‘As a child a voice in my head told me to say goodbye to dad ... I told him I loved him and he died during the night’
In conversation with Rosamond Bennett, CEO of Christian Aid Ireland
Rosamond Bennett is married to Karl, a part-time primary school teacher and a musician. They have three children, Louis (18), Judy (17) and 13-year-old Reuben and live in Whitehead. Rosamond, who turned 50 this year but jokes she prefers 42, became CEO of Christian Aid Ireland earlier this year after 22 years in the corporate world. She is an elder in the Presbyterian Church.
Q How and when did you come to faith?
A It was only when my father died, when I was 10, that I fully became aware of God’s presence in my life. I had been away for the weekend and came home on Sunday evening. Daddy was ill with heart trouble and he asked me to bring him his tablets, which I did. I then went to bed, but I woke up a short time later. A voice in my head told me to go back to see him and to say ‘Goodbye’ because I’d never see him again.
My father was Tommy Hawthorne. He was a watch-maker and a part-time insurance salesman. When he asked me what I was doing in his bedroom, I told him that I wanted to kiss him and that I loved him. He said “I love you too”. Those were the last words he said to me.
I went back to bed and he died during the night. When I woke up the next morning, my mother and older brothers and sisters — all in their twenties — told me he had died. He was only 63. I told them I already knew. I was sure that the voice in my head had been God, because He also said, “Don’t worry, I will be here for you. I will always be your Father”.
I’ve talked about this in speeches, but I have never shared it so publicly before. It is the reason why I hug and kiss people I love every time we part and why I tell them that I love them, because those were the last words my daddy said to me.
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Q Does this faith play a real part in your daily life, or is it just for Sundays?
A Faith is not about Sundays at all. That is a myth, a misunderstanding. Faith, and the Church, are about day-to-day life. It’s about the actions I take or don’t take, what I say or don’t say. And I know that I can always do better.
Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A Doubt is not something we should be fearful of. In fact, a certain faith is not truly faith at all. Even when I have doubts, I still turn to God in prayer and to help me through.
The death of my mother, Nan, had a profound effect on me. She developed cancer and died within six weeks. I delivered a tribute at her funeral. Although she left school at 15, she was the wisest and kindest person I ever knew. People at the funeral came up to me and told me how wonderful she was and what she had done for the entire community.
I was lucky to have a university education and a challenging career, but my mother’s death made me ask myself, “What have you done with your life?”. So, I decided to change my job and do something more useful for society. I took redundancy from the bank and looked for a job with a charity where I could express my Christian values.
On the same day that I was offered the job with Christian Aid, I was also offered a job in the corporate sector at twice the salary. I looked on that as a test from God — was it God or Mammon I was choosing? I knew instantly what I wanted to do. I talked it over with my husband and chose Christian Aid.
Q Have you ever been angry with God, and if so why?
A Yes, I do get angry when I see injustice, violence, discrimination and starvation in the world. I don’t just read about these issues, I get to see them first-hand through my work with Christian Aid and it makes me angry and frustrated with God and with people in general, because the issues I see are created by people, not by God. I do express that anger to God, but (S)He can take it!
Q Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
AI have been challenged by some people as to why I am a Christian and I have also been criticised by other Christians for not being Christian enough.
What I don’t like is when my children get teased and bullied because of my faith. My role as CEO of Christian Aid Ireland means that I speak out on many issues and that has had repercussions for my children over the years.
Now, when I speak publicly about something, I will take time to talk to my children and explain why I’ve said what I’ve said, so they feel more prepared should they be challenged.
I will always be grateful that I can openly be a Christian and not be persecuted. That is not the case in many areas of the world.
Q Are you ever ashamed of your own church or your denomination?
AI don’t always agree with what my church/denomination says and does, or what it doesn’t say or do, though I am still proud to be a Presbyterian. I am not a theologian, but I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” He spoke to everyone and turned no one away.
Q Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
AI do look beyond death, but that doesn’t mean I am not afraid to die. It is the unknown and it’s also about what you leave behind. I do think that Churches should understand people’s fears and anxieties about this and discuss it more fully. Our tagline in Christian Aid is ‘We believe in life before death’. Our focus now is to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to live a full life. It’s about thriving, not just surviving.
Q Are you worried about
A No. The imagery of the Scriptures is varied and not always fire-related. It’s more about being on the outside, being banished.
Q Do you believe in a resurrection and, if so, what will it be like?
AI believe in resurrection not because of science or history, and not because of doctrines, but because I’ve seen it in glimpses of the world with Jesus as King of a world turned upside down, new structures and new ways. A world that values people over wealth, that values creation over power, that turns its back on greed and kneels in service to each other. That is resurrection. That is the Gospel lived out.
Q What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
AI work with Christian Aid and we interact with and employ people of all faiths and none. This is our Christian faith in action, showing that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.
Q Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A The churches can always do so much more. I work closely with the South Sudan Council of Churches, where the leaders are fully involved, working together with sleeves rolled up in difficult circumstances and despite huge personal risk. I find them very inspiring and I am humbled by their motivation, faith and determination.
Q Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A People are being bombarded with conflicting information every day. There is a vacuum in some people’s lives and they are searching for something that makes sense to them and is real and genuine. They no longer want to accept what they’ve been told. They’ve heard upsetting and disturbing things about organised religion and they are rejecting it.
Q Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A That is too general. An individual’s faith will help them through tremendously difficult circumstances.
I am thinking of Gordon Wilson, for example. I don’t see that religion helped him, so much as his own personal relationship with Christ.
Q Some personal preferences — your favourite film, book, music and why?
AI don’t have one favourite book, there are too many that I love, such as Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, anything by Haruki Murakami, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.
One film that has stayed with me all my life is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a biographical film from the 1940s.
I love hearing my husband play the piano and the oboe, but I absolutely detest jazz and don’t know where that came from.
Q And what about regrets? Do you have any?
AI don’t do regrets. There’s no point and, anyhow, I would much rather regret things I did rather than things I didn’t do.
Q Where do you feel closest to God?
A With nature, watching wild birds feeding, the smell of the soil... these things restore me.
Q What inscription would you like on your tombstone?
A Be bold, be brave, be the change which God wants to see.
Life choice: Rosamund Bennett, CEO of Christian Aid Ireland, felt she had to choose between God or Mammon
Belfast Telegraph Digital