Yesterday it was a delight to attend the unveiling of a plaque to Phoebe Cusden, and I was particularly struck by Robert Dimmick’s speech. He’s kindly allowed me to reproduce it here:
Phoebe Cusden was a person of wide and varied interests and commitments, to peace, to her own community, to the care of children, to her faith. I want to thank all who have helped to make this plaque possible, most of all Kerry Renshaw.
The act for which Phoebe will be most remembered is her initiative to send help to Germany just after the end of the Second World War. That initiative was not universally popular. Most people did not realise that while people suffered here, the suffering was even greater elsewhere. Many felt that we should look after British people first. Some felt that all Germans deserved to suffer for the evils that their Nazi government had brought on the world.
The Nazis claimed that their race was better and stronger than all others, and deserved to take from others whatever it wanted. They had no compassion for people who suffered, but inflicted suffering and death on many innocent people.
I never met Phoebe, but I feel sure that if such ruthless and nationalistic attitudes had prevailed in Reading, she would have felt that we had not won the war at all, but had surrendered to the ideology that we had fought against. She might well have taken as her motto what the Roman playwright Terence wrote over two thousand years ago: “I am a human being. I count nothing human as foreign.”
Phoebe Cusden was a citizen of the world, to whom every man and woman and particularly every child was infinitely valuable. She was a Christian, obeying the command to love our enemies, and determined to seek reconciliation even when it was costly. She was a peace-lover, who knew that the only way to get rid of your enemies is to turn them into friends by building bridges and offering help. She was a doer, who acted on her beliefs rather than just asserting them.
Seventy years later, we still need people like Phoebe. We must not give in to the notion that we can keep people safe behind walls in Reading, or in Britain, or in Europe, and not care about people beyond them. We must not think of ourselves as more deserving or better than others. We must accept responsibility towards those we have exploited in the past.
Phoebe’s initiative grew into a strong and lasting international friendship between Reading and Düsseldorf, which has given great pleasure and many opportunities for learning and growth to many people. We should be proud of that, and should continue to develop it. I hope that this plaque will be a reminder of this friendship to all who pass by. But I hope that it will also inspire people to become like Phoebe, to care for our neighbours whether they are next door or around the world.
Photos from the plaque unveiling, and from the opening of Phoebe Cusden House earlier in the year