'Faith on the Frontlines'A conversation about faith with CBC foreign correspondent Brian Stewart.
To CBC television viewers, Brian Stewart has been a familiar face since he joined the national broadcaster in 1971, and its flagship news program ‘The National’ in 1992. He is also the host of the foreign affairs show ‘CBC News: Our World.’
As a foreign correspondent for much of his career, Brian Stewart covered many of the world’s conflicts and reported from nine war zones, including El Salvador, Beirut and Sudan. He was the first North American journalist to bring attention to the horrific Ethiopia famine of 1984-85.
While having been a first-hand witness to some of the greatest atrocities of the late 20th century, Brian Stewart also observed that it was Christian aid workers and volunteers who were often the first ones to reach the frontlines in an effort to alleviate suffering. After many years of witnessing Christian mercy in action, Brian too became a Christian. At a recent dinner event held by the Bible League of Canada, Brian spoke on the topic ‘Faith on the Frontlines,’ and afterward sat down to speak with Beacon Magazine publisher Ken Bosveld.
Ken Bosveld (KB):You didn’t come out of journalism school as a Christian – but your work and life experience has taken you in that direction – was there a specific event that set you on the path to becoming a Christian?
Brian Stewart (BS): I do think it was the experience of the great famine in Ethiopia in 1984-85. I was in the famine zone for much of that fall and winter, and witnessed the camps where hundreds were dying each day, out of the million that were to die during that famine. I had the feeling that this was as bad as it gets – but what began to strike me was not the hellishness of the situation, but rather the compassion I saw. Even the poorest of the poor were helping each other. It was compassion that was almost unnatural – an outpouring of human compassion that gave me spiritual chills. That feeling increased enormously when, during a time when I doubted the world would ever respond, there was an outpouring of international aid and assistance.
It struck me that there was something upside down here – that a world I had grown so cynical toward as a foreign correspondent, was being turned around. I could see something inside humans that is supernatural. People were doing things for strangers that went against the scientific view of the normal rule of things.
I also noticed that the first groups I ran into when I went to Ethiopia were these small Christian groups that were working on the ground. It was these people who had been warning the outside world all along that this was coming. They were there in the beginning, and they stayed long after all the celebrities and international media had left.
This also caused a chain reaction. It began to connect, in my mind, all the other times I had been to remote places where you would not expect to find any human being doing anything to help anyone, yet the first person you run into is a Christian – a Christian activist or a Christian aid worker on what I began to see as the frontlines of humanity. The more I saw of the church doing good in the field, and in thankless areas without any notice of the media, this began to draw me into the church in a more spiritual way.
KB:Your career has given you a very unique opportunity to really see good and evil, and how they exist as spiritual forces and polar opposites.
BS: They do, and in fact it is quite extraordinary because you can go from a feeding camp in a famine or war zone, where you see a level of humanity that just puts you in awe to see people risking so much, doing so much, giving up so much, and then drive across town and end up in a militia compound where you can just feel in the air that there is evil here. You are suddenly in the presence of people who not only massacre men, women and children, but they modify every method of torture they can think of into something even more extreme. In one morning you can go from seeing the very best of humanity to seeing the very worst. Also, when you visit places like Auschwitz or battlefields such as in Lebanon, evil is in the air – you can feel it distinctly.
Cameraman Philippe Billard (left), sound recordist John Axelson, Brian Stewart and producer Tony Burman.
KB:How did you personally cope in the face of evil that was so intense or overpowering?
BS: There have been several phases in my life, and I think there was a period when it did not go well at all. From 1982 to ’86, it was a period when I covered a lot of wars – El Salvador, Lebanon and the Ethiopia famine. I was going from one horrendous spot to another, and I think that wrecked me for a couple years. You come home from those assignments and spend a lot of time remembering what you just lived through, and that is when it tends to get to you. I grew cynical and despairing of humanity.
But the Ethiopia experience also started to turn me around. Wherever I would go, something would also point me to the best of humanity. Before I had the new faith that I discovered in the aftermath of Ethiopia, I was just wobbling to a certain extent. But after that, I was able to go those areas and see both the worst and the best.
The greatest reward I have had, without exception, is seeing the best of humanity. One is so profoundly affected by seeing the best that it resets your whole compass point on what life is about, what Earth is about, what the spirit is about, and it gives you a new foundation. I have seen so much good that it overwhelms all the evil that is there – it is the candle in the dark. and the dark shall not overcome it.
KB:You have witnessed Christian workers in some of the world’s most troublesome places and most difficult circumstances – have you observed a common thread describing why they do what they do?
BS: The thing that strikes me is that most of them have felt, at some stage in their lives, they were quite loved, and it is love that they want to give back. I got very interested in this, because not all of them have had perfect lives by any means, but they had some sense that they had received love and want to give it back.
They also have a self-confidence that was quite striking, and it was a confidence that came from a spiritual base. I think they were very resilient human beings – they could walk into a disaster zone where every house had fallen down and there was nothing but smoking ruins, and most people would just sit in the rubble, and out would come three or four Christian activists who would say “you do this, I’ll do that, and let’s get this place back in shape.” They would get on with the job, do it right, and do it until they nearly dropped. I found that to be so inspirational.
