Sunday, April 20, 2008

Brisbane, Australia and Hamilton, New Zealand

The Brothers in Brisbane entertained at a nursing home Sunday April 13. Pictured here from left to right: Br. Wade, a novice and fabulous singer, Br. Nathan-James who is a nurse and seminarian (and good singer too), and Br. Gabriel Maelasi, a Solomon Islander studying anthropology at the University of Queensland, where he also serves as a volunteer chaplain. Not pictured (because he was standing too far to the left) is Br. Lionel. (Okay, they are all good singers, which is why they are part of a choir...I don't mean to leave anybody out or infer judgments on their singing ability!) Lionel is looking forward to returning to his native Sri Lanka to set up an interfaith ashram. The other singers pictured are parishioners at St. Philip's Anglican Church which the brothers run in Brisbane. There are eight brothers at this friary, making it the largest house in this province. They also serve as doctors and nurses, teachers, they work with homeless and serve on boards for various institutions: a very well rounded, active group of brothers. I spent several days going around with them individually.

On April 15 I flew to Auckland, New Zealand, unaware that it is nearly two hours drive south to Hamilton, which has an airport too. We made it safely, and Wednesday morning I was given an official Maori "powhiri" or welcome. Hamilton is governed under a treaty signed during the reign of Queen Victoria according to which the pakeha (white) and Maori people cooperate. My arrival was an event for the whole community. My impression is that it was not about me, but about the deep and enduring affection for the Franciscan brothers living in this village. First a conch shell was blown by a young man in a feather decorated tunic, calling the people together. The Maori and other residents of the village stood inside a defined space, and I stood outside, accompanied by the Archbishop of New Zealand and several other Franciscan Tertiaries and friends who had come to Hamilton to meet me. Then another young man dressed as a warrior (that is to say with a leaf breech cloth) and wielding a very long club or spear danced the length of the ceremonial space. After several threatening moves, he cast a wooden dart on the ground before me and backed off, holding my gaze with his eyes and a stern frown. He held the spear at the ready. "Pick up the dart with your LEFT hand," the Archbishop instructed me. "your right hand means trouble!" Once I did this, a woman began singing a very beautiful song, and she was answered by the others in a call and response. Everyone was dressed in black signifying great formality. Apparently very few visitors are challenged with the dart, they only do this ritual for visitors judged to be very important. Finally the Archbishop and the young warriors guided me into the community house as everyone filed in singing. I was not permitted to take photos because the young men are part of a community based program for young offenders and their identities are protected.

Once inside the community house we heard six speeches. Mine was the only one in English. The entire event was conducted in Maori. I was impressed that all of the other pakehas (white people) understood Maori. Archbishop David Moxen whispered in my ear the gist of what each person was saying: all of them were putting my visit into context for the community, and showering praise on the Society of St. Francis. I was incredibly proud of my brothers for their long-standing and faithful ministry in New Zealand. After each speech (speeches were given by the men) members of the community, led by the women, would stand and sing a song to support the speaker.

When it was my turn to speak I spoke of my joy and gratitude for the welcome, and tried to put my ministry into the Franciscan and Gospel context, recognizing kinship with all people and the earth, praying for greater connection with indigenous peoples as we seek to discover new ways of being human on this fragile island home of ours. The Archbishop and others then surrounded me and started singing "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..." and the Maori's all sprang to their feet and joined in. It was a moment of joyful gratitude.

Concluding our ceremony I went to each man in the room and rested my forehead against his, and pressed my nose to his nose. We each breathed in and out, then I passed on to the next person. Behind me the other visitors lined up to do the same. The symbolism is that now we share the same breath, breathe the same air: we are connected. The women preferred air kissing and touching cheeks. Later it occurred to me perhaps I wasn't supposed to be so intimate with them and they were trying to cover my cultural gaffe. At any rate it was a profound experience of connection and grace.

