Howard Harper – a tribute, and a plea, from Brian Goodwin
“He was the humanitarian equivalent of Sir Edmund Hilary.”
The memorial service for Dr Howard Harper was already rolling out to be unique, and this statement by Lady Clare de Lore McKinnon summarised well the previous heartfelt tributes.
The story of Dr Harper and his wife Monika is inspirational. An Auckland Grammar boy who could hardly scrape through the fourth form (year ten), Howard was some years later commended by his home church, the Wiremu Street Assembly, to serve God in Pakistan, together with his close friend Colin Blair.
After some time in that country, Howard came to realise he needed something tangible to present to the people in order to open a door for the Good News. He went to England, studied to go to university, eventually did, married, qualified as a medical doctor, and in time became an ophthalmologist and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Howard and Monika set up eye clinics as a Christian ministry in hard-ground countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia. They set up schools, too. Love for the gospel was the thing that drove them for fifty years as they lived, survived, and triumphed in Central Asia.
This was all done under the radar so as not to attract too much hostile attention. Mind you, this didn’t prevent his being thrown out of three countries and, on one occasion, spend time in prison. (If there are still people worthy of the title apostle, Howard is one of them.)
After the King of Afghanistan was recalled from exile in Italy, he called Howard in and gave him a medal for services rendered to Afghanistan. Howard was also given an Afghan passport, making him only the second foreigner in the world to carry such a passport.
Last year Howard was awarded the high-status Augusta medal, awarded by his old school, Auckland Grammar. Then this year he was given New Zealand’s highest award for services by New Zealand expatriates working overseas, the Kea Award. There, in front of the 600 dignitaries attending the award ceremony, Howard said that at fifteen he had committed himself to serve God in Central Asia. Prior to this year there had been no category in the awards for humanitarian work, so they created one. This will continue in the future, an on-going tribute to the ministry of Howard and Monika Harper.
Lady Clare, wife of former deputy Prime Minister Don McKinnon, presented a heart-involved long and personal tribute of appreciation. During her eulogy she read out similar personal words of appreciation from the current Governor General, Sir Jerry Mateparae as well as from the previous Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand. Sir Stephen Tindall sent his apologies as did broadcaster Paul Holmes.
It was a memorial service to be remembered.
After the service, held at Eden Community Church, Gwenda (my soulmate) was talking with Lady Clare. “There are a lot of other people who are doing an amazing work overseas, largely unknown to the wider public,” Gwenda said. “That’s the trouble with you people,” Lady Clare replied. “These amazing people are known to you, they’re your world, but the rest of us know nothing about them.”
Lady Clare had met Howard and Monika in London and was overwhelmed by their amazing true story of courage, humanitarianism and derring-do. She was the one who wrote the cover article for Listener magazine (23 October 2010) entitled, “The Secret Kiwi Hero of Kabul.” It was about the Harpers.
Her statement about these people being “our world” made me think.
As Christians, we know so many missionary-heroes they almost fade from sight due to familiarity. But they are true heroes.
Why is it, then, that we can hardly muster a group to hear them when they return home to tell their stories? Why is it that they are sometimes thought of as being out-dated, a hang-over from the days of empire?
Do we have too many heroes?
(Of course we don’t. And of course, the only recognition that really matters is our Lord’s “Well done!” But doesn’t the Bible command us to “honour men like him”? (1)
At the end of the conversation with Gwenda, Lady Clare described how hard it is to raise money from New Zealand entities, especially for Christian causes. With subdued tones she remarked to Gwenda as if she had made a new and somewhat scary discovery, “We are a very secular society, you know.” Really?
On 19 October 2011 the angels of heaven lined up and clapped as Howard Harper entered the gates.
(1) Philippians 2.29.