KB: Was there any particular incident during your career when you very powerfully felt the presence of God in a most unlikely place or circumstance?
BS: I found myself in a very curious situation in Poland during the Solidarity movement. The leader of that movement for reform, Lech Walesa had been arrested by the state authorities, and was widely rumoured as being about to be assassinated. I was with the American network NBC at the time, and a couple of us tried to keep around Walesa as much as possible. He was coming out of a mass at a Catholic church, and we stopped him on a stairway and asked if he was frightened or scared. He looked at us almost dumbfounded and said “I am frightened of no man and no one thing except for God.” The chills went down my back, and I knew that this was a force that no regime could ever break. I saw in Lech Welesa someone who could never be broken because the base of everything was his faith.
That was one small incident, but I have also seen it in different ways in many very scary areas, like El Salvador, where I confess that I too was quite petrified of death squads. But there were always Christians there who would stand unarmed alongside the people and refuse to be bullied or chased out. They had a courage matching that found on any battlefield, as they stood unarmed with a small band of refugees and guarded them from attack by psychopathic killers.
KB: HIV/AIDS was relatively unknown when you began your career – you have seen its rise and its devastating effects – what needs to be done; and is this war being won?
BS: Education has proven successful in some African countries, and you absolutely need governments to commit to a national campaign. Where they do commit, it can have a real effect. One encouraging factor is that there are still so many committed people, driving hard to find solutions. It should also be pointed out that the Bush Administration has the best record of any Western government, praised by Bono and praised by Geldof, for putting an enormous amount of money into research and treatments of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
There was a time around ‘89/’90 when I thought the world was just going to despair and turn its back, when AIDS really began to sweep the world. But instead of hiding away and keeping to themselves, a movement was mobilized to go and fight this. The refusal to give up is the thing that gives me the most encouragement and hope.
KB: Your report from Northern Ethiopia in the fall of 1984 helped draw the world’s attention to this suffering in a way that had rarely been done before – and even led to efforts such as the Live Aid concert. In the 25 years since that disaster has the world learned any lessons about how to avert such humanitarian tragedies?
BS: I think the world has learned an enormous amount, and that the world became very different after that period. One of the things that grew out of the whole LiveAid and Ethiopia experience was the explosive growth of volunteer groups and non-governmental organizations. These groups spread across the world in an astonishing momentum for good. As a reporter today, if I went into a disaster zone or trouble-spot, I would see many more organizations out there than what existed pre-Ethiopia.
We are also dealing with greater challenges today because the world’s population has grown, the number living in extreme poverty is now over a billion people, but you are getting networking of organizations, and they have learned how to better react to crises. The world today knows how to pre-position food, set up early warning systems, and have come a huge way in terms of disaster relief, poverty relief and disease relief.
KB: Would you say that the situation facing the world’s poor today is better than when you first ventured into the field?
BS: It is a completely mixed picture, because you get enormous improvement in some areas, like in Asia and India, where some of the poorest of the poor are starting to advance into the middle class. When I was a kid, we associated India with the need for food and aid, but one would never think of India as a thriving international trader and global player, or China ever reaching this degree of consumerism. We have seen one of the greatest movements in all of history of people moving from poverty and up into the middle class. At the same time, the growth of the world’s population has also meant a growing number are living in extreme poverty, and their number is increasing in an area of the world that is very resistant to improvement, that is Africa – and for a number of reasons – historical, climate, disease. So, you have more people having much better lives than they could have dreamed of 30 years ago, and you also have more people living lives that are more nightmarish that you could have imagined 30-40 years ago. I do think that abject, extreme misery today is as high as anything I’ve ever known.
KB: Perhaps humanity’s greatest promise to alleviate poverty and suffering has been made in the form of the Millennium Development Goals. Have you seen any real progress being made – and from what you have seen, what measures are having the greatest positive impact?
BS: I think we’re way behind where we wanted to be. There has been some help on debt relief, but I’m afraid that things may be derailed by the current economic crisis. Already the United States is openly talking about having to cut back its foreign aid budget. And there has been almost no break-through on trade, and giving the poorest countries access to our markets. In terms of what is having a positive effect, I am very interested in movements such as micro-financing, and giving people the ability to borrow some money so they can start a business or improve a farm.
KB: From what you have seen on the frontlines of conflict and crisis, what is it that as Christians we should be praying for?
BS: I think we need to pray for understanding, because it is through understanding that the world’s complexities and difficulties can be overcome. The great challenge facing Christians and the Christian church is to give people the message Christ had –do unto others as you would have done unto yourself, and that whatever you do to the least you do unto me. If people can be brought to realize this basic, core goodness, and then mobilized to do it, I think that would be the real break-through.
Apart from that, I would pray that people really learn to value their spiritual side, and learn to put aside time to contemplate the bigger issues of life. So many people go through life running on half a cylinder, and they fail to realize how much more of an engine they have inside in terms of their spiritual depth.
To read Brian's accounts of the Ethiopian famine, see his coverage of the famine.
Ken Bosveld is the published of the Beacon.
Originally published in Beacon, May 2009.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.