Dubai church says farewell to popular chaplain

A special goodbye service for Rev Timothy Heaney will take place on Friday morning

Tim Heaney is leaving Christ Church Jebel Ali on Friday. Courtesy: Tim Heaney

About seven years ago, Timothy Heaney was a vicar working in a rural parish in the UK. But an advert for a job in Dubai would change his life forever.

“It was a scary decision to leave,” he said, of the moment in 2012 he decided to come to Dubai.

The Anglican Holy Trinity Church in Oud Metha is close to Karama and the neighbourhood pulses with the sounds of life from India and Pakistan. This was not the city he had heard about.

“Walk through Karama and it feels like Bombay,” he says. “That surprised me. Dubai is so much more than tall buildings.”

Seven years on – Rev Heaney, 59, is preparing to head back home to the UK. Parishioners will get their chance to say goodbye at a special service at Christ Church Jebel Ali at 9:30am on Friday. Bishop Michael Lewis of the Anglican diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf will be attending.

As he reflects on seven years in the UAE, it is the contrast in life here that stands out. By 2015 he became chaplain at Christ Church Jebel Ali and one day he could be on a private jet travelling to a government engagement but another sitting on the floor of someone's home because they cannot afford furniture.

There is simply not enough space. I'm full and more churches are needed

Rev Heaney has performed about 600 weddings, fought internal church battles and lent a helping hand to residents whose lives have fallen apart. Some employers can still mistreat workers, illegally withhold their passports and he has seen first-hand how things can spiral out of control.

One British resident got trapped in debt, had a travel ban imposed and was forced to live in the maid’s room of the church.

“He died of a heart attack and I did his funeral. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever done.” Another was forced to sleep in a park when his employer refused to pay his hotel bill. “We see some very tough cases.”

Rev Heaney, who is married with three children, has also had to face challenges within the church. A dispute between lay people who previously had more power and the clergy led to several resignations across the diocese which encompasses Dubai and the Northern Emirates.

“It was grim and one of the toughest times of my life.” But with the support of his multi-ethnic congregation in Jebel Ali, he stayed on and the issue has now been largely resolved.

It is this diversity that has proved one of the most enriching experiences. On Friday morning, Rev Heaney preaches to about 150 people from India, the UK, Africa and elsewhere. And there are 48 other churches from varying denominations hosted at Christ Church Jebel Ali every week.

The population of Dubai has surged in the past few years and Rev Heaney said more places of worship are desperately needed. “There is simply not enough space. I’m full and more churches are needed.”

The next few days will be familiar to most residents who leave here. There are meetings, catch-ups with friends, endless tasks and bittersweet farewells before a final goodbye on Tuesday as he prepares to take up a new post back in the UK. But there is a sense of a job well done, priceless experiences gained and new perspectives on life opened out.

“The pace of life and the challenges makes me feel physically and mentally that seven years is about right,” he says.

“But it also shaped me as a person and I’m incredibly grateful.”