The Fisherman

Have you ever been in the right place at the right time, as if God had sent you there for a purpose?

Ray sat solemnly on a wooden bench, gazing intently over the crashing waves of the North Atlantic Sea. It was a particularly miserable day, the cold bite of the March wind stung Ray’s face as he blew down into his hands, rubbing them together for warmth. Ray was transfixed on the horizon, his stare focused across the angry whitecaps of the bay, towards the Donegal Peninsula, just visible through the grey mist.

His mood matched that of the disheartening weather, intense and gloomy. Ray was about to embark on another trip behind the Iron Curtain to continue with his humanitarian work, such journeys came with grave danger, and he was beginning to question his life path – doubt and confusion lay heavy on his heart.

Ray had come to his hometown of Portstewart, Ireland, in a rental car, his flight from Belfast to Russia looming the next day. As he sat contemplating his life, here, in the town where it all began, Ray gently shut his eyes in meditation, silently praying his thoughts of doubt, and hopes of guidance, to God.

He suddenly woke from his deep considerations as an unexpected idea dashed into his mind. With a surge of positivity and encouragement he hurried towards his rental car bound for Londonderry, to visit Culmore Point, the place he had been told his birth mother had grown up.

Ray had been adopted as a baby, and was led to believe that his mother had died in the Blitz. As a youngster he had always felt different, as if a part of him was missing. He struggled with speech and he learnt differently to others, making him feel like an outsider.

The impulsive 35 mile drive was hazardous to say the least, the winding coastal roads treacherous in the unpredictable stormy weather, but Ray didn’t question the urge he felt to make the trip, despite the conditions.

As his journey continued the danger of his drive intensified as Ray had to stop to be let through several British Army checkpoints. This was 1974, times where killings and bombings were rife in Northern Ireland, and checkpoints were not a safe place to be. At each one the lone traveller was scrutinised and inspected until they were satisfied that he posed no threat.

Whilst driving Ray remembered that the stretch of road he was travelling on had been known ‘Murder-hole Road’, due to gruesome tales of attacks by masked burglars the route had witnessed some 100 years ago.

With this thought, Ray silently asked God “Please let me get there and back safely, please let me be on the right track.” All of the elements seemed to be against him. What was making him do this with such determination?

Finally, and safely, Ray pulled up to a small stone tower known locally as ‘The Castle’. It lay in front of a large river. Ray got out of the car and surveyed the abandoned property. This was it, just how it had been described.

Ray had been told stories about this building. It had been built in the early 1600’s as a lighthouse guiding sailing vessels up the river. Later in the 1600’s, in a time of great famine, the walled city of Derry was under siege, and a large boom was constructed in its waters to block any entering vessels. It was this very tower that was credited for sending out an urgent signal to a vessel called Mount Joy, which broke through the boom baring desperately needed food and supplies to the beleaguered city.

And now he was here, staring at that very tower, which was later converted into a house, the house his mother grew up in. It was a grand structure, a gatekeeper to the waters beyond.

Rain beat down on Ray as he roamed the grounds of the isolated building, the home was empty, filled with just an eerie silence.

He looked lost into the distance over the choppy river, the storm now in full swing, Ray was shivering from the cold. To his surprise in this quiet abandoned setting a large figure was walking towards him from the river’s edge.

As the shadowy character appeared through the rainfall and murky mist of the waters, Ray could see he was a fisherman. His white bushy beard was curled slightly from the salt of the water. He was a typical looking fisherman in every way, from his attire to his weathered skin, his cheeks reddened by the crisp air.

Who could this stranger be? Find out next week how this man changed Ray’s life forever…

The Story of Choir 2 – Part Two

Read part one of this remarkable story here

As everyone was accounted for on the night bus Ray sat back in his seat and let out a huge sigh of relief. He looked around at the children, they seemed so much younger than the first choir – would they be as successful? They sure seemed to be able to move people with their music.

Hours passed, and as the night bus was vacating Kisumu in Western Kenya, on Lake Victoria, commotion erupted around the driver.

Suddenly everyone was woken from their dreamy sleeps and thrown into a state of panic. Ray looked around, unsure of the situation, and saw children and adults all praying – he soon realized the bus was under attack.

Through the darkness Ray could just make out a smashed car in front of the bus, it had been robbed and vandalized. Fear struck Ray as to what had happened to the people inside, but with that fear grew the realization that their bus had become the criminal’s next target.

