• June 07, 2001
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    Departing reverend looks back on moments of turbulence
Departing reverend looks back on moments of turbulence "All told it's been an eventful 17 years," says the Reverend Dennis Gurney speculatively, as he settles back in a large office chair amidst the chaos of nearly two decades worth of packing.

"Eventful" would not be the word springing to most people's minds when considering the extraordinary experiences of this calm preacher's life in the UAE. Turbulent, smattered with danger, the odd brush with the after-life and incredibly hard work, would actually seem more appropriate when "all" is told.

For Gurney - who will resume the mundane life of a British vicar in the UK when he leaves the Gulf for good in 10 days' time - has not only survived two serious car accidents ? one of which caused doctors to fear he would never walk again ? but has rescued refugees, wrested fire-arms from a distraught wife, set up desperately needed clinics in Yemen and even killed a camel.

All this has happened alongside catering to the UAE's Christian community which has grown from one tiny church in 1984 to serving a Friday turnout of 20,000 from 86 congregations who worship in 32 languages.

The 75-year-old father of five still takes it all in stride. Describing his first impression of Dubai, he said: "When I came here in 1984, I had no idea what to expect because I'd never been to the Gulf - but I do remember being surprised at just how green and tidy the emirates were.

"At that time the church complex was very small, housing one chapel, a prefabricated bungalow for my wife and I and a tiny church hall. We've since managed to expand through a lot of hard work to provide places of worship in all the emirates."

But the road to righteousness has been more than a little rocky - the past 13 years having had their fair share of trauma. "One of my clearest memories was in 1989 when I opened the chaplaincy door to find 28 Iranian refugees standing there.

"They'd fled the war in Iran on dhows to Dubai with nothing more than the clothes they stood up in. None of them had papers and all were frightened, hungry, sick and desperate. Over a period of three years we managed to house them, cover their medical expenses, find them jobs and visas - but it wasn't an easy task.

"Then in 1990 I was almost killed when a car swerved off the road and hit me outside the British Embassy. I can't remember feeling much pain even though both my legs were smashed and one was skinned completely from the knee down. The most terrifying part was flying through the air and having absolutely no control over where I'd land.

"The doctors at the Rashid Hospital did a marvellous job in patching me up but warned me I might never walk again. Amazingly I spent just three months on crutches and was soon back at work.

"In 1993 I had another accident when driving back from Fujairah at night along the Dhaid road. "A large camel stepped out of nowhere right in front of the car and although I braked as hard, we collided with tremendous force. The camel was killed instantly and it really was by the grace of God that I escaped with my life."

An even more bizarre incident the following year was only brought back to Gurney as he began to pack his belongings just days ago. "I was clearing out my filing cabinet when I discovered a heavy object covered in cloth. When I unwrapped it, I realised it was a gun I'd managed to take away from a lady in Ras Al Khaimah who was planning to murder her husband.

"She'd suffered terrible violence from her husband who frequently beat her and smashed her head against walls. On previous visits she'd even asked me if I could get hold of a firearm for her ? but I'd always laughed and told her it would be impossible in the UAE.

"Then, on another visit, she showed me a gun she'd managed to acquire and told me of her plan to shoot her husband. "I was shocked, but managed to persuade her to hand it over. I took it back to the chaplaincy, put it away and didn't think of the incident again.

I don't know if it's been loaded all these years - or even if it has a safety catch - because I won't be pulling the trigger. I've decided it will be buried in the foundations of the new church being built in Jebel Ali. That way it can't cause any harm to anyone!"

Accomplishments and benefits to the community have been many during Gurney's term. "I am delighted with the news that two medical clinics we set up in Yemen have treated over 30,000 mothers and babies in the past year which is a real achievement," he said, adding: "The church is also currently supporting three refugee families from Somalia who came here after fleeing the war.

We are doing our best to house, feed, clothe and legalise them because life here for the poverty-stricken is much harder than it used to be." Is he sad to be leaving? The answer is a definite "yes".

"I was asked by one of the Rulers recently why I was leaving when I could easily go to heaven from Dubai. "I told him that although this was possible and I could happily stay another 17 years, my wife thinks the UK is heaven which is why we're going home."

And who will succeed a man with such a hard act to follow? "The answer is we don't know," he says. "But anyone taking on this job will need flexibility, patience and a big sense of humour."
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