The description ‘unsung hero’ appears often in the media. It refers to someone who has acted bravely or selflessly without publicity or self-promotion. Time and time again in Scotland we learn of someone in years past who has done something wonderful but has never received any recognition for it. Such a person was John Rae. He was born in Orkney in 1813. He trained as a doctor at Edinburgh University and went out to work in Canada. He died in London in 1893. His body is buried in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney. John Rae discovered the north west passage round the top of Canada. He found out what had happened to the ill-fated John Franklin expedition which had never returned. His report to the Admiralty provoked outrage because it included local Inuit accounts that Franklin’s men had resorted to cannibalism in order to survive their last days. Franklin’s widow campaigned against Rae and his report to have him discredited. Polite English society could not accept that Englishmen may have resorted to cannibalism.
Rae Strait (between King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula), Rae Isthmus, Rae River, Fort Rae and the village of Rae-Edzo (now Behchoko), Northwest Territories were all named for him. The outcome of Lady Franklin's efforts to glorify the dead of the Franklin expedition meant Rae was shunned somewhat by the British establishment. Although he found the last link in the much sought after Northwest Passage Rae was never awarded a Knighthood, nor was he remembered at the time of his death, dying quietly in London. However, historians have since studied Rae's expeditions and his roles in finding the Northwest Passage and learning the fate of Franklin's crews. Rae was willing to learn and adopt the ways of indigenous Arctic peoples, which made him stand out as the foremost specialist of his time in cold-climate survival and travel. Rae also respected Inuit customs, traditions and skills, which went against the beliefs of many 19th century Europeans that most native peoples were primitive and of little educational value. In March 2009 Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael introduced into U.K. parliament a motion urging it to formally state it 'regrets that memorials to Sir John Franklin outside the Admiralty headquarters and inside Westminster Abbey still inaccurately describe Franklin as the first to discover the passage, and calls on the Ministry of Defence and the Abbey authorities to take the necessary steps to clarify the true position.'
It is a typical story. Modest and unassuming people are bypassed and less gifted but more egotistical people become better known. Scotland is particularly bad at recognising its own. John Clerk Maxwell is another unsung hero in the field of science. Not many people have ever hard of him. He was a Christian and as great a scientific pioneer as Einstein. He is buried at Parton Kirk near Castle Douglas.
Today, there are many unsung hero awards ceremonies throughout the land. These seek to give recognition and encouragement to individuals who have for a number of years sought to help others in some way. Here are some examples from England of Unsung Hero Awards.
The Good Neighbour Award went to John Sherlock. Described by many as an extremely active member of his community, he regularly calls round the houses in his area, taking on his neighbour’s problems as his own, and is unwilling to rest until he resolves them. He is someone to talk to and trust. He is the Chair of Daresbury, Rostherne and St Ann’s Community Association. A true unsung hero that is making real, positive changes in his neighbourhood.
Derek Burns scooped the Inspiration Award. Derek has battled through life-threatening surgery, nearly dying during the operation, yet his main concern was for the upkeep of the gardens at Victoria Court, a sheltered housing scheme, so residents could continue to enjoy them, and also caring for his vegetable patch. He provided clear instructions on tending the gardens from intensive care!
Rosie Williams, described as a true marvel, won the Community Involvement gong. A real team player, Rosie has for the past several years been at the forefront of a wide range of initiatives organised to improve community spirit. They have helped organise a Young Persons Odd Job Day and fostered close links with the Police to reduce anti-social behaviour in their local area. They also produce a local newsletter informing the local community of the latest news, and most recently promoted a residents’ coach trip to Tatton Park.
Christine Boyd picked up the Children and Young People Award. Commendable and passionate are the words used to describe her. It is noted by many that Christine seems to give all her spare time organising things to do for the young people in her area. One describes her commitment as ‘come rain or shine she’s always there’.