Suddenly, the driver put the bus into reverse and retreated backwards into the pitch black of night. Courageously the driver steered the huge vehicle, full of fretted passengers, to safety and headed back towards Kisumu for help.

Accompanied by the police the group returned to the scene, leaving the authorities at the wreckage, the bus went onwards towards Nairobi.

A short distance passed and it was clear that the bus driver was suffering from shock. He pulled over, got out, and was sick. It had been a traumatizing experience and as his courage and adrenaline wavered, shock had set in. Ray got off the bus to help the brave driver with the limited medical supplies he had. After a short spell back in the driver’s seat he succumbed to the shock and was unable to continue, a passenger took over for the rest of their journey to Nairobi.

When the group arrived Suzanne was waiting to receive them. They were six hours late, had been through an awful ordeal and had managed to gain access across a sealed border; it had been one extraordinary night. The children were taken to the fantastic home in Thika, in the middle of the coffee plantation, where they were safe at last. As with other situations in his life Ray knew his faith in God had seen them through.

The team were waiting for paperwork to be completed for the Choir to travel to Canada, which had to be arranged in Nairobi. During this time Ray would often see Sheba playing the drum on the house’s veranda, looking out towards the green plantation land, and he would be reminded of how, in that moment back at the border, their heartfelt prayers had been answered.

choir_02-600x355

Choir 2

 

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The boy that inspired it all

After Idi Amin was driven out of Uganda, British journalist Dan Wooding and humanitarian Ray Barnett travelled to the broken country to research a book, which they later published, called The Ugandan Holocaust.

Whilst preparing to leave the home village of the late Archbishop Janani Luwum, a place called Mucwini, a local woman ran over to the pair with her young child in tow.

The mother asked the duo if they would take her son to her sister’s house, where he was to stay for the holidays. Accepting her request Ray and Dan showed the boy into their white transit van.

The young boy bounced into the vehicle with excitement, waved his mother goodbye, and sat back into his seat as the group set off on their journey north. He was around nine years old, and dressed in a typical Ugandan school uniform.

The young boy watched outside the window as the brick red dust danced into the air with every thud of the heavy tyres against the uneven terrain.  The sun beat down on the green of the bushland that bordered the track they were travelling.

“So, what grade are you in?” Dan asked their new companion, breaking the child’s stare. The schoolboy turned, answered, then proceeded to tell Ray and Dan all about his enjoyment of school, and how he was looking forward to spending his holiday with his cousins.

The boy continued with his animated chatter, excitement for his holiday evident. He recalled all the adventures he had last experienced at his aunt’s house, and told of how much he was looking forward to swimming in a nearby lake. He described how the children would make toys to entertain themselves, as they had no money to buy their own – taking tyres off bicycle wheels, using the remaining metal hoops to push with sticks, his eyes sparkled with delight as he recollected the fond memories.

He was a warm, courteous child, but it was evident he was from a struggling environment, typical of any Ugandan family living in those hard and hostile times.

“Can you sing?” Ray asked the boy.

He smiled, shut his eyes and started to sing – performing for his new friends.

A beautiful, pure voice floated through the air.

The song he sang was about heaven, although the boy innocently pronounced it ‘haven’ – which made the performance all the more endearing and gave Ray goose bumps, such beautiful talent hidden in such a remote part of the world.

As the angelic notes hit the air, Dan reached towards his bag, dug around, and pulled out the recorder he had been using to tape interviews for the book. Tape already inserted, he hit the red button.

Curiosity struck the boy’s face as he continued singing, after a while he stopped, interest prevailed.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Dan explained that he was recording his voice, and played the sounds back to the inquisitive child.

The boy was thrilled; it was really his own voice coming out of that machine – and what a voice it was!

Ray and Dan shared an amused smile at one another, as song broke once more – and continued until they reached their destination.

“Thanks for the ride” the young boy yelled as he skipped towards his aunt’s house, seeming very proud of how his voice had entertained so greatly.

Ray and Dan continued their journey, and for weeks the soulful sounds of the young Ugandan’s voice kept them company as they travelled, playing proudly from the dented old tape recorder.

The joyful audio was a welcomed contrast to the aftermath of death and destruction at the hands of Idi Amin that the pair were witnessing daily on their trip. The same horrific and negative images that the rest of the world were associating with the challenged country too – if only they could see the dignity and beauty of the talented children, like their young companion, to witness the positives, hope and potential the country held.

