Life is an adventure!

Today I turn 75! It’s hard to believe I have reached this milestone, although frequent visits to the physiotherapist reminds me that my body needs more care.  “Slow down, you are not Superman!” is a frequent instruction. I share this birthday with my twin sister, Ann, who lives in the UK. We celebrated together last year when she and her husband Roddy visited us in Austin, Texas.

Ann and Rob in Austin

It has been an incredible life so far, and I look forward to what lies ahead. Susan and I have been blessed with 47 years of marriage, three great sons, and five amazing grandchildren (and three more expected by year’s end). We will always treasure our experiences with the remarkable Hope in the Cities team in Richmond, Virginia, that enabled the city to face its racial history and begin the process of healing. The past five years have been a time of transition as we moved from a community we had known and loved for four decades to Austin, Texas. Stepping away from my role as national director of IofC USA has enabled me to support the Trustbuilding teams in 12 countries who are doing courageous work to build bridges of trust across racial, ethnic, class and religious divisions.

Growing up, we marked birthdays in many places. Our family lived in London, on a farm in Suffolk, in a fishing village in Cornwall, and in Glasgow, Scotland. As a young volunteer traveling with Initiatives of Change (IofC), I had several birthdays “on the road,” with Initiatives of Change (IofC) stage productions on reconciliation and constructive change among people and communities. I turned 21 in India, at Asia Plateau, the (IofC) center in Panchgani, a hill station south of Mumbai, an area known for its Table Land. I was traveling with the cast of the European musical “Anything to Declare?” in which I played guitar in our five-piece band and sang. I still have the specially designed card signed by all the cast.  

With Rob Lancaster, Alison Hutchinson, Sylvia Soderlund, and David Mills at the Caux conference center. Alison and David were great musicians who left us far too young.

My 22nd birthday was spent on an Iranian Airforce transport plane. The “Anything to Declare?” team had performed in Tehran and Isfahan at the invitation of the ministry of education. (This was eight years before the 1979 revolution and the students were already restless.) We needed help to get to our next destination, Malta. Fortunately, one of our leaders met the brother of the Shah at a reception. He happened to be the head of the air force. and offered to fly us. Our host in Tehran owned a hotel where we had all stayed and performed the show (his construction team custom built a stage). On the way to the airport, he stopped the car, ran into a store, and returned with several kilos of Caspian Sea caviar. So, we celebrated in a military transport plane, with stage equipment stacked down the center, eating caviar sandwiches.

In April 1974, I reached the quarter-century mark in Laos preparing for the arrival of the cast of “Song of Asia” which had been playing in India. Suresh Khatri and I flew from Delhi to get the dialogue of the show recorded in the Lao language by actors at the radio station in Vientiane (neither or us spoke the language, so this was an adventure). At the time, Laos was coming to the end of a long period of conflict. Our chief host was Secretary of State Chanthone Chantharasy.  Chantharasy was committed to the principles of Initiatives of Change and was highly regarded for his integrity by many of the students who flocked to the performances. He arranged a special performance for the King and Queen in the royal residence.

That summer, a group of Lao students came to Asia Plateau. I roomed with a young man named Oukham whose father was a high official in the Lao government. Oukham had led a fast life with girls and drugs as one of the privileged elite of his country. During the days in Asia Plateau he decided to get honest with his father about how he had sometimes “borrowed” his Mercedes, skipped school and spent days in a hotel with a girlfriend.  Oukham and I corresponded for a while after he got home, and he told me how he had put things right with his dad. Sadly, the communists took control in 1975, and we lost touch. I often wonder how he is now.

Two years later, I was in Tirley Garth, the beautiful country estate in Cheshire which served as an IofC center. I was working in the grounds that spring under doctor’s orders, to recover from stress and extensive travels, and preparing to write a letter of proposal to Susan who was in Canada. Fortunately, she accepted! We were married that winter and a few months later we headed to South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with a team and the stage production “Time to Choose” that we had created specially for this visit. I spent my 28th birthday with an interracial group of young South Africans who joined the show, some of whom were working together for the first time. In those days, Mandela was still in jail and it was far from certain how apartheid could end without bloodshed. Encounters with Black students in a still-smoldering Soweto following the uprising the previous year are etched in my memory. When we sang one of my songs, “The hope that a-comin’” at a high school, the audience erupted in cheers.

There are many more birthday memories that I could share but I will close with my 70th. About 40 friends and colleagues crowded into our Richmond home a few weeks before we set off on the long drive to Texas. A few days later, Betsy Carr, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, came by to present a framed copy of a resolution by the House commending the work of Hope in the Cities. It now hangs on the wall of our guest room.

With Ralph White, Richmond’s renowned naturalist and former manager of the James River Park, and Tanya Gonzalez, director of the Sacred Heart Center and a leader of the Hispanic community

What stands out for me as I look back over the years is the extraordinary network of friends who have stayed in touch. I feel grateful for the way that God has led us and provided for the needs of our family when we had very little secure income. Sometimes he has led in unexpected ways and to unexpected people. We never imagined that we would spend 40 years in Richmond, Virginia, and we are amazed now to find ourselves in Austin, Texas.

I am impressed by the development of IofC as a truly international fellowship with locally run teams in every corner of the world. It is inspiring to see the leadership of young Indonesians and Nepalese trustbuilders and healing actions in South Africa, Australia and many other places. Important conversation and collaboration is taking place with colleagues in Latin America, USA and Canada.

This work is needed now more than ever and it is an ongoing adventure. As I write in Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility, “We are all on a voyage of discovery. We can accompany each other on the journey, and we can live so that our communities become places of hope and opportunity, where the contribution of each person is valued. We can become trustbuilders starting in our own home, our own neighborhood, our own city.”