Sunday, March 30, 2014

Let us be upstanding

Last week I visited All Souls St. Gabriel's School in Charter's Towers in North Queensland. Br. Nathan is the chaplain there. The students come from all over northern Queensland, most from very remote farms, or "properties" as they are called. It is not an elite prep school, but founded by the Anglican Church to serve students in underserved areas. These are places so remote there are no schools within easy commuting distance. Many of the students see very few people apart from family and farm workers when they are at home. The school is one of those that several generations of a family may have attended. It is rich in traditions and yet forward looking too, working hard, to my eyes, to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

During the course of my first evening, which was The Feast of the Annunciation (St. Gabriel's Day) there was a formal dinner. A student went to the podium and called for our attention. Once we were quiet and straining to see, she told us to "charge your glasses" (with mineral water) and then "be up standing" (i.e. stand up) and toast the Queen: "To the Queen of Australia and the Head of the Commonwealth!"  And all the students around me: "To the Queen!"

I've been in stranger circumstances, and this had more charm than a pledge of allegiance.

Private boarding schools address the whole student, and this particular evening was one of two formal dinners the school hosts for students, so that they will know how to comport themselves at such events. It was very exciting, especially for the new students. One asked Br. Nathan, as the food was served: "Is this what it is like to eat in a restaurant?"

Early each morning a group of about 14 boys race from the dining hall to the chapel for a quick Eucharist. (The first one there gets to read the Gospel.) I was surprised by the number, the most I ever got at a voluntary school Eucharist when I was chaplain was on average 0-1. The boys led much of the service, Br. Nathan celebrated and gave some apt remarks, and we stood around the small altar to share communion. Our celebration was one of the millions of points of light that give light to the world.

Standing in the crossroads of rural and urban, sacred and secular, churched and unchurched, public and private, young and old, friars serve a huge variety of people. We point to what is upstanding in the world and worthy of praise, seeking to collaborate with goodness and creativity wherever we find it. We challenge the places where people are being led astray. We make friends with lonely boarders, we visit the sick, pray with prisoners.

In all these places (and more!), and among all these people, we see Jesus.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Prison Visit

This morning (Sunday, March 16) Br. Hilton Togara and I went to the Central Prison in Honiara at Rove with the Chaplain, Fr. Ellison, to conduct a Bible Study. It is a tiny prison, but with all the razor wire and concrete to confirm it as the real thing. Waiting until 9:00 we sat in a leaf roofed shelter with a Roman Catholic seminarian and two Catholic laywomen.

We signed in and were patted down. This being the Solomon Islands, the guards were all friendly and there was laughter and exchange of pleasantries. It was a pleasant though stark contrast to security guards in the US prisons I have visited. We were led to B block and went in to a smallish concrete room, with three concrete tables and "benches." A television was bolted to the wall. The men live through another door, which appeared to lead into an open room.

About 24 men gathered, some sitting on the benches some on the floor. We introduced ourselves, and then one of the men took up a guitar and started leading praise songs. I learned later he is one of the men sentenced for life. Lifers live among the general population, but have special roles, especially as cooks for the jail.

Inspired by the Bible studies we led on the Simply Living Mission to England last year, we used some questions about the Beatitudes. Our text was "Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy" (Matthew 5:7). Hilton divided the group into two, and I sat with about a dozen men. They weren't quite sure what "mercy" meant, but one launched into a long sermon about "the blood of the Lamb." Finally I got one or two to share about times they did NOT hurt somebody else no matter how richly they may have deserved it. A third spoke of realizing he needed to be merciful to all the people he hated and how he had to accept all God's mercies: food, water, air, clothing, even when he had no freedom, God is merciful in so many ways.

Out of the depths O Lord, we call to you...

As we left the Chaplain, Fr. Ellison said he is so grateful to the SSF Brothers because they are his partners in the hospital and prison ministries every Sunday, starting at 4:30 a.m. Holy Communions in the Hospital and the 9:00 a.m. worship in the prison.

For his part, Hilton was simply grateful to be able to be with "his brothers" in prison.

Lord make me a channel of your peace...where there is despair, hope, where there is sadness joy...

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Vanga Point

This weekend Br. Clifton Henry, the Minister Provincial and I went to Gizo in the west of the country, to visit a brother living and studying at Vanga Point a Rural Training Center run my the Marists Brothers.

Our flight from Honiara was uneventful--thank goodness. We arrived at Gizo Airport--it is an island all to itself, the airstrip and buildings cover the whole island. A boat takes passengers to a larger island where the small town of Gizo is located. You get off the boat right in front of the Gizo Hotel. The open air market is there too. So Clifton and I loaded up on a huge supply of potatoes, papaya, cabbage, eggplants and other vegetables , then bought a dozen fish. By this time the brothers and students from the Training Center sent over to get us had arrived and we loaded up and headed across the open sea. It is about an hour to cross. Although the sun was shining, the sea was rough. Twice the engine stalled. I kept repeating, mantra-like: "Not to worry, not to worry!  These guys are mechanics!"  They proved to be at least resourceful boaters; the second time the engine stalled they ripped the straps off one of the two life jackets to bind the engine together more tightly (I think that is what they did...). I used the rest of the life jacket as a cushion to soften the thumps on my behind.