It would be this memory of a talent so pure and unassuming that flashed into Ray’s mind in later years when he returned to Uganda. This was the inspiration he called upon to help the vulnerable children of this country more than anyone could ever had imagined.

 

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Faith will bring you home

Welcome to Ray’s Blog.

Here we ask you to join us as we explore Ray’s life journey of inspiration and faith. Ray will take us back over his thrilling, emotional and motivational years – from working behind the iron curtain to forming the African Children’s Choir and beyond.

We are going to feature stories from Ray’s amazing past, as well as stories from the inspirational people Ray has met along the way.

We hope that through this blog we can inform and inspire you to help others through your own life journey.

To start, we’d like to take you back to 1978, when Ray discovered Uganda for the very first time…

 

Ray heard a story one day that changed the course of his life and work forever.

During the reign of Idi Amin in Uganda there were a group of believers, who gathered together one Easter Sunday to hold a meeting at their Church. Under Idi Amin all churches had been banned or closed, but, due to it being Easter Sunday, this group had assembled anyway. The soulful sounds of singing, music and worship rang out from the forbidden Church, until suddenly, to their horror and dismay, their service was ambushed and they were all arrested and sent to prison.

Ray was heavily involved in work to do with the human rights for believers in the Soviet Union at that time, and upon hearing this story, he decided to take action.

He set to work publishing information and reports about the cruelty these people were suffering under the ruling of Idi Amin and soon found himself, and a colleague, on a plane heading towards Uganda.

Ray Barnett at Entebbe Airport 1978

Ray and Dan at Entebbe Airport, Uganda.

Ray arrived, naïve to this new culture and unsure where to start. His first stop was a bible society, but to Ray’s surprise, he was unwelcome as the people there feared his foreign presence would draw unwanted attention.

Fleeing the bible society Ray, and his colleague, retreated to a local hotel, which is now called the Sheraton Hotel in Uganda, but back then, the hotel was Government run – a place where people had been reported to have disappeared, it turned out to be a secret headquarters of Idi Amin.

Before this realisation Ray and his companion had sat in the hotel restaurant whilst they deliberated their next move, whether or not to check in. They looked around and noticed single men, all in bell-bottomed jeans and sunglasses, trying their best to be inconspicuous, observing their surroundings intently – to Ray these men were not discreet, they stuck out – they were Idi Amin’s secret police, and with a rush of fear and uncertainty, Ray knew they could no longer stay there.

The pair hailed a taxi, they had heard from someone at the bible society that there was a Christian guest house near Namerimbe Cathedral; surely they would find welcome refuge there.

The national curfew was drawing in, as too was the night sky. After some time it was apparent that their friendly Muslim taxi driver was lost. Time was running out, no one was allowed out after dark, and the driver would not want to continue their fare once the night drew in.

The passing streets of Kampala were beginning to empty of people, and an uncomfortable mood set upon Ray, for a white man to be outside after curfew was just suicidal. Ray had come to Uganda against the advice of virtually everyone. Nevertheless, he had made his decision to come here out of concern for the persecuted church, and in this time of need, he once again reached for his faith and prayed silently to God in the passenger seat of this lost dusty taxi cab, in the darkening eve.

Suddenly amongst the turning light, Ray saw a girl walking along the road, he abruptly commanded the driver to stop – he wanted to ask this girl for directions.

Ray wound down the window, leant forward and questioned the girl about their location and the whereabouts of the Christian guest house, despite the enormous danger of interacting with strangers at this time.

Her eyes lit with astonishment.

“We have been praying for you” uttered the soft words of this young stranger. “I know where the guest house is, it is run by friends of mine, I can show you”

And with that, the girl climbed into the taxi and directed the disorientated driver towards their destination.

Ray relaxed, and sank back into his seat.

“My name is Faith” the young woman stated, Ray felt a comforting warmth rush through his body.

As the three became acquainted, Faith told them of how she had been at the guest house just that day, and that they were all praying for God to bring them two people to let them know they were not forgotten.

After a short time Faith asked the driver to stop, they had arrived at the top of Namirembe Hill. The group exited the cab, paid for their journey and began to walk together.

“I didn’t want him to know exactly where we were going” Faith explained. “These days you can’t be too careful”. Ray smiled to himself, his heart filling with a warming confidence in their new companion.

After a short distance they arrived inside an immaculate, whitewashed guest house where Ray and his travelling friend were greeted with a warm welcome by other Christians.

Ray was relieved to have found sanctuary – Faith had brought them home.

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