franciscan - January 2004
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003
SSF in the Solomon Islands
by Daniel SSF
In August 1970 SSF sent a group of four Brothers to Honiara to live the Franciscan life and undertake ministry in the Capital. The ministry was to be with the many young people who were coming to Honiara for work, and excitement. They were suddenly removed from the constraints of life in the village and the pressure of family and tribal authority. Honiara was a fast growing town where people were learning to deal with life in an urban situation, a cash economy, and having lots of family and wontoks (people who speak the same language) living with them.
We arrived in true Franciscan style, Brother Geoffrey, soon to become the Minister General, and I arrived by air, and as we left the plane and headed for Customs he said 'How much money have you got?' My reply was, 'None.' 'Well I've nothing,' said Geoffrey. So the ministry was begun, with three other Brothers arriving two weeks later, two by sea and the other by air. Geoffrey left the Solomons very soon after.
From the beginning we made up our mind that we had to speak pidgin. Luckily Brother Michael Davis, who was the Brother in charge, was a Solomon Islander so we were off to a flying start. Only pidgin was used at meals and we always invited someone to join us - with a few mis-starts at which everyone had a good laugh it was not long before we were all speaking and preaching in pidgin. While visiting the homes of Anglicans we also quickly learned how to recognise which Island or language group people came from, which was important as we all felt we needed to be able to say at least a few words in the various languages. With over 50 different languages in the Solomons this can be a very divisive factor and the one thing we wanted to do was to live alongside the people.
In the first few months we needed to become known and to meet as many people as possible, therefore we would be seen at the football matches, in the market, and generally walking around. We also started 'Patteson Club' which was held in the hall under the Diocesan Office. This was open every day at lunch time when we played records, had games and people could buy lunch - a cup of coffee and a bread roll. It was the only place in Honiara where this was possible. In this setting we set up a counselling service, to which people of all denominations came.
This was the beginning, and I can remember writing to the Minister that this was the ideal Tropical Island paradise. Over the years this has changed, as with development and a large increase in population has come also an increase in corruption and crime. SSF has flourished: from the original four, 33 years later we now have over 50 Brothers. Much of the ministry still follows a similar pattern and I find it a little embarrassing when the Brothers say Patteson House is too noisy, too many people come to the house, and they treat it as if it is their own. This is what we set out to do and maybe did it too well. How do we change - tell people to go away and keep out? I am pleased to say the answer is always, 'No, we cannot do that.'
So over the years we have built up a reputation that we are close to the people, we are trusted and people come with problems and when they need help.
Thus when the recent inter-island troubles started we were able to stand between the two sides. So SSF Brothers, with the other three religious communities in the Church of Melanesia, were able to minister across the battle lines. I will never forget making a telephone call from the United Kingdom to Honiara when the fighting was at its height. I asked, 'How are the Brothers?' The reply was, 'Oh, they are all right. Just now they are at Alligator Creek between the two sides stopping the gun fire.' I had tears in my eyes, was very nervous and proud.
When I go back to the Solomons, the Islands are as beautiful as ever, the people are as delightful, Honiara is more developed and no longer the most beautiful town in the Pacific. I can easily recognise SSF houses for there is an atmosphere that is distinctive. They are our Melanesian Friaries. Many young men have tried out the Religious Life and found that it is not for them, which is true also for the Melanesian Brotherhood. This has in many ways been the strength of the Church in Melanesia, for the former brothers go back to their villages and are involved as catechists or some other way in the on-going life of the Church. For the strength of the Church is in the villages.
Those who remain as Franciscan Brothers are involved in many different ministries, and trying to find ways to support themselves; they have a large extended family of members of the Third Order, Companions and friends. f
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