Voices from Melanesia – Rt Revd Benedict Loe, Bishop of Guadalcanal

Bishop of Guadalcanal. The Rt Rev. Benedict Loe
Bishop of Guadalcanal. The Rt Rev. Benedict Loe

In March, MMUK Trustee Revd John Pinder interviewed the Bishop of Guadalcanal –

First of all, I was very sad at the death of your parents from covid. That must have been very hard for you.
Thank you

Have you and Charity had covid yourselves?
No we have been free, but mum and dad lived at home.

Where is home?
Gnalimera, next to the old site of Selwyn College.

I know it well.  When we started Selwyn College in 1970 there were no ablution blocks and we all had to wash in the Nalimbu River. The people at Gnalimera were not very happy about this because they were downstream! But that was before you were born!
I think so yes.

Can you tell me now what the situation is with covid?
The official number of cases is declining but I think that is because people are not testing. Officially it’s about 10,000 cases. The current death toll is 128, but that’s mostly vulnerable people with pre-existing medical conditions. In January and February people were panicking and wearing masks, but now no one is wearing a mask anymore. Well you know Melanesians – they tend to rely on custom medicines to treat the sickness. At the height of the outbreak, all the people in my village had flu and coughs but it was the elderly and vulnerable like my parents who were most at risk. People are now complacent and too relaxed with the protocols. It’s scary. There are still patients at the hospital in Honiara and most of the medical staff have covid. The numbers at the hospital are not great because most of the people with covid stay in the villages. One of my priests had died, but the parents would not allow him to be tested because of the stigma. Covid has spread to the provinces and Ysabel and Makira are reporting increasing numbers, but so far there are no cases in Temotu Province (the outer Eastern Islands).

Let’s hope that Temotu remains covid free because if it reaches Anuta and Tikopia it will be really serious.

I was reading yesterday the journal of the acting mission secretary and he was very frustrated with all the quarantine regulations and testing when he and his family arrived from Fiji just before Christmas. But I can understand it was a time of great anxiety and confusion.

Am I right in thinking your diocese does not cover Honiara?
That’s right. Honiara from White River to Lunga is looked after by the Archbishop.

You may know my very good friend Father Jim Nolan who is at the Catholic Catechist Centre.
Oh yes we were both part of the visitation team for the Sisters of the Church a few months ago and during that time he was telling me stories about the early days at Selwyn College when you were both on the staff.

Are you also responsible for the Christian Care Centre?
They are mostly responsible for their own ministry so I haven’t had much to do with them so far.

How long have you been Bishop of Guadalcanal now?
Just one year. I was consecrated in February last year.

Tell me a bit about your background.
As I’ve said, I come from Guadalcanal and my parents were both teachers. I went to Selwyn College and after Form 5 I was due to study at the Solomon Islands National University, but that was the time of the troubles and as a Guadalcanal man it was felt it was not safe for me to be in Honiara so I stayed at home until the year 2000 when a priest encouraged me to apply for theological training at Kohimarama. I gained my Diploma in 2004 and was priested in 2005 at Gnalimera.

That must have been quite an occasion.
Yes we had a big feast.  It was all very special. In 2007 Archbishop Ellison encouraged me to return to Kohi to study for a degree. I was in Vura parish in Honiara for two years and then went to St.John’s Auckland for a master’s degree in ministry at Otago, but I stayed in residence at St.John’s. 

Yes I think you would have found it very cold in Otago.
Yes even summertime in Auckland was cold for us. I graduated in 2012 and was posted as a member of staff at Bishop Patteson Theological College.

Most Revd Leonard Dawea & The Rt Rev. Benedict Loe
Most Revd Leonard Dawea & The Rt Rev. Benedict Loe

We know a lot of things have been going on in Honiara over the last few months. What’s the situation like there now?
So many things cropped up in a short period of time. You heard about the riots of course. And the people were not happy about some of the decisions the government had made, so they took the law into their own hands.  As many people say, there is no idea of a peaceful protest in the vocabulary of Solomon Islands. Life is tough and challenging with so many young people unemployed, so rioting happens easily and quickly. Then we were overtaken by covid and people were looking for blame. It was first said it arrived from Papua New Guinea via Lord Howe Ontong Java. Then it was said it spread from those coming back from overseas who broke quarantine regulations; others say it came with the regional police from Australia and Fiji who came in after the riots. Things have now settled down and people live from day to day. Things are gradually opening up again with people returning to their offices, but the schools are still closed. They are hoping schools will reopen next month but we don’t know how it will go.

Yes in this country there is still a lot of covid and the schools especially are struggling because many of the teachers have covid. We were always afraid that if covid came to Solomon Islands, it would be serious because Melanesian culture would cope with things like social distancing.

I guess over the last few months it hasn’t been possible for you to tour your diocese.
I did manage to complete my first tour of the diocese by September last year. I managed to get round the whole diocese.

How are things on the Weather Coast these days? Have they recovered from the troubles?
Not quite. There are still examples of trauma among the people of the Weather Coast. There are still some brutal killings and torture happening.  Some people are still continuing with old feuds and disputes.  The children of some of those who were killed in the past are still seeking revenge. The attitude of Guadalcanal people is still affected by past events and people are quick to seize knives if an argument breaks out. The Church of Melanesia is trying to bring reconciliation between groups.

Yes in this country we have set aside some money to support reconciliation efforts, but I realise that has been hampered by covid. We are planning to establish and inaugurate a memorial on the Weather Coast in the place where the seven Melanesian brothers were martyred and there will be a reconciliation ceremony as part of that.

That’s good to hear. What about the palm oil plantations? Are they in production again?
Yes they managed to keep production going even during the covid lock down and a doctor was seconded to try and keep the workers in good health.

I know that during the troubles, most of the workers from Malaita were sent away, so now, where are the workers from?
Most of them are now from Makira or Ysabel.

That’s interesting. I want to move on to ask you about Lambeth.  I know you have been able to meet some of your fellow bishops online from across the communion, as part of the preparations for Lambeth.
Yes unfortunately I missed most of those sessions because I was on tour, but I know the other bishops locally found them interesting and helpful.

I think one of the main themes of the conference will be the environment and you will be able to take to the conference your own experiences of the Pacific with rising sea levels and increasing cyclones. MMUK has really been working hard to promote your local climate observatories and in your diocese there is one at Red Beach and one at Selwyn College and we really hope that that work will continue because it’s very important to keep gathering the data.

We were very disappointed that all the bishops will have to go straight to Canterbury from the airport without any opportunity to tour the UK before the Lambeth conference. Obviously they don’t want half the bishops to arrive at Canterbury testing positive for covid, but it now looks as if there will be some opportunity after the conference for us all to meet up.
Unfortunately some of the wives have decided not to come because they are worried about covid and they want to look after their children. Also my wife Charity, is working as a nurse and she feels she is needed back at the National Referral Hospital.

It looks as if we shall all be able to meet up in London after the conference and have a festival at St. Martin in the Fields. It’s been really good having this zoom with you today and I hope we can have another one nearer to Lambeth when you can update us. Thank you Bishop. We wish you every blessing from the UK.

John Pinder