Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tinakula Volcanoe

During my visit to Temotu Province last week, I was able to arrange for a visit an active volcano, Tinakula. A tall plume of steam and smoke streams from the top of a majestic cone rising direct from the sea. When I arrived at Lata Airport in Temotu last Saturday I noticed the volcano, and as Br. Jonas and I were crossing the beautiful bay I pointed it out and said I'd love to go. So for the price of a can of gasoline (Solomon Dollars $400.00--for six gallons. Divide by 13 to get USA equivalent.) First we visited a village on an island across from the volcano, populated by people who have fled the island. There we found two young men to guide us. Wednesday we set off. It was a two hour trip in driving rain. There are only two tiny beaches acccessible by canoe, the rest of the island is impregnable because of cliffs facing the sea. We took aim at the largest, about 100 yards of tumbling black stones. Our guide instructed us to make a tight circle with the canoe to position ourselves for a fully accelerated run at the beach between two huge submerged boulders. We waited for a big wave then with engine roaring at full speed we headed for the beach. He cut the motor when we seemed to hang over the beach, and we all jumped into the waves to catch the canoe and drag it above the water line. A most memorable landing. I was a bit shaky afterwards.

There is an old man, Hubert, who prefers to stay on the island. So his family comes out to visit him. Our guides were family and we were invited to stay for lunch. After an hour, a huge bowl of wild yams, steaming hot, was place on the floor of the hut. A Melanesian treat.

Lunch finished we threaded our way through heavy jungle to the beach and launched the canoe in reverse of our landing procedure: picking it up we dashed into the water, chasing a wave which carried us out beyond the submerged rocks, and we hauled ourselves panting into the canoe. We circled the island, which seemed lush and harmless until we rounded a point and saw the steep black face of stone. Boulders were detaching themselves and bounding down the cliff amid a shower of sparks. I quickly realized the stones were glowing red! No wonder the sensible portion of the population abandoned the island...

Most of my visit was less dangerous. I weeded the potatoe gardens at the friary, celebrated Eucharist, helped out in the kitchen. One night we stayed up late as I told stories in answer to their many questions about my travels. My stories began to sound like a luxury tour, though , when they shared about their recent travels. Four friars live at Holy Martyrs Friary. Their work is mostly pastoral, visiting both people locally on Santa Cruz Island, as well as going "on mission" to remoter places. The brothers undertook one such mission recently, leaving July 6 for a three week tour of some nearby islands. When the tour was complete, however, they had to wait a month for a boat to transport them back to Lata. When one finally arrived it was a cattle boat, and over 200 people camped on the exposed deck for a 10 day trip, suffering rain and sun and no privacy let alone seats or a bed! They arrived home September 17!! They were philosophical about the travel circumstances, rather recounted stories of people they met, the small kindnesses of passengers and crew, and how much they are looking forward to the next mission, and the chance to preach the Gospel.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sharing the life of the brothers

No electricity since July. Sorry for the huge gap in postings...Today's is long to catch you up!

I never made it in August to Jimi in Papua New Guinea to see the Br. Justus Friary the brothers are building there. Br. Reuben and I left Popondetta harbor near Katerada on the "Calvados Queen" August 7. When we arrived in Lae the next morning we were met by Brother Robert Eric. We immdeiately set out in a small bus for Mt. Hagen, going via Goroka. The drivers of these buses are fanatics. We careened around twisting mountain roads, tires screeching. The scenery was breath-taking, progressing from heavy tropical vegetation to cool upland pastures and huge cattle ranches in the Highlands. I felt like I might be in Montana or somewhere as I looked at the vast pastures ringed by beautiful mountains. We arrived in Goroka about 2:00 p.m., had lunch in a small chicken restaurant, then caught another bus for Mt. Hagen. Br. Robert arranged for the driver to leave us outside the gates of the rest house where we were going to stay because he said it was too dangerous to walk around after dark. There seems to be very little in the way of civil government or infrastructure in Mt. Hagen. Amazingly filthy and apparently teeming with thieves, it is also much colder than the coast, so I was freezing and glad to get into the guest house. There a bishop was also taking refuge, Bishop Nathan, regional bishop for the area that includes our friary in Jimi, his transport had ben cancelled due to bad weather. I'd met him at Lambeth, so we had a happy time catching up. The next morning Robert and I tried to go on to Jimi, but discovered after travelling for an hour, that there was no transportation for the last leg of the journey because the drivers were "Sunday Keepers." We hung around hoping for a Seventh Day Adventist driver, but nobody showed so we took a bus back to the rest house in Mt. Hagen. Bishop Nathan and Robert then began considering the possibility of reaching Jimi and getting back to Lae in time to catch the boat back to Popondetta. Not possible, they concluded. On their suggestion we investigated plane tickets but these proved too expensive and the next flights still meant several days wait. Finally I suggested we go back to Goroka, Robert's home town, and stay in the village of Siomoromoro. This proved to be a good idea.

We had a warm if somewhat surprised welcome, and were given places to stay in the men's guest house. I've visted Siomoromoro several times in the past so felt much at home. We spent Tuesday resting. The next day the local parish priest came for the celebration of St. Clare's Day; she is the patron saint of the village. It was a beautiful open air Mass. We sat on logs laid on the ground and a small altar was placed in front, covered by a cloth. Nearly every worshipper showed up with a bouquet of flowers, so the area was soon transformed by a riot of color, lit by brilliant sun and cooled by a breeze. Squatting there in the dust I reflected how pleased Clare would be. Here was perfect poverty. The priest preached about Clare defending Assisi from the Muslims by holding up the Blessed Sacrament, telling the people Holy Communion was the source of great strength and power in their lives. I found it very moving. After a bountiful parish lunch provided by the Mother's Union, Robert and I set off to visit Bishop Denis in Goroka. I left Robert in Goroka and teamed up with Reuben who had taken advantage of his free time to visit his family in the area. Then it was back on the wretched bus for Lae.