Vanga Training Center is a rough looking place. The tsunami a year ago took out the wharf, and it hasn't been replaced. The classrooms and outbuildings are rusted and partially collapsed. Everywhere there is rusted out machinery, overgrown fields and paddocks. But there are about 130 eager young men there, and the SSF house is right in the middle of campus, next to the chapel. It is home to Br. Selwyn Tione and former brother Ezekiel Kelly. There are about 25 Anglican students in this Roman Catholic place, and they were very excited to have us visit. They came by all evening to meet us and sit and "story." First on their list of events for us was an Anglican Eucharist Saturday morning. But since it was to be held at the usual Saturday prayer time, 6:00 a.m., attendance was compulsory for all students. Clifton celebrated in a whisper, which I thought was a bit perverse in an huge open air chapel with 130 people there, but nobody seemed to mind. The Anglican students sang out the responses with intensity. They all like my homily, and were quite gleeful that I was the first white visitor to speak pijin fluently.

After Mass and breakfast a small group of us headed out to explore, and ended up hiking several hours through the jungle. We reached the house of a local family who gave us pommelos (gargantuan grapefruits) to eat on the beach. Back at the training center we had lunch with the assistant principal and his wife, and then went for a swim in the bay. Later we watched the students play soccer.  A cataclysmic thunder and lightening storm ended the play, and I was glad for a rest. At six we were back in Chapel for the Roman Catholic Mass. Since we all use the same lectionary, it was practically duplicate of the morning--except the preacher didn't have an American accent. Its hard not to think about the sadness of the divisions that separate two traditions that are so very, very close. And then to think about the validity of the differences and to be glad I am an Episcopalian...

Following the Eucharist Clifton and I were to give "encouragements" to the students.  I wasn't sure what this was expected to be so let Clifton go first. He gave a part testimonial, part pep talk. So I followed suit, telling about my call as a student to seek ordination to the priesthood, and how that matured into a call to religious life. I then told them about how I nearly derailed on alcohol, and the joy of my life today. My pep talk consisted mostly of telling them the most important thing isn't what they become but the sense of dignity and self respect that they have about who they are, and their commitment to living honestly. The homely lessons of my life.

Finally it was dinner at nearly eight o'clock, then bed. All during the night excited groups of students were coming and going from the small friary. Selwyn had organized the long suffering Anglicans to prepare a feast for us, and all through the night they made traditional pudding, peeled tons of sweet potatoes, and a group of 5 went diving and caught quite a number of fish. They absolutely did not want us to help--it was to be a sort of surprise, I think. Or at least a way of honouring us.

After yet another Eucharist we ate our feast. One of the Marist brothers came, the Principal and assistant, and all of the Anglicans. It was quite a happy time. A number of them finally summoned the courage to speak with me directly and I was very touched by their reciprocal testimonials and expressions of gratitude for our visit.

All too soon it was time to go. We boarded the boat and pounded our way back across the bay, getting soaked with spray, so I had to get them to take me to a local friend's house to change my clothes. Then over to the airport island, and back to Honiara.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Sow and her Farrow

Last week we had some excitement at Hautambu. I noticed Br. Guilford rushing around looking extremely excited. He is the pig keeper, and one of our sows had just given birth to eleven piglets. We had bad luck with the previous birth, the sow crushed some, others died of cold. But this time we were ready, and we built a small fire near the pen and loaded the pen with burlap sacks and banana leaves warmed over the fire . Brothers sat up all night with the new family to be sure Mother didn't flop over on the babies. Now in their second week, all are thriving and have doubled the population of the piggery.

While at Hautambu for Chapter, I had a chance to re-connect with a former brother, Ashley Vaisu. He grew up near Hautambu in Maravovo Village. In March 1996 the brothers had an accident and Ashley's forehead was crushed causing a little brain damage. After recovering, he couldn't settle down and finally withdrew from the noviciate. But he has stayed connected over the years. Currently he is staying with us, reading voraciously in the library, and helping out. It was a real pleasure to sit and remember life together nearly 18 years ago.

Provincial Chapter finished last Saturday, and we all felt it was a really good one. Sometimes Chapters are exhausting and people leave feeling frustrated. But this time, there was a sense of celebration. For one thing, the finances are strong!  In the black as we say in USA. Their self-support projects now supply fully one third of their income. In other ways there was a sense of growth and stability.

The Vows Book has been distributed to the brothers in SSF as well as large numbers of books given to the other three religious orders. The Mission Secretary of the Anglican Church of Melanesia is hoping that a special Solomon Islands  edition can be printed at the Provincial Press in Honiara. He says the book could be crucial for the renewal and revitalization of the religious orders in Melanesia.  This is very gratifying--I feel as if I have done what I set out to do. The SSF brothers love the book, some reported staying up all night, reading it with their torches. One said it made him cry.

I was carrying a box of books up the hill to give to the Melanesian Brotherhood yesterday and two SSF brothers came along. They wanted to carry the box for me, but I said no, this was my baby. When a father carries his baby, it never feels too heavy!

New life: baby pigs, a box of books.