Group Captain Leonard Cheshire has just returned from China where he saw 'a 30-year dream come true' with the establishment of a home for the disabled.
THE younger generation tends to have a stereotypical view of those with distinguished war records: They are pictured as people approaching old age who sport the obligatory regimental tie, stand bolt upright, insist on rigid formality and who break knuckles with an unnecessarily powerful handshake when saying hello.
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC OM DSO DFC RAF is a man who by his very bearing and presence defies these illusions. Seemingly more at home in a monastic cell than in the cockpit of a wartime Lancaster bomber, Mr Cheshire is extremely gentle and softspoken. He is one of those people who, despite nearly a lifetime of charitable activity, never feels he has done enough for those mentally and physically handicapped he has provided shelter and hope for the world over.
Recently back from a trip round Africa where he provided a founder's impetus to homes already established or else soon to be set up, Mr Cheshire spoke of the enormous deprivations faced by black South Africans in the townships.
"Sometimes they suffer from gunshot wounds inflicted by the police or stab wounds inflicted by fellow blacks. When they come out of hospital missing limbs or unable to walk there are no care facilities for them in the townships. I have known of blacks reopening their bed sores so as to remain in hospital as long as possible," he said.
With an average three speeches to give a day on his trip round South Africa, Mr Cheshire could hardly avoid pointing out the injustices of apartheid. "One must always be honest, but also courteous. If you drive South Africa into a corner with ceaseless denunciations, people harden and remain rigid. The fact is that it is the little things such as charity and love and hope which transform a nation, and we spend far too much time spouting lofty ideals rather than getting on with the business of transforming South African society into a community of love at the grass roots level."
Mr Cheshire was happier talking about his new venture in China where the Foundation has just been granted permission to start a home for the disabled. "It has been a 30 year dream of mine that one day we'll have something in China," he said. For years he had driven his family mad by trying to learn Mandarin in order to better reconcile himself with a culture he loves and respects.
The miracle happened in February last year when Deng Pu Fang, son of the retired Chinese Premier, took up the Cheshire cause and paved the way towards the foundation of a home at Kun Ming. The reason? Deng Pu Fang has a special affinity with the handicapped due to his being defenestrated as a hot-headed young student protester during the Cultural Revolution. He is now confined to a wheelchair.
Although most Cheshire Homes the world over are selffinancing and run themselves after their initial foundation, Mr Cheshire has undertaken to raise £250,000 for setting up the Chinese project.
But what drives Mr Cheshire to tirelessly work for the world's underpriviledged well into his seventies? The answer must lie in his formidable spirituality bolstered as it is by three hours of prayer a day, including the recitation of daily office, and frequent Mass attendance.
He defies anyone to say that the business of Christianity is tied up exclusively with social action. He believes rather in the early Christian concept of Kenosis, literally "selfemptying", which allows one to become the instrument of God. This self-emptying he says is common among the handicapped who, deprived of material and physical well being, are thrown back on God in such a way as to become perfect vessels of His intentions towards His creatures.
"At the moment I am particularly taken with Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane where, although perfect, He became sin for us. He asked His disciples to 'wait for me' while He prayed to His Father. Because Jesus asked this, and was largely let down because His disciples went to sleep, I find great solace in keeping watch with Christ, not asking questions, but just remaining in silence to do His will."
His record in helping the handicapped — there are homes in 50 countries worldwide — is proof positive that a deep spirituality does indeed lead to concrete Christian social action. "I would be nowhere without prayer," he told me.