We arrived after dark and went looking for the Anglican rest house. No sooner had we started to walk though, when we were surrounded by people pulling at our baggage and yelling at us. I felt my stomach drop. Fortunately these were Good Samaritans warning us of the folly of walking after dark with back packs. However since I could not understand their language I was not sure what was happening as they bundled us onto an empty bus. I was very relieved to get to the rest house. Reuben and I were shoe horned into a cubicle ("How much are they charging us for this?" I asked Reuben in total dismay. "Franciscan brothers are free," he replied. It was a small but real consolation). The only open shop at that hour was the gas station Qwik Mart, so we ate a tin of corned beef on crackers for dinner.

Another overnight trip on a ship and I was back at Popondetta for a six hour lay over. (Shower and breakfast with the brothers at Katerada.) Then another two night journey to Alotau. The trips to Lae were fairly gruelling: over crowded, hot, ripe with odors. I was regretting my decision to go all the way to Alotau on the ship. But reminding myself that this is the way the ordinary friars travel, I scrambled for a seat on a bench, spreadng my luggage out so I might have space to sleep. It turned out to be a wonderful trip. Only 20 passengers, and the ship stopped often to drop off passengers or take on new ones, so we had a chance to get off the boat and buy food and drink. It was exquisite weather, and I soon made friends with several other passengers. It was August 15, the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. I read my offices and found myself thinking about both the beauty and abundance of the earth and our voyage, plunging through the wind whipped, sun sparkled waters, and the poverty of the people and the copuntry. It seemed like an appropriate way to observe and remember Mary's life and obedience--poverty and beauty meeting together in the Incarnation. We sat together in the evenings on the wharf, eating whatever we had bought from the local women: fish, potatoes, sago pudding, cassava pudding, fresh bananas, coconuts, chestnuts (a tropical version thereof, heaven knows what they really are), and best of all, coffee. Arriving in Alotau at 8:00 a.m. we waited for three hours while a private yacht re-fueled. The yacht ignored our captain's repeated appeals to them to allow us to disembark, so we circled, peering in at the priviledged life of white North Americans: chef, waiters, ski jets, speed boats, young women in bikinis, and they peered down at us, a filthy ship, passengers raggedy, worn from three days travel, surrounded by frayed homemade luggage of palm leaf, betel nut stained mouths. I was so happy to be on the latter ship. Finally we were instructed to scramble off the ship onto a barge which was docked at the wharf, and cross over to land.

Br. Ham met me and we then got onto a flat bed truck that dropped us off at the end of the road leading to the friary. It was a joy to get there! First order of business was a bath in the river and then food. That evening we said good-bye and prayed our farewells with a young brother. I'd received his vows on Palm Sunday 2008, so it was with a real sense of ambivalence that I received his habit back. but he'd managed to become a father in the interim, so we had no choice. It was tearful.

The rest of my time was caught up with pastoral work with the brothers, meeting neighbors.

August 20 I flew (time was a-wastin') to Port Moresby and on the 21 of August I flew to the Solomon Islands.

Arrival in the Solomons is always a fairly easy ritual. They recognize my brown shirt and cross and wave me through saying "Welcome Brother!" After an overnight stay in Honiara, a whole truck load of brothers went to Hautambu for the first official Provincial Chapter since the creation of the Province of the Solomon Islands at our First Order Chapter last September. It was a good chapter and they enacted several changes, saying "Now we are a Province we must..." Most notable among these changes the Chapter adopted a zero tolerance no-alcohol policy. One drink and you are out. Alcohol abuse has wreaked real havoc on the friary buildings, spoiled the vocations of some wonderful men, compromised the reputation of the Franciscans within the Church of Melanesia. Brothers have stolen from the friary budgets to buy drink, diverted funds from their appeals. Completely fed up, I said "We need a policy that can be enforced! Enough preaching and moral exhorations!" I was surprised by how quickly they responded. A committee met and the next day the new policy was adopted. Most brothers expressed relief and gratitude. Some weren't quite so pleased but recognized the need for it. So far nobody has had to leave! When I visited the Archbishop later the next week he was delighted and hopes a similar policy will be adopted by the Melanesian Brotherhood.

After Chapter finished I offered my services to teach the novices and postulants, and so have spent a very happy 10 days doing that. I've been indulging my love of storytelling, recounting tales about St. Francis and then making connections between the stories and the brother's lives, helping them identify Franciscan values and giving an introduction to Franciscan spirituality. I took advantage of the free time to get back in shape, running every other day, and am now back to my usual form.

The most amazing and wonderful event during my stay in the Solomons so far has been the baptism of Clark Elcuwyn Kae Kae! His parents asked to name him after me since they asked me to pray that they would have a child during my last visit to the Solomons. His father Selwyn was a brother during my first visit to the Solomons in 1995-96, the mother Ellen Fox was a sister of the Sisters of Melanesia. He joins a sister Cuthberta (named by my predecessor as Minister General, Br. Daniel).

Tomorrow I go the most remote friary of the Province, in a place called Temotu. It is several hours by air, and then involves a canoe ride across a lagoon.

On the ride into town today I was thinking that today is September 11, and remembering the events of 2001. Thank God there have been no more attacks, I pray for a speedy end to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and deepening relationships of trust and understanding with Muslims.