But this wasn't all. There then followed a huge meal in another room, with more singing and speeches. What a beautiful welcome and affirmation of the Franciscan ministry here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mud bricks and Ministry

This place is pure poetry. It is called the Hermitage of St. Bernadine of Siena, located in Stroud, NSW, Australia. I came here for the Provincial chapter meeting March 28-April 2. the meetings were useful and interesting, as such meetings go. but what was really great is this place: built in 1980 by dozens of volunteers is is constructed of thousands of hand made mud bricks. The site itself was slated to be a garbage dump on the edge of town, but the brothers and sisters were able to re-claim it. The moved onto a bare, rubbish-strewn, treeless site and began making bricks. The dedication attracted thousands of people. It is the kind of place that really grabs my imagination. Think of it as a metaphor for the Franciscan life: inhabiting unwanted areas and making them lovely, turning mud into beautiful homes, living in and on and with the earth. The brothers who live here offer the place for retreats and quiet days, for groups, but mostly for individuals looking to get away. St. Francis depended on regular times of retreat and withdrawal in the wilderness, living in caves and wandering in the forests.
Pictured at the right are some of the pioneers who built the Hermitage. From left to right: Br. Brian, Isabel, Trevor, Br. Bruce-Paul,Gwen, Alfed BoonKong. In front Br. Joseph (he is a novice and wasn't a brother in 1980).

Monday, April 14, 2008

Arrival in Papua New Guinea

I had a real shock when I went to Henderson Airport in Solomon Islands. I'd been upgraded to first class! I got a taste of the high life...

Arriving in Port Moresby, I was met by Br. Laurence Hauje, the Regional Minister, and he took me to St. Francis, Koki. This site is where the friars first settled when they went to Papua New Guinea 49 years ago. I had a strong sense of the first Friars coming from England and building the rather extensive parish church and school campus. SSF only lived there about 10 years, and the parish was taken over by the diocese. Unfortunately precious little maintenance has been done in the last 50 years, so the buildings are in deplorable shape. Nevertheless the students from St. Francis do exceptionally well and many of the leaders of modern PNG were students at this school. About 10 years ago Br. Clifton Henry became the parish priest and the brothers returned to the parish. although the current priest is not a brother, the friars work in the parish and offer RE classes at the school.

Each morning the students gather for their morning assembly, which includes singing the school song and the Papua New Guinea national anthem.

After just a few days at Koki, I flew over the mountains to the eastern side of the peninsula to Oro Province (the first posting on this blog describes the "Disaster" which destroyed the infrastructure of the province).

The brothers arranged for a welcome for me, including several local SSF Companions and Tertiaries. The friary at Haruro is in many ways the "Mother House"of SSF work in the Pacific. Today the friary is the training house for the region, and the postulants and novices begin their time with us there. They have lectures and workshops in the morning and in the afternoon they work in the gardens, raising food.

Friday night I went to Newton Theological College where I spent a wonderful evening with Br. Oswald and Br. Selwyn Suma who are studying for ordination. Some of the other single men joined us for sandwiches and pineapple slices, and we had lively conversation about their studies and the work they hoped to do in the future as franciscan priests.

On Monday March 10 we traveled to Katerada, so could spend the night with the brothers there. I had neglected to charge my camera battery, so I have no photos of it, but the brothers have an extraordinary ministry of hospitality to the people displaced by the November flooding. Five families live with the brothers in the friary, and the parish priest lives with his family in the garden gazebo/rest house. Meals are a community effort, and we said the offices sitting outside on chairs so as not to disturb the babies sleeping. Every day the brothers work with the refugees, visit people in the local health clinic as well as visiting parishes in the larger area. In addition to providing emergency housing during the crisis, the brothers gave away huge amounts of food.

I returned from Katerada Tuesday afternoon.
That night one of the novices, Br. Allan, (at right) went out hunting for a pig for my farewell dinner, and as luck would have it he speared a pig caught rummaging around in their sweet potato patch. His cry brought all the brothers running and they helped prepare the pig. I didn't hear the cry, or didn't distinguish it among all the many strange sounds at night. I only learned about the hunt the next day.

Wednesday morning, Br. Wallace, the Guardian, took me on a local transport to Martyr's School where Brother Robert and Brother Anthony are school Chaplains. We had to travel on the back of a large truck because most of the bridges are out and we had to drive through the rivers.Martyr's School was one of the first Anglican schools in PNG, built after WWII, and named after the men and women (all were missionaries, both nationals and ex-pats) who were held captive and then killed with bayonets by the Japanese. Because of the devastation caused by the floods, the school term was only just beginning, nearly five weeks late. As Chaplains, the brothers teach religion courses and re available for counseling with the students. Many of the brothers have done this job, and as we traveled around PNG in the next few weeks, we were often greeted by young adults who had been students at Martyr's School.

