It is twelve years now since I returned from being a priest and brother in Melanesia. In many ways no two lives could seem on the surface more different. For the many years I lived at Tabalia I never had more than a few hours electricity from the generator each day. Even fresh water was at times sporadic with long walks to the spring by the river when the taps were dry and the rainwater tanks empty. My refrigerator with no electricity was used only for storage. The diet too was very different “Does this dish have a name? I remember an American who had just arrived asking me, “because it tastes very similar to the dish I had yesterday,” he commented. “Yes” I said also eating a plate of slippery cabbage, a trace of tinned tuna and a piece of cassava-“and it’s going to be very similar to the dish you are going to have tomorrow and the next day and the next!”
But living as a Melanesian Brother at Tabalia I felt so close to the natural world- you knew where everything came from and that if the gardens failed you would go hungry. I remember waiting for the rains to come and when I heard the first drops running over to the church gutter where the downpour cascaded off the roof: after the wait it was the most refreshing shower you could ever have. Night could be as dark as velvet and the stars- with the Southern Cross so astonishingly bright. When I first moved into my flat in Trafalgar Square I thought I would never sleep. London is nonstop- it is twenty four seven- and it’s hard to keep the neon out of your bedroom, and the sound of sirens, and cars, and emptying bottle banks and the shouts, laughter and cries of those returning from a night out. How could the lessons of Melanesia be of any value here? I felt like a tuna out of water. Most of all I missed Melanesian community- where you were always with people but not in a demanding way- just with people-sharing in a generous reciprocity and a lot of fun laughter. In Solomons whatever you do there are always people to share that doing with you be it washing clothes in a bucket, peeling sweet potatoes, riding on the back of a truck, or going in search of ripe pawpaw.
But if my first reaction was how different this life in London – I soon began to realise there were, deep down, such similar human needs. And the deepest perhaps of all those needs the need for companionship- relationship with others to make meaning of our lives. The church is a unique place to do that of course. While the corner shop may have disappeared, and the post office and even the person in the supermarket has been replaced by the self-service till whose only conversation is to tell us repeatedly that there is an unidentified object in the bagging area- there is still a church in most communities and if you are blessed like we are at St Martin’s- its not only here, it’s also open every day of the year- then you do have a place to belong- to God, to your own deepest self, and to your neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be. And I began to realise that the skills that the Melanesian Brotherhood had taught me were the greatest possible gifts for ministry not only in Solomon Islands but in the centre of London. First the need for the rhythm of prayer to provide the pattern and centre of my life- and those who come through our doors of St Martin-in-the-Fields to join me. Second the vital importance of face to face encounter- actually listening and talking to people- giving them the gift of time and relationship rather than believing our primary relationships are with Facebook or a mobile phone or ones business agenda or strategic plan. Third I learnt the importance of generous sharing- being with others and benefitting from each other’s gifts and skills. I learnt that community is so much richer and less stressful when we let go of our western obsession with competition and self-sufficiency. I might be good at cooking but others were good at planting, at growing, or climbing coconut trees or diving for fish and that together we were so much more than we would be as isolated individuals and how much the same is true in London when we begin to share the gifts. Fourthly I learnt that community is Eucharist- it’s about sharing food and just like Solomons if you begin sharing food in London you will soon create that community. You become companions- those who share bread. You see you share Christ and find Christ in one another. Here in London we have created an informal Eucharist called Bread for the World and it is a wonderful celebration of diversity and all that we have to gain from creating communities of compassion and hope and joy in this country just as we have seen in Melanesia. Fifthly I learnt from Melanesia that those who one at first thinks of as being poor are in fact God’s gift. They open our eyes to a new way of seeing and being. They open your eyes to our own poverty. Some of the most rewarding work I have the privilege of doing here in London is with those who are homeless, or with refugees who have no recourse to public funds, or with those who have mental health difficulties, or those who for whatever reason are on the edge of so called society. They are actually at the heart of our Christian faith and it is being with them that I know will renew not only me but also the church. For this is where we must look for Christ- on the edge where he was in his own life.
What did I learn from Melanesian? I learnt the joy of living together and sharing a common home- that God has entrusted to our mutual care. And the gift they gave me was that longing for community here in London and the realisation that it is when we remove our defences, our desire to control or dominate- and recapture the humility and hope of the Gospel, then the place where we are living can become a Tabalia or a Brotherhood and Sisterhood- can become the place of God’s flourishing.
With God’s help I have formed a community at St Martin’s: it’s called the Nazareth Community. It’s an experiment in being with- with God, with silence, with sacrament, with compassionate service, with sacred study, with generous sharing. Much to my delight and surprise 48 people decided to join me as we made promises to live the Gospel- promises of course inspired by the Melanesian Brotherhood. I have so much to be grateful to them for.
The Vicar of our Church Sam Wells wrote this about the Nazareth Community:
“Being with God and one another and ourselves is how we shall spend eternity. The Nazareth Community is a group of people who are saying, ‘Why not start eternity now? Why wait?’ In their living eternal life now we see hope and inspiration for ourselves, our church, our community and our city.”
I think that’s also a good description not only of the Nazareth Community but also of the Melanesian Brothers and Sisters and the Church in Melanesia. You will be pleased to know that my fellow priest in the Nazareth Community is Catherine Duce. She also learnt a lot from Melanesia!
Revd Richard Carter is Associate Vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square.