankness on our faces for a while he said, “You can stay, but bring me the right visa next time.” Then he stamped our papers and went off to interrogate somebody more interesting. We set off downtown for the imaginatively entitled “Hotel Tourist”.

We were feeling jazzed, having “escaped” the FSB and wanted to see what this town was all about. It wasn’t hard to wake up in the morning with the promise of a tantalising feast of lessons to learn about Bashkir life and culture. We decided to put a bit of shape on our reconnaissance of Ufa so after breakfast we read together the first story in the Bible about a missionary journey (which was to Cyprus). The journey is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles in which the missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, ended up talking to the governor, Sergius Paulus. The text points out that Sergius was “an intelligent man” and he soon became a believer in Jesus.

Thus fortified, and also sure that Ufa had many intelligent leaders, we divided the various national institutions between us. I went to call on the Minister of Education only to be told by his secretary that it was impossible to see him. I thought, “Oops, it looks like I’d need an introduction and there’s a three-month waiting list”. But the Minister’s inaccessibility had a simpler explanation. He was having his lunch.

Rod and I went to visit “School 35” on Gafuri Street – a school which taught through the medium of English, for the children of elites, making it a national institution all on its own. The director, Grigori Simeonovich, a veteran of the “Great Patriotic War”, had built up the school from scratch 40 years before. He received us cordially and showed us the wonders of “School 35” with understandable pride. These wonders included a clinic which could address the more common maladies and perform simple operations. He noticed that I had a little mole on my eyelid and he was more than happy for me to go downstairs to the clinic to have it removed. I found the politest way I could to show how keen I was to stay upstairs.

Nothing daunted, the director then invited us to an early lunch, which we accepted. We were assured we would have the same menu as the rest of the school, although the three of us were served on our own in long room with low lighting. The main course was brought in – two catering-size stainless-steel trays of liver and onions. Now I happen to like liver and onions but I know I’m in a national minority (a minority in our family certainly) so we admired the director’s embrace of risk.

But the visit wasn’t to finish quite so easily. The director said, “You have to meet the music teacher and hear her star pupil sing”. By this time we would have agreed to anything (that didn’t involve surgery) so we arrived in the Music Room – which had no other pupils in it because school was now over for the day. The music teacher sashayed in with the star pupil in tow.

After an animated chat she gave the star his cue so he could launch into “that famous English song – ‘My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean’”. Rod and I looked at each other with carefully concealed eye-rolls. The star sang the first verse and we wondered if he would go on to the second. It was not to be. As soon as the first verse ended, the music teacher rallied us to the cause with, “Let’s all join in singing the chorus!”

Eventually, punch-drunk on culture, Rod and I staggered back to the hotel.

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“You Owe me Five Dollars”

Our motley crew were united in one thing. We wanted to do what we could to connect with a group of people in the world who were within minimal reach of Bible information. So, we were aiming for an “unreached people group”.

We had a hunch we’d find them in Kalmykia, the only republic in Europe with a majority Tibetan Buddhist population. In fact, we had a number of hunches, but that was the first. This was to be a reconnaissance visit – to find the best place for a long-term team. Along with Pam and me were Phil (musician), Rod (mystic), Dave (computer man), Chip (manager), Diane (counsellor) and Ed (bad golfer). Like I said, we were a motley crew.

Although we did a fair bit of flying that day we felt like we spent a good part of it in minibuses, first of all between two Moscow airports – Sheremetyevo and Vnukovo, and then from Rostov-on-Don airport to the imaginatively named “Hotel Tourist”.

Rostov-on-Don was meant to be a staging post for visiting Kalmykia. Dave got busy working on the necessary bureaucracy and the rest of us had a good look at Rostov. Not only was everything new to us but we, as Westerners, were new to them. Through our translators’ contacts we were whisked away to visit a children’s hospital. We marvelled at the kindness they showed both to the children and to us. On leaving they showered us with a bewildering assortment of gifts – hand lotion, packs of postcards, an Easter cake, some boiled eggs and a classical record of six Bach violin concertos.

Eventually Dave, who was doing the hard yards with bureaucracy, came back and reported. It wasn’t going to work for us to travel to Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, so we were going to the city of Ufa, our next option, two time zones further away. A confetti of paperwork was arranged in a nine-hour grind of office work somewhere – Aeroflot tickets re-routed through Ufa, visas arranged for Ufa and our request registered with the Rostov city authorities to stay in the hotel we were now leaving after three days.

