Remarkable life of Northern Ireland minister Ray Barnett, hostage negotiator and founder of The African Children’s Choir The cleric from Coleraine tells Laurence White how he was finally reconciled to the woman who gave birth to him – and about becoming legal guardian to around 1,300 boys and girls due to his work with the fundraising choir
By Laurence White December 16 2019
Northern Ireland-born minister Ray Barnett has chosen a very apt title for his • autobiography – Don’t Tell Me It Can’t Be Done. He may have started off life in very humble surroundings in a Coleraine estate, but for many of his 83 years, his life reads like an international political thriller.
Negotiating the release of hostages in Lebanon, putting pressure on regimes in the Soviet Union and Uganda to free Christians imprisoned for their faith, organising aid missions to troubled countries like Somalia and Rwanda and, perhaps his crowning glory, founding The African Children’s Choir.
And he did all that with often not a pound, or more appropriately since he has long settled in Canada, a dollar in his pocket.
He would argue that God has always come to his aid when he wanted help but there is no doubt that Ray was constantly prompting Him to intervene.
As he freely admits, his start in life was unpromising – and heartbreaking.
In his early years he was called Ray Ross, living as he believed with his siblings in Killowen, a poor neighbourhood in Coleraine. But unknown to him, he was living a lie.
Speaking from Canada he tells me: “It was as enjoyable a childhood as one could be in a poor area during the Second World War and afterwards when rationing continued. I was raised by a woman that loved me and who I thought was my mother.”
However Lavina Ross was not his biological mother but she was the woman who mothered him as he notes in the dedication of his book – ‘To my mother Lavina Ross who took me into her heart and home and raised me as one of her own. Her love generosity and unwavering belief in me got me through the tough times as a child and helped shape me into the person I am’.
Ray was later to learn the truth – that his father was a man he called uncle and that his biological mother had left him to go to London.
He says: “My tragedy came in realising maybe I did not belong to that family but not wanting to mention it in case I offended my mother (Lavina). She never knew that I found my real family.”
Even when he found out about his real mother he was told that she had been killed in the Blitz in London. However, thanks to a number of coincidences and detective work on Ray’s part, he discovered she was still alive and he even travelled to London to meet her.
That meeting was to end in a humiliating rejection.
“I was hurt by my mother’s rejection. She simply told me that it would be better if I never came back to her home. She was now married and her husband did not know anything about me.
“Growing up in the environment where I did, I didn’t mention to anyone what had happened. I didn’t discuss it with the Ross family and never told them I had gone to London.”
Many years later after Ray had become a minister, got married and was living in Vancouver, he discovered that his mother had moved to New York and there was a reconciliation of sorts.
She visited his family in Canada and when she died he spoke at her funeral.
But even then one of his aunts had tried to stop him saying that many people in the congregation did not know he was her son and it might be better to not mention it.
Ironically he never got to attend Lavina Ross’s funeral. It was too late when he learned that she was dying.
He says: “I did not have the airfare to go from Vancouver to Coleraine even if I had known. There was certainly no snub intended. I never returned to Northern Ireland while she was alive without going to see her and even now I never go back without visiting her grave.
“I had visited her for the last time a few months before her death. I loved her very much indeed.”
There was also some irony in how he became involved in his global campaign to aid persecuted Christians.
“When I started out in my ministry I thought I was going to be a very active pastor in my own little church somewhere.
However, a young journalist who told me she was an atheist brought back from a visit to the Soviet Union a story of Christians in prison there. She really contributed to a big change in my life and the direction in which it has gone.”
Ray was not one to dismiss the plight of those Christians as beyond his capability to help.
He began a prayer mission, Friends In The West, in 1972 and enlisted the help of influential people in the US Congress to pass a resolution calling for the release of those prisoners.
He was simultaneously pressing for the release of imprisoned missionaries in Mozambique.
Astonishingly both campaigns ended successfully.
Due to his work he became a focal point for those in distress and at one point worked to bring aid to Muslims caught up in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
That enabled him to forge relationships with Muslim communities in the Middle East and that later paid dividends when he helped to negotiate the release of some of the hostages taken by Hezbollah.
