Members of the Melanesian Brothers at Tabalia. The brothers’ intervention in last year’s ethnic crisis has earned praise from all sides.
It some ways, it shows all the signs of being a country in extremis, a nation at the edge of self-destruction, on the verge of becoming to the South Pacific what Haiti is to the Caribbean.
The economy, in the words of a local Anglican bishop, is about to “hit the wall.” Foreign reserves are depleted, staples and fuel are lacking, services virtually non-existent, and an apparently paralyzed central government now faces rumblings of separation from outlying regions and islands.
It is the end of the rainy season in the Solomon Islands, and yet the capital has no water. Roads to surrounding regions that have not been maintained in a year are now impassable. Groups of sullen young men prowl the capital, Honiara, in daylight, their discontent and anger palpable.
The most vivid contrast witnessed during a recent visit to the islands’ Church of Melanesia with Canadian Archbishop Michael Peers, may have been on the island of Ysabel.
Here the Canadian primate got a traditional greeting through the sheer joy and ebullience of Melanesian singers, dancers and panpipers only to be taken an hour later to visit a hospital where a doctor’s heart was breaking at the lack of resources required to do his job.
A few hours before, nurses’ aides, unpaid by the central government, had walked off the job.
And shortly before that, Jacob Pitu, the provincial premier, had been sitting in his office with Archbishop Peers explaining emotionally that if the government failed, health care for his people would be the first thing to suffer. “I worry about the newborns the most,” he said.
In this sorry context, the Anglican Church of Melanesia, virtually alone among national institutions, maintains the loyalty, love and admiration of the people of the Solomon Islands, in large measure because of the heroic role that was played in the recent political turmoil by members of the Melanesian Brotherhood.
“You are the largest and most vibrant religious community in the Anglican Communion,” archbishop Peers told a group of Brothers at the national headquarters in Tabalia on the island of Guadalcanal.
When islander turned against islander last spring and summer, the Melanesian Brothers stood between the factions and worked first at reestablishing peace, and then later at reconciliation. Today even civic officials and police officers, who all too often took sides in the conflict, credit the Brothers for a lower toll in deaths and destruction of property than might be expected from the bitterness that sparked the tumult.
And today, a year after the June coup that came as climax to a couple of years of ethnic tension between people on the islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal, the Melanesian Brothers remain involved in the peace monitoring process.
The Church of Melanesia’s stock remains high in large measure because of them, as well as because of a natural affinity people here feel for their churches.
Yet the church itself, for different reasons, has not escaped the financial turmoil. The Church of Melanesia’s base resources are grounded in old property investments in New Zealand and the plummeting dollar in that nation has had a severe impact on the church.
The church is directly affected by the scarcity of resources – everything from food to fuel to spare parts for repairs and maintenance of machinery.
In his 16-day visit to the Church of Melanesia, Archbishop Peers visited four of the province’s nine dioceses as well as four educational institutions, two of which the Canadian church has historical associations with either through the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the Partnerships department or the Volunteers in Mission program.
In the diocese of Malaita, where the bishop, Terry Brown, is a former General Synod staff person, Archbishop Peers confirmed more than 40 people and preached at the cathedral in Fiu on Easter Sunday.
A week later, he also preached at the Anglican cathedral in Honiara, the national capital, at a service attended by about 2,000 people.
It was a visit to a church with a tremendously big heart and facing problems to match.
The value of Archbishop Peers’ visit, it was made abundantly clear, was in the graphic symbolism it offered that the Church of Melanesia is neither alone nor forgotten; that the problems it faces in fitting into the social fabric are reflