Australian Biography

Eva Burrows - full interview transcript

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During the period that you were General of the Salvation Army a major opportunity opened up for you, I imagine, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, initially, and the end of the Cold War. How did that change the way in which Christian churches in general, and the Salvation Army in particular, could operate in Eastern Europe?

Oh yes, this was a wonderful opportunity really. In fact, I think in my Generalship I was often anticipating certain things that would happen. I always liked to look ahead and try to plan. But this was something nobody could plan for. It was the unexpected moment. And so when the Berlin Wall was breached and we saw those phenomenal scenes of them shouting 'Freiheit!' Freedom, freedom. Then the Salvation Army had to suddenly say, 'What are we going to do about this?' Because East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the whole of the Soviet Union had been closed to the Salvation Army. Soviet people, under the philosophy of Communism, felt that they should ban the Salvation Army. We often wondered, because they didn't exactly ban all Christian churches, but I suppose because the only army is the Red Army, they wouldn't have any other army in existence. So, about 1923 we were finally banned in Russia, and banned in Czechoslovakia and Hungary probably about 40 years before. And so it was up to me to call the troops together and sort of find out what our strategy should be for the future. And so we decided we must return immediately to central Europe, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany, and so I called some of the European leaders together and we decided to go immediately back to those countries and to see what opportunities we would have. That wasn't so difficult, because there were still some Salvationists with whom we had contact in those areas. Although they couldn't belong to the Salvation Army, most of them belonged to the church. We did have some contacts with them so, to then initiate a strategy, what I did was to ask Switzerland to look after Hungary, and the Netherlands to look after Czechoslovakia, and West Germany to look after East Germany. And therefore to plan their strategies from that sort of Western Europe helping eastern Europe and central Europe. And that was quite exciting. And then of course came really the downfall of the Communist philosophy in Russia with the introduction of Perestroika and Gorbachev opening up a field there. And so that was the biggest challenge of all because Russia is a great country, and -- the Soviet Union as it was then particularly -- and to return again to that area would take tremendous funds and personnel, and people. That was a very big challenge.

And how did you meet it?

Well, in the first case, in the case of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, we had some excellent contacts. I even went there. I had a wonderful experience in that in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall went down, I was a speaker at a world conference in Manila. It was an evangelical conference of many churches, not run by the Salvation Army, but I'd been invited there. And after I had given my speech at the rostrum, a man came up to me and introduced himself, and he said, 'My name is Pavel Titera. I come from Czechoslovakia.' And it was the first time people had been allowed to come out of those areas, because things were loosening up a little bit at that time, especially in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And he revealed that he had been a member of the Salvation Army and a candidate for ordination when we were banned. And he said, 'It's wonderful to see the General today Oh, I hope, I hope you can come back to Czechoslovakia.' And he revealed that he was principal of the Baptist theological college in Czechoslovakia and the General-Secretary of the Baptist Church. I was quite proud of him so we kept in touch. And so when Hungary opened to us, he actually introduced our Salvation Army leaders at the press conference. He conducted the first service for us and introduced us, and that was a wonderful contact. Again, seemingly coincidental, but providential, I was able to contact the leaders of the city in Prague and in Budapest and by those contacts we discovered that the Salvation Army was well-known as a world charity and a church. And we were given a warm welcome. One of the most interesting discussions I had was with that great leader in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel. He had been imprisoned during the Communist era. A great playwright and a man of great intellect, poet. I was looking forward to meeting him. And when he came in and we sat together he -- actually he looked quite shy. I was quite surprised, I expected a much more forthright authoritative person. And he was smoking quite a lot. And in the end he said to me, 'General, I shouldn't smoke, should I?' But anyway, he said, 'You know, during the Communist era, the Salvation Army's name was made to be a disreputable name. Your reputation was pulled down by the Communist people. Now, you know, on the television, we have seen your people feeding the hungry on the stations, and giving a place to sleep to those who are sleeping rough in the doorways. You only have to show that on television and people know all those stories were lies about the Salvation Army. We are so pleased to welcome you back.' And after that time, the authorities gave us many buildings. And the deeds to those buildings. And land. Mind you the buildings were in a terrible state, and we had to spend the money to recondition them. And now in Czechoslovakia we have a lot of centres for the homeless, for the elderly, disadvantaged people, as well as a church centre in each place. So that was, that was, well I could say, relatively easy. But the matter of Russia was another one. I had thought at first to give the responsibility to Norway. Again, from the point of view of European helping European but the opportunities then escalated so much that we had to take it under the wing of the international headquarters, because it mushroomed far more quickly than I could have imagined. And it was beyond the capacity of one country like Norway to care for such a large expanse of work. So since then, Latvia has been looked after by Sweden, and Estonia by Finland. But Russia itself, and now what's called the CIS, the Commonwealth of Independent States, has been cared for from our international headquarters in London. So it was a very big challenge.

Was that expansion due to great success in converting people to becoming members of the Salvation Army, or was it an expansion in the need for the work of the Salvation Army in a social sense?

Oh, both actually. There were tremendous needs, socially, far more than the Salvation Army could handle. But the response to the spiritual message was tremendous also. It was as if the Russian people were waiting again to hear the Christian message, something of which they'd been deprived. For example, children had never heard about Christ or didn't know anything about The Bible. And parents were sending their children, parents were even coming to the meetings for the children to learn themselves. They wanted their children to know about the Christian faith. And this was, to us, you know, tremendous encouragement.

But why would they turn to the Salvation Army rather than, say, the Russian Orthodox Church?

Well, we had an immense respect for the fact that Russia was not a totally atheistic country. Communism is atheistic, but the Russian Orthodox Church was there all through the Communist period. We had respect for that. And also the underground churches, and particularly the Baptist Church, which was a Protestant Church which had maintained a presence under great persecution. We didn't feel we were going to replace them, but to join with them, because we had once been in Russia. We had not been there a long time, about 10 years. So we felt we would like to go again, and there had been certain signs to me. For example, we began to get letters from Russia, even before we returned there. We had letters from a group in St Petersburg. They were trying to start a charity. Because under Communism, charities were not allowed.

I mean, the state provided everything. There was no social policy of any kind, because everybody had work; even if you didn't do anything you got your pay and your salary. And there were supposed to be no social problems at all. So charities as such did not exist. So here was Communism breaking down, and here were some Russians wanting to start charitable groups. We had a contact from a group in Moscow, called Movement For Peace, something like that, asking 'Can the Salvation Army give us advice on how we can sort of manage and organise this group?' So we knew that there were people in Russia ready to receive us. The thing that I was anxious about was that the Russian Orthodox Church accepted us in good faith and when I went on my first visit to Moscow, which was in I think May '92, I sought an appointment with the head of the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch was absent, but I was well-received by the Metropolitan of Moscow, rather like in the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of the whole of the city of Moscow. So we went to the monastery where he lived and where he had a sort of an audience room. So we had gone in and we were waiting for him. And naturally we were praying very earnestly that we would be well-received, not as competitors, but as supporters to the Christian church in Russia. And then in walked the Metropolitan in his marvellous robes. And you know he looked straight at me and smiled. So I thought, things are going to be all right. So in he came and we discussed together what the Salvation Army was doing. I wanted to explain to him why we were coming back to Russia and how we'd been there before. And he said, 'Oh, you don't have to tell me all about the Salvation Army. I know a lot about the Salvation Army.' Then he revealed that he'd been the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church at the World Council of Churches, and that he had met the Salvation Army at some of their special gatherings, their conventions. And he knew our work. And he said, 'welcome'. And then I said, 'Would you give us your blessing?' So he then prayed for us, and asked that God would bless the beginning of the Salvation Army in our return to that country. And then after he prayed, he said, 'You know, during the Communist era, the Church has sought to maintain its life. We've lost so much, so many of our great cathedrals and worship centres have been taken over and used as museums and art galleries. And we were not allowed to do any social program. But now we will be. And we will also be able to co-operate with you, because you are very experienced in social and community work.' So I was really praising the Lord for such a gracious reception, because I know that since then the Russian Orthodox Church has quite often opposed some of the groups who've been coming into Russia, not least the way-out religious groups that come under the Christian fringe, if you might call it that.

How many people were in the Salvation Army worldwide when you were General?

Well, we were,we think, approximately two million people.

And that was in most countries of the world?

Yes. Just about a hundred. Just under a hundred countries in the world.

Is there any other religion that is as represented throughout the world, apart from Catholicism?

Umm, no perhaps in some ways not. The Anglican Church, of course, works in many, many, countries. But they don't have the same central strong binding family feeling of all belonging together because even the Archbishop of Canterbury is, in a way, something like the head of the Anglican Church of the world. But yet, when all the bishops come to London for the Lambeth Conference and so forth, he is just one amongst them all. Whereas in the Salvation Army, we -- the whole Salvation Army looks to the General, as the Catholics look to the Pope, as the head of the family.

And you operate in a lot of countries which are not English-speaking. So you operate in many languages?

Yes, yes. And for that reason, for example, the Anglican Church in Russia works mostly with the English-speaking people, more the Diplomatic Corps and those who would go to the Anglican Church there. Whereas we,yes certainly, have in our membership people of every kind of nationality, culture and language.

So you were truly an international religious leader and, like the Pope, the other major international religious figure, you actually met with leaders, secular leaders of the world in all the countries in which you operated?

Normally, yes.

You had some quite interesting experiences doing that, didn't you? Especially in places that were quite unusual to find the Salvation Army. Like, for example, speaking of Communism and your opportunities there, you went to Cuba, didn't you?

Yes, the Salvation Army had worked in Cuba, and was still at work in Cuba. But very small. And so when I was visiting the Caribbean area of the Salvation Army, we did get visas to get into Cuba. And strangely enough, here was a Communist country that had a minister of government who was called the Minister of Religion. And you don't even find that in Western countries. I mean in Australian parliament, in the Cabinet, you don't find a Minister of Religion. I was quite surprised about this. And the Minister of Religion came to the airport to meet me and I was quite surprised when he said, you know, 'We hope that you'll be able to have an interview with President Castro.' So I thought, oh, well, if the chance comes I'll use it, because we were hoping to develop our work in Cuba. We had Cuban leaders and we didn't have any foreigners in there of course. And so I spent a great few days visiting our centres and especially encouraging our young people. And there were many young people who were offering to be trained for the ministry. And we were planning to send them to Mexico where there's a Spanish-speaking theological school. So I thought, oh, if I get to Castro I'll ask him to see if we could get visas for them to get into, to go to, Mexico, to get out of Cuba. So I began to be, you know, a little disappointed, and then I thought, oh well, looks like he isn't going to give us the opportunity to speak with him when suddenly I was sitting on the platform of my last meeting [and] I was just about to get up and preach, when a little note was sent along the line to me. And when I opened it, it said, 'President Castro will see you at 10.30 pm.' So I just scribbled 'that's alright, we'll be there' and sent it back, you see. And so I had heard that he was a night bird. And you read that about him, that he does more at night than he does in the daytime. Sure enough, we arrived at 10.30 and were ushered in.

And [I] had this amazing conversation with this man. And you know, when it was midnight, I said, 'Excuse me,' -- I thought it was awful to have to do it -- but I said, 'excuse me, but I'm afraid we may have to leave Mr President, because we have a plane to catch very early in the morning, about 6 am.' He looked at his watch and he said, 'My goodness, what are you leaving so early for?' But in that conversation he discussed the Christian religion and he talked a lot about church history. And he revealed a tremendous compassion for his people. He could tell me how many handicapped, disabled people [were] in the country, where they were cared for -- and he was challenging me, you know: 'What can you do for us that we can't do for ourselves?' And I spoke about our purpose and our ministry. And then he, he had a little joke about the Catholic Church, because he said, you know, 'You sitting there, you're the head of Salvation Army Church. When is the Catholics going to have a woman Pope?' But then he revealed that in the chair before me had sat Mother Teresa. And how much he was willing for her to continue her work, to come in and bring her sisters in. And he gave us every indication that we were free to do anything in the country. So I plucked up courage to ask him about the visas for the theological students. And he gave us approval to the Minister for Religion. And I actually then said to the President, 'Would you mind if I prayed for your country, yourself?' And he said, 'Yes, that's all right.' So I had with me a black leader from Jamaica, and he prayed the prayer, and now it's so interesting because I see that President Castro's even been to visit the Pope. That'll be interesting to see what an outcome there is from that.

Did he talk to you at all about his own religious background?

Yes, he did. He said he'd been educated by the Jesuits. Obviously the Jesuit brotherhood had been there, established their schools and, as you know, great educators. He said actually that they'd put him off religion, because they'd taught him to fear God and not to love God. So naturally we had quite a discussion on the fact that God is love. And how God's love can infiltrate your whole life and mind. Then, after that, I felt that he became very open in discussion. Before that I felt almost like he was teasing me, you know, baiting me about Christian religion and that it wasn't worth following. But then later he became very sort of much more composed and quiet. And I looked at him, you know, he had the most piercing eyes. And this beard, you know, that he had. And for a strange moment, I thought of William Booth, you know, who had the long beard and had marvellous eyes. And I thought what a pity that Castro had never found the truth in the Christian faith. And had found his ideal in the Communist philosophy. I still pray he might change his views.

But when we returned to Russia, I was very exercised as a Salvation Army leader as to whether we should go, whether it was too much for us, because we had no Russian Salvation Army members. Seventy years is a long time and in the last few years, before we were banned, we were treated very badly in Russia. So I really had to find some kind of guidelines or some kind of divine sort of impulse. I was in that conference in Manila, and not only did that man from Czechoslovakia speak to me, but a man, another man, came up and said, 'Oh, we were very interested to hear you speak.' And this is the delegation from Russia. Now there were 50 people from Russia at that conference. And again, it was the first time Russians had ever been allowed to come out of the country to a religious gathering. Because they'd been so often persecuted. And this man was translating for this group, and he said to me, 'We've just been talking. Wouldn't it be good if the Salvation Army could come to Russia.' And I said, 'Well, we were in Russia from 1914 to 1923,' and they didn't know. They never even knew who we were. And I said, you know, 'When we were banned, some of our people joined the Baptist Church'. You've even got some of our Salvation Army hymns in your Baptist hymn book. And he said, 'Oh, well, can you tell me some.' And I said, 'Well, all I can tell you is that there's one that was written by William Booth and it goes like this, you know, 'Oh, boundless salvation …', and I recited the first verse of this great and famous Salvation Army song. And he's ticking over in his mind like a translator would. And then he said, 'Is that the one that goes la da...?' I said, that's it!', and you know, all those Russians sang William Booth's song. And that was like God pushing me in the back. I didn't know then the Berlin Wall was going down. That was just before. So that was one sign.

And then I was in America and I was staying in a hotel, and I picked up the paper they push under the bedroom door. It's called USA Today. It's a kind of national paper, not very inspiring actually. And on the back page -- it was sitting on the side locker over near my bed --I saw a Latin phrase and I thought what is Latin doing in an American newspaper. And it was the column of that chap Safire, great American writer, and he had a column in the newspaper. And the Latin was 'Carpe Diem.' And he was explaining its meaning, which is of course, 'Grasp the day. Take the chance, take the opportunity.' And again, that was as if God was saying, 'That's what you've got to do.'

And at that time I was in discussion with American leaders and leaders at international headquarters and, it became my awareness, this is what we had to do. And through prayer I felt God was leading us to do that. Not long after that a woman wrote to me from America. I had not -- didn't know her, never heard of her, and she said that she'd read in a newspaper, probably the Salvation Army paper called the War Cry in America, she said, 'I read that you said if you had a million dollars you would use them all to evangelise in Russia. So I'm sending you the enclosed cheque.' And I must admit I looked at the cheque before I finished the letter. And it was a cheque for a 100,000 American dollars. And then she said, 'I will send you one of these every month for the next 10 months.' And so that was a wonderful sign. And then she said, 'I hope somebody else takes up your challenge.' And not long after that I was in Atlanta, preaching at a big convention of the Salvation Army. And in the very last meeting, they said, 'We are so inspired, General, by your move back into Russia, we want to support that,' and they gave me a cheque for a million dollars. So you know, I just felt that the Lord's approval was upon that work. And the Salvationists around the world were asked to contribute, and many of them gave very sacrificially, to add, you know, their two million to all those other millions. So that we had good initial funding to start. So it often happened like that in my life, that I had to take the step of faith and then afterwards God will also come with signs of his approval. That's what faith is. You often have to step out in the dark, as it were, because you believe that's right. Sometimes you're never quite sure, but you believe it's what God wants. And then the confirmation comes afterwards.

During the time that you were General, among all the world leaders that you met, were there any that particularly impressed you?

Yes, several of them impressed me. I had a most amazing conversation with the King of Belgium. Now he had, in his youth, wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. And after the Second World War his father, who was the king, had to abdicate because he had married a German woman, and the Belgians could not accept a German after the terrible situation, period of occupation by the Nazis. So the father abdicated and Baudouin became king. So I knew he was a very spiritually minded man. But it, to me, was a most illuminating conversation because when we got to the Palace, I had a group of Salvation Army people with me, Belgian people, and we were told by the protocol man that they were to wait outside and that the King wished to see me by myself, and that the King would then come out and also greet them. And when I went in to talk with the King, he immediately asked me matters which were deeply spiritual. He said, 'You know, I'm always very interested in why people offer for the ministry, why they enter the priesthood. Could you tell me why you knew that God wanted you to be his servant?' And from that point on we had one of the deepest conversations I've ever had [with] a person of high position in a nation. And as the conversation was beginning to wind down, I was just about to say to the King, 'Would you allow me to pray with you?' when he surprised me and said, 'Well, General this has been a most blessed conversation, and would you mind if we prayed together. I'll pray first, and then you pray.' And that was something to remember, that I don't actually talk about very much, but now His Majesty has died and I think it would be lovely for people to know what a man of depth he was. And he told me that every day in the Palace in the morning, he and his wife Fabiola went to Mass, because they could not get through a day unless they felt the Lord's presence and power with them.

That was interesting. I had some interesting conversations like that, when I was in the Oval Office for the first occasion. President Reagan was the leader of America at that time and I was accompanied by several Salvation Army leaders of America. And we'd had just an interesting conversation about the Salvation Army and he commended us for what we were doing. He was well acquainted with our work in America and the American leaders would then tell him some of the latest developments in our emergency work, in times of disaster and so forth. And then he gave me a brooch to wear and so forth. And so I said, 'Well, Mr President, may I pray with you?' 'Oh,' he said, 'that would be great. You know, President Lincoln used to say that he got his best directions when at prayer on his knees in the Oval Office.' So we prayed and then we had, later on, a raft of photographs of that visit with President Reagan and we were so surprised to find a beautiful photograph when we were all praying with our heads bowed. And probably in the Salvation Army we would not have taken that picture, but of course we didn't have any cameras there; you're not allowed to take your own camera into the Oval Office. They have their own photographer and so they took that lovely picture and we were given permission to publish it. And they say that's the first picture that's been published of a President at prayer in the Oval Office.

I've met President Mitterrand of France. Now you know France is a very secular country. And you might think that the General would not be received by the leader of the state. And yet the Salvation Army has extensive social work in France, especially in the city of Paris. And Mr Mitterand said to me, you know, 'The Salvation Army cares for people others don't want to know.' Just prior to that I'd met Jacques Chirac, who was then the Mayor, you know, of Paris. Now of course, he is the President. And they'd said to me 'When you go into see Mr Chirac, if things go well, ask him if he'll come and open our new program of a couple of buses that are going to go around Paris picking up the people sleeping in the streets.' When we got there to his beautiful apartment, he was so positive about our work that after our conversation I said, 'Would you do us a favour?' He said, 'Well, what's the favour?' So I said, 'Well, you know our work with the people in Paris, the homeless. We've not only got that great centre, which is called the City of Refuge, but we also have the barge on the Seine where we take people. But a lot of them wouldn't come unless we could give them transport, you see. So we're going to have these buses moving around at night, picking up the people and taking them to the City of Refuge on the barge.' 'Oh,' he said, 'I'd love to do that.' So then I later -- I wasn't in Paris -- but he later opened them and gave a good speech, which always helps our public relations. And I discovered something interesting when I was in Paris. This great hostel we have there called Cite de la Refuge, I discovered it was designed by the most French architect, Le Corbusier. And the French Government keep it restored, painted, look after it. Nobody's allowed to do anything to it. Because he designed that for us when he was not very famous or well-known. So it's always surprising things happening when you travel the world.

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