About the only thing we knew about Ufa was that the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev began his dancing career there – not much to go on. So, back to the airport and off we flew to Ufa (that wonderful city even sounds somehow ethereal).

These were the days which seasoned travellers refer to as the “old Aeroflot”. We were being hosted by the “Intourist” travel agency. This sounded fine until the plane landed and everybody stood up to reach for their bags. But then the cabin crew said, “All Russians sit down again!” Apparently that was how they sorted out the international tourists from the locals. Our team, at this point, sticking out like a sore thumb, then realised that the best way we could help the now-sitting, glowering Russians, was to get off the plane as swiftly as possible so they could be released.

We were clearly directed to go and enjoy the Intourist lounge while our paperwork was being processed. The airport even provided a neatly uniformed staff member to greet us at the said lounge. Her greeting lives on in the memory to this day because she opened lips adorned with the reddest lipstick Roubles could buy and said, “You owe me five dollars”. It appeared that each of us owed her five dollars.

Before long, Diane twigged what the problem was and spent the next twenty minutes or so gently teaching the greeter the subtle difference between saying, “Good afternoon – there is a five-dollar charge for the use of the lounge”. and “You owe me five dollars”. The airport HR department had been a bit stingy on supplying language training for their staff. According to the visitors’ book an American political personage had gone before us and he was less than complimentary about Miss Redlips’ greeting.

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Cathedral baptism

Ida ended up as a visitor to our home by a circuitous route. She was a Dutch au pair who had suffered in a bad car crash and ended up in an orthopaedic ward in Galway Regional Hospital under the care of a kind and sympathetic surgeon who was a passionate follower of Christ. He was also a trifle shy. He told us once, “I opted for orthopaedic surgery because my patients are asleep when I’m dealing with them. I know I can help them because I’m good with my hands. When I was a kid I made model aeroplanes out of balsa wood.”

The doctor’s bedside listening ear heard that Ida was estranged from her separated parents. She had sought meaning in travel, in occult prophecies and eventually settled for the security of a job in County Galway. Just being in hospital had opened a dangerous door in her mind as she discovered the oblivion of hospital drugs used in operations and began to depend on them. But her longing for acceptance dogged her every footstep.

But she liked the next thing she heard from the surgeon, “Jesus must love you more than anybody else does because he died for you. If you give him your heart he will heal that too.”

Ida made that switch of her heart’s commitment and after she was discharged from hospital she became a twice-weekly occurrence at our flat on her days off. In a mixture of Dutch and English she became a keen student of the Bible. We were a little apprehensive that she would simply transfer her dependence feelings to us. Although we enjoyed her company we told her that most of all she would need to learn to trust God. Her leg did heal, and her heart too, but one day she said that she found that she had reached a plateau in her life and she began to show signs of anxiety.

To complicate matters the father of her au pair family started experimenting in a current fad learned from the RTE’s Late Late Show – trying to contact the dead by electronics. Ida knew that the Bible speaks out quite plainly against this “Don’t let them consult the spirits of the dead”. So she asked one of our group, Ben Mosher, and Pam and me to go out to the house and pray for her protection from evil, which we happily did.

Before we prayed, Ben asked Ida, Have you yourself ever been involved in occultic stuff?” Slowly she said, “Yes” and then began to list all the ways in which she had been spiritually compromised. These included the use of magic charms and going to a fortune teller who had eerily predicted her life, accurately so far, and given her a ring over which she had said incantations.

Ben asked her if she was prepared to denounce these practices once and for all, so Christ would be in charge of every corner of her heart. Ida renounced each item on her list out loud, asked God to forgive her for each and then asked him to clean her life out. Soon she was laughing with a feeling of freedom. After the rest of us went home she flushed that fortune-telling ring well and truly down the toilet.

In a couple of months Ida’s own father got in touch with her and suggested that she return to Majorca, where he lived, and after winding up her affairs in Galway, she left town for Palma – but not before “going public” about her new-found faith. Ida is a strong-minded person and her chosen way to do that was to be baptised to show she had crossed the line to a new allegiance to Christ. She chose me to do the baptising.

The word got out (after all, a baptism is a public occasion) and the morning came when I gladly baptised Ida in the Corrib river, just beside the Salmon Weir Bridge. Not only did the Connacht Tribune newspaper arrive to take photographs but quite a few Galway mothers arrived – when they heard that a girl was going to be baptised they immediately thought it was going to be a baby girl, which had understandably given them some concern. They knew where to find us. You couldn’t miss it – the baptism was directly opposite the Cathedral.

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