The farewell dinner featured the delicious pig and dozens of other dishes prepared by the brothers and their friends. It was a happy time with gifts, speeches and singing.

Friday March 14 we flew to Alotau, to Ukaka Village to receive the First Profession of Vows by Br. Dudley Adia and Brother Gabriel on Palm Sunday. The weekend was spent gathering stones for the ovens (called muu-muus in this part of PNG), killing the pig, gathering coconuts and other provisions. Finally the big day arrived. It was the first time I'd received brothers' vows and it was a big deal! They were trembling and stammering as they said their vows. I was a basket case myself; bless their hearts. It was a relief to come out of church to a huge picnic feast. The brothers' families danced and sang, and tray after tray of food was brought out; Brother Dudley's family and many friends and neighbors had stayed up all night cooking.

We returned to Port Moresby for Holy Week. We all shared in the parish observances, many of us speaking at the Good Friday Stations of the Cross, clambering all over the stony hillside behind the church. Nearly 80 people clawed their way along the route, slipping and sliding: no easy path following the Way of the Cross. Easter Sunday I preached at the parish Eucharist. Brother Lukas (at left) and 6 other young people, served as acolytes wearing traditional costumes. The words were pretty much the same as we use in the Episcopal Church, but we were definitely not in Kansas any more!!

Easter Monday Br. Laurence and I flew to Goroka in the Highlands so I could meet and spend time with Br. Andrew (below, with his cat). Andrew was with the first brothers who came to PNG in 1959 and he has had a remarkable career with the brothers. He became a psychiatrist and for many years worked with the government. He was also part of the Melanesian Institute and wrote and taught on cross cultural work. Currently he does mostly forensic psychiatry, interviewing people for the public defender and writing reports for the courts. It is still pioneering work in that country and he has brought a tremendous amount of compassion and mercy into the proceedings for many people.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Six o'clock in the morning, waiting with Br. Athanasius for Solomon Express to be ready for passengers for my trip to Malaita Island, February 5.

Ash Wednesday 2008: Standing with Br. Noel Nikki at the entrance to the Malu'u Nurse aide Training School on Malaita Island, Solomon Islands. He will finish his program at the end of May and then work in a clinic. Mostly, he says, he deals with malaria, STD's and knife cuts. Franciscans have been involved in nursing for over 800 years. Nurses are urgently needed in the Solomon Islands: they are 129 on the UN Humann Development Index.

The Foua'ala School for Girls, founded by Br. Colin. With a small grant, Br. Colin and the people of the village of Foua'ala have been building the school for several years. Each piece of metal roofing, every bag of cement and box of nails must be carried up a steep mountainside. The timbers are cut by chainsaw on site in the bush where the trees are felled.

A student of the St. Francis Kindergarten School at Vuru, Guadalcanal. It is located next door to the Michael Davis Friary east of Honiara, where I celebrated Mass the First Sunday in Lent. One of many "kindy's" founded by Br. Samson Amoni, the brothers of the Solomon Islands have worked to provide early childhood education. They are in need of every imaginable resource except loving and enthusiastic teachers. Several of Br. Samson's schools have become well established. This school is only one year old.

The Brothers at Patteson House, in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands provide a refuge for many people visiting town. This boy, Samson, lives in the friary with his father. His father sells betel nut in the Central Market. Hundreds of people visit Patteson House every day asking for cool water to drink, a toilet to use, a place to sit and rest in the shade. At night up to 12 roll out mats to sleep on the floor, some on a semi-permanent basis, others only for a night or two as they await transport (usually a ship) to their home villages.

All hands on deck to help make the coconut/cassava pudding which is a celebratory mainstay in the Solomon Islands. We grated dozens of coconuts and a hundred pounds of cassava root to make a large pudding for the welcome dinner for the 2008 Regional Chapter. My gloves caused great hilarity among the brothers but prevented me from getting blisters.

While some brothers prepared the pudding, others prepared the kitchen ovens where the pudding was cooked under hot stones.

After a week of Chapter meetings, we held a closing feast, and Br. Laurence Hauje, the Regional Minister for Papua New Guinea and I were presented with beautiful necklaces.