Former Observer editor Hugh McCullum is being remembered as a passionate advocate for marginalized people everywhere, and as a prolific reporter and writer who insisted that church publications engage the world beyond their institutional borders. McCullum died Oct. 16 in Toronto. He was 76 and had been in declining health for two years.
McCullum was named editor/publisher of The United Church Observer in 1980, following the death of longtime editor Rev. Al Forrest. He was not only the first layperson appointed as editor, he was also the first editor who came from outside The United Church of Canada. The son of an Anglican priest, McCullum had been editor of the national newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1968-75. Before that, he enjoyed a colourful career in daily newspapers, including stints at the Kingston Whig-Standard, the Regina Leader-Post and the now-defunct Toronto Telegram. Stories he wrote for the Telegram in the late 1960s about the secessionist Nigerian state of Biafra helped bring the world’s attention to a politically engineered famine that killed an estimated one million people.
As editor of The Observer, McCullum presided over the magazine’s transition from an arm of the General Council to an independently incorporated publication with full editorial autonomy. Never content to confine himself to the editor’s office, he travelled extensively, reporting on church-backed struggles for justice in Canada’s North, in Central America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. McCullum won dozens of church press awards and was a three-time National Magazine Awards winner. During his time at The Observer, he also hosted CBC TV’s Meeting Place.
McCullum moved to Zimbabwe in 1990 and worked on numerous ecumenical projects including training programs for African journalists, while continuing to report extensively on wars, emergencies, democracy movements and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He was one of the first western journalists to arrive in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide; his book — one of dozens he authored — The Angels Have Left Us was a scathing indictment of the complicity of Rwandan churches and the indifference of western churches in the slaughter of more than 800,000 civilians.
McCullum returned to Canada in 2003. At the time of his death, he was working with Aboriginal groups on issues relating to northern resource development — a cause he first embraced in the 1970s as a co-ordinator of the interchurch group Project North.
“Journalism for Hugh McCullum was always about advocacy, challenging readers to change what they could be changing,” said Muriel Duncan, who worked with McCullum as The Observer's managing editor and who succeeded him as editor. “He believed the church should be a passionate champion for the powerless, the voiceless, to go out beyond its comfort zone, to risk all for a just cause. And on good days, when the mix was right, Hugh McCullum brought us the news we didn't want to hear, convinced us we were implicated, and somehow made us believe we could do something about the injustice he'd found. The hope, he said, was in the struggle.”
Current Observer editor/publisher David Wilson added: “Hugh’s energy and talent knew no limits. Both were rooted in a God-given passion for justice. When he saw systemic wrongs, either here or abroad, he heard a call to do something about them.
“It is very hard to accept that his big, passionate voice has been silenced. But his astonishing body of work will continue to speak eloquently about a larger-than-life man who was, when all is said and done, the servant of a God of mercy and justice.”
A memorial service will be held at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 10 Trinity Square, Toronto, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday October 29.
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