He adds: “Some people wondered why as a Christian I helped deliver aid to help 24,000 Shia Muslim families. My reply was that we have to help everyone.
“That is our work. Years later I was again asked to help the Muslim community there but I had to tell them that I could not intervene while Westerners were being taken hostage in Lebanon.
“That led to me meeting the Muslim cleric who was the alleged leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. I gave him my Christian testimony and he commented that me being there was an act of worship and I knew then that he had opened the door for me to talk to him about the hostages.”
It was during a meeting with the cleric that Ray was asked to look out the window and he saw the significant figure of Terry Waite, the Church of England official who had gone to Lebanon to negotiate the release of prisoners, eating ice cream.
While Ray believed Waite was negotiating on behalf of the hostages, one of the cleric’s bodyguards begged to differ. At that point he realised Waite was in danger – and he ended up a captive.
Ray has some wonderful personal stories of how people have survived the horror of genocide in Rwanda to make new lives for themselves.
He recalls travelling through the country and seeing bodies lying on the road or pools of blood when others had been macheted to death.
Ray says: “One thing that has always stuck with me was the work of one man running a little orphanage.
“He was taking in everyone he could as so many children had been orphaned in the slaughter. The genocide was in its final days and I thought I needed to find some way to help.
“It was obvious that many people were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and I got a Belfast psychiatrist to write up pamphlets that could be used in helping children.
“Later I met one of the children we had helped. He was working for a charity. He had been given a shoebox full of presents one Christmas as a child and he went to work for the charity which had distributed them.
“He knew the people who slaughtered his family and he want back to Rwanda one-and-a-half years ago and met them in prison and forgave them.
“During the genocide a lot of people took shelter in a Catholic church but were discovered and killed. The only one to survive was a little baby girl found lying on top of her mother.
“We had a lot of involvement with that child but never discussed what happened.
“Today she is a nursing officer in the US Air Force.”
Ray’s decision to found The African Children’s Choir also arose out of tragedy. He had witnessed the terrible effects of conflict and famine in Uganda and Ethiopia and noted that pictures of emaciated children were used to stir the Western world’s conscience and come to their aid.
“I understand the argument that this was an effective way of getting a message across but I was slightly fed up with seeing those images,” he says.
“I wondered what happened when the cameras went away as they always did. To me the outside world needed to see the potential of the African children and the idea of a choir came to me.
“The strategy was that the choir would tour and money raised would be used to educate and develop those children and their peers.
“I laughed when someone asked me if I had hit on the idea of a choir because I was musical. Actually I was put out of a marching band in Coleraine when I was eight because I could not beat the triangle in time!”
He adds: “We are now on to our 50th choir and each choir becomes like a family.
“The relationships the kids make are for life and they have gone on to fulfil their dreams of becoming lawyers, doctors, teachers, social workers and every other sort of job you could image.
“The only one who failed was a young girl who told me she one day wanted to be president of Uganda.
“Northern Ireland has been very good to the choirs from the beginning.
“Once during a famine in Somalia we brought a choir to Northern Ireland and every church wanted to get involved in putting the children up. We managed to raise £100,000 which was an amazing amount of money.
“I have been the legal guardian to around 1,300 children during the lifetime of The African Children’s Choir and children have sung all over the world. One of the most astonishing concerts was for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
“I also remember bringing a choir to Coleraine during the Troubles and we held a Christmas concert that involved Killowen primary school which I had attended and a nearby Catholic primary school.”
Of course his family, wife Ruth, and children Robbie, Rhonda and Rheanne, played a big supporting role in his work and he notes in his book that often they were left with little money because he was so frequently away from home.
He and Ruth had been married for 55 years when she died from a heart attack on September 2, 2016.
“She died in my arms. I had been in another room in our home when it occurred and the paramedics were unable to save her,” Ray says.
“She had come to Africa with me a few times and my two daughters now work with the African Choir. My family have been great, very supportive and I appreciate them so much”
Ray’s next project is to write a book on the choir and its work.
“I just cannot sit and do nothing. I would rather spend my life just helping.”
Don’t Tell Me It Can’t Be Done: An Autobiography by Ray Barnett is available to buy on Amazon.
NOTE: You can also purchase through this site