The winner of the Community Fundraising Award was Blanche Archer who has committed over 30 years to preparing WRVS lunches. She is also a big fundraiser for her church. At a sprightly 93 years of age, there are no plans for this hardworking and committed lady to stop any time soon.
The Contribution to the Older Community Award went to Sheila Miller. Sheila has helped and supported elderly and vulnerable residents in her community for the last several years. Described as the ‘most caring person I know’ by one resident, Sheila gives up nearly all her free time to cook dinners, go shopping for people and is generally a helping hand to anyone in need. Sheila is a true unsung hero and lifeline for many elderly people.
What these recognition awards try to do is to restore the balance in the media which is dominated by celebrity, wealth, fame and excess. They try to promote humanity, charity and practical goodness. They also suggest that there are many, many completely unsung heroes in every community. The ones who receive some recognition represent them in some token way.
I think that Christians are unsung heroes in our society today. I mean real Christians, good Christians, genuine article Christians. I don’t mean moaners, complainers, big heads and posers. Real Christians. Christians are unsung heroes today because we are not recognised for what we are or what we do. We are taken for granted. In our Presbyterian way, we are loathe to say anything nice to one another. We do not have a Church of Scotland Oscars ceremony. The Scottish Labour Party has 15,000 members. The Scottish national party has 12,000 members. The Church of Scotland has 480,000 members. Not only does this Church not punch its weight but it cowers before all the political correctness of the day. It has surrendered any pretence to be a prophetic Church.
I have been barred from speaking at Bathgate Academy. It happened after the Christmas Assembly. I always try to communicate something worthwhile when I go to the schools. I spoke about Justin Barrett, the Oxford academic whose research with children has showed that children naturally believe in God and have to be led out of that to atheism. I said this reflected what the Bible has said for thousands of years that we are made in the image of God. I pointed out that the Roman Catholic education system takes this seriously from primary 1 to secondary 6. But the state schools do not take this into account and have marginalised Christianity, I said. I compared the role of school chaplains to that of the mascots at Hearts and Rangers football clubs, Hearty Harry and Broxy Bear - allowed on for a few minutes of light entertainment but kept well away from the essential business of schools. I concluded by saying that Christmas is the answer to our natural instinct and feeling for God.
As I left via the assembly hall, the head teacher, Joe Boyd, told me that my talk had been sectarian. I said 'It was not sectarian'. 'We have people hear who support other teams than Hearts and Rangers' he said. As I went to the main doors and in front of pupils and staff he said 'I can’t give you a platform here again'. And that was that. The irony is that Joe Boyd is a Roman Catholic himself who lost his job allegedly through misconduct as head teacher at St David’s RC School in Dalkeith and was parachuted into Bathgate Academy though Douglas Short had been doing an excellent job as temporary head teacher. That is how low the status of the Church of Scotland is in our schools. That is how bereft we are of historic presence in Scotland.
This is Palm Sunday. Today we think of the time when Jesus was apparently welcomed and recognised - a few hours when he was treated like a hero. Palm branches were spread in front of him denoting his majesty. Children clapped and shouted for joy. Yet he rode on a beast of peace not on a military war horse. His followers were unarmed and in too few numbers to be any threat to the Roman or Jewish governing elite. For Jesus what he was doing was symbolic. He was showing people that He was their Messiah after all.
The truth is though, that even then Jesus was an unsung hero. Because what He was about to do was so selfless and self sacrificial that no-one understood it. 'Father if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done'. So He prayed. A man who did not really want to die - and not to die crucified. 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me'? So he cried out as pain and defeat overcame him. 'It is completed'. He said as peace comforted His soul. 'Father into your hands I commend my spirit' He said as life itself departed.
There you have an unsung hero. The greatest. He got no awards and no knighthood and no recognition in this life. Amazingly, He has had them ever since. In every age. Among every people. More now than ever. All those beautiful hymns sung for Him. All those lives dedicated to Him. All the good done in His Name and in His way. Rejoice that you are part of this and part of Him.