Many enjoyed Sam’s talk at our AGM in September about his time in the Solomon Islands in March of this year. Although this article appeared in our summer 2020 magazine, here it is again with more pictures from Sam’s trip.
On Holy Saturday I arrived back to a much changed and much quieter London than the one I had left a month before. Having confirmed my safe arrival in the Solomon Islands in an email exchange with Katie Drew (MMUK Executive Officer), who had been kindly helping me to organise the trip, she replied, “Now the adventure begins!” Neither of us knew at that stage how accurate her response would prove to be!
As an ordinand in the Church of England, I was eager to experience the life of the Anglican Church and the shape of formation in a very different context before being ordained deacon and beginning my curacy this summer. I am also currently researching for a PhD thesis exploring how the church engages faithfully in politics and so found myself particularly drawn to the Melanesian Brotherhood’s recent history in their pivotal role as peacemakers during the ethnic tensions at the turn of the millennium. Particularly striking is the Brothers’ distinctive and committed pattern of prayer and worship, which is not a retreat from the world, but the structure and life source that enables them to live fully for the world, serving their local communities and wider society so faithfully.
I was initially intending to visit for a couple of months, throughout Lent, Holy Week and over Easter, with the purpose of participating in and learning from the communal life and worship of the Brothers. Immersing myself in the community at Tabalia as much as possible gave me a chance to experience their beautifully simple but varied life together. And I loved all of it– from daily attending the very early First Office, (walking to the chapel in the dark, dodging frogs along the way!), to eating kasava and kakake (affectionately known as “swamp taro”), attempting to fix the waterpipe after heavy rain fall but spending most of the time swimming in the river, as well as several logging trips with the Brothers to collect firewood. It was a real privilege to be welcomed in by the Brothers, Novices and Aspirants and to be allowed to join them in their everyday lives. I was also given the privilege of preaching on Mothering Sunday, where Novice Patteson very kindly helped me to write and deliver sections of the sermon in Pijin, as well as narrating the Passion play on Palm Sunday, which thankfully was in English!
However, during this time with the Brothers, I was also becoming increasingly aware of the spreading pandemic of COVID-19. Thankfully because of internet access at Kohimarama Theological College I was able to stay relatively up to date as things changed across the world. Yet, because of the rapid speed at which things changed, I was not able to move my flights forward quickly enough to avoid being stuck in Solomons indefinitely, as Australia, and then the Solomon Islands too, closed their borders!
Being stranded in Solomons felt very surreal. On the one hand, I was in paradise with beautiful idyllic surroundings, as life continued pretty much as normal at Tabalia and across the Islands. Yet every time I would walk up to “Kohi” to speak with friends and family back home, I would be updated on the worsening spread of this deadly virus. This led to a time of uncertainty, for me, but perhaps primarily for my family back home, as I had three flights cancelled in my attempt to return to the UK. With things changing not just daily but hourly, and no clear indication of how long the lockdown would last, it was unclear just how long I would be stranded in Tabalia. But I was reassured by the Brothers that I was welcome to stay with them for as long as necessary, even if that meant being there at Christmas, and being ordained whilst I was out there! Though they also knew my need to get back to my wife Lily, and so continued to pray for me.
Having been back to Honiara a couple of times to speak with the British High Commissioner, however, it became clear that there was little that could be done in terms of arranging travel home other than praying and waiting for things to open up again. Ultimately though, it was hard to become overly anxious about my situation partly because of where I was stranded. I remember one Sunday afternoon messing around in the canoe in the sea with some of the younger boys and one of the Brothers, and just thinking how fortunate I was to be doing this whilst everyone back in the UK was stuck inside! But also during this time, the rhythm of prayer and worship at Tabalia really gave me a sense of peace, as well as learning from and being held by the Brothers’ own deep trust and reliance in God that all would be well.
Of course, we were also aware of the potential threat and impact of COVID-19 arriving in the Solomon Islands, not just on the limited health resources but also the social and economic implications. We began to discuss some of the ways the Brothers needed to prepare practically, in modelling good hygiene both for their own sake, but also for all the communities across the islands. But most importantly, the Brothers continue to prepare spiritually, to be there for the people of Melanesia, shining the light of Christ in the darkness, knowing that whatever comes their way God is with them. Or as the Pijin version of John’s Gospel beautifully puts it; “nao matta stay dark… erytime get light.”
Eventually I was able to be squeezed onto a US repatriation flight as the 200th and final passenger on the plane. The circumstances of the last-minute flight meant I sadly missed Easter weekend at Tabalia and had to say very rushed goodbyes, but perhaps not having long drawn out goodbyes was more appropriate as I very much hope to return. The flight itself left Honiara, the first time there had ever been a plane of that size on the runway, to head to San Francisco via Hawaii, before I caught my onward flight to London. By the time I arrived back in the UK I had completed a round the world trip, just not in the circumstances I had quite imagined!
It is very hard to thank the Brotherhood, and all those I met, enough for their hospitality, generosity, and kindness throughout my time with them, particularly under such uncertain circumstances. During my stay I was struck by their warmth but also their sense of fun. Their commitment to God and to one another is dedicated and sincere, yet at the same time full of life and laughter! I have left with much to be thankful for, but also much to learn from them, and I am certain that this experience will continue to shape my own life of faith and ministry for the rest of my life.
We pray for Sam and his family as he begins his curacy in the Diocese of London.