The Japanese World War Two Weihsien Internment Camp in Central China was a demoralising place marked by harsh and unsanitary conditions. From 1942 to 1945, the invading Japanese forces held over 2,000 expatriates there, including more than 300 children, from the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries. Amidst the camp’s gloom and human misery, a golden light of goodness flickered in the peaceful presence of a Chinese born Scotsman. His name was Eric Liddell.

Last month marked the anniversary of the birth of Eric Liddell in 1902. The example of his life still offers a model for compassion, conviction, and commitment. The last years of his life while he was imprisoned by the Japanese in China were truly extraordinary and emblematic of how he viewed humanity.

To Liddell the human soul was to be nurtured, honoured, and uplifted. One cannot separate the lane of his life from his genuine faith in something beyond ourselves. He once said, “Every Christian should live a God-guided life. If you are not guided by God, you will be guided by someone or something else. The Christian who hasn’t the sense of guidance in his life is missing something vital.”

It was 100 years ago that Liddell went with a remarkable team of talented British athletes to compete in the Olympic Games in Paris. At the time he was a celebrated student athlete at the University of Edinburgh.

He was vibrant and full of the vitality of a 22-year-old. Liddell’s bronze medal in the 200m race in Paris was a superb finish. His gold medal triumph in the 400m was legendary. Those medals and his 1924 Olympic participation medal are proudly displayed at the University of Edinburgh.

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When Liddell returned to China in 1925, he came with a renewed commitment and dedication to uplifting others. His athletic and academic achievements had brought him much notoriety and recognition. He was energised to use those experiences to benefit others.

In China, he met and married the beautiful and talented Florence Mackenzie in 1934. They started a family there together. By 1941, heightened dangers in China prompted the British Government to encourage British nationals to depart for safer nations. The Liddell’s decided Canada would be the safest haven. It was at this moment that Eric Liddell faced one of the most difficult decisions of his life. He wrestled with a choice to stay in China or go with his family.

In the end, Liddell decided to stay. When he said farewell to Florence and their two daughters, it would be their last physical time together as a family. That family included an unborn daughter that Florence was expecting when she boarded the ship.

The time in the internment camp for Eric and the prisoners was fraught with hardship. These times were perhaps Eric’s finest moments of character. Those who were there with him that he became the camp’s conscience. He served others with an unwavering love and compassion that endeared him to all he encountered. He advanced a sense of community amidst a period of isolation and darkness that so many faced. Sadly, he died while still a prisoner in 1945 at the age of 43.

The legacy of community and compassion that Eric exemplified is being upheld by an innovative care charity in Edinburgh that is named after him: The Eric Liddell Community. The organisation is advancing a vision that individuals should not feel isolated or lonely.

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The Eric Liddell Community offers a community hub that is building trust between people, addressing dementia, nurturing the vulnerable and anxious, advancing ideas, and actively developing compassionate well-being initiatives. Liddell would have been proud.

The Eric Liddell Community last year launched an initiative called The Eric Liddell 100. This effort is a programme of events and activities which is aligned with the centenary of Liddell’s historic showing at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal is serving as the Patron of an effort that is honouring the attributes of an outstanding person in Eric Liddell, and putting a spotlight on how we as a global society can lift and care for individuals today.

With his friend Joe Cotterill, Eric awoke early each day in the internment camp. Under the light of a simple peanut-oil lamp, they found peace in their morning studies and reflections. With the rising sun, Eric then went out to face the challenges of each day with courage, dignity, and kindness towards others. His exemplary life and soulful example is dipped in gold – a life that still glistens for those in the world searching for light and models of service.

Ian Houston has spent his career as an advocate for diplomacy, trade, poverty alleviation, and intercultural dialogue. He promotes commercial, educational, artistic, and charitable linkages between Scotland, UK, and the US. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of the West of Scotland and honorary Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. He is located in the Washington, DC area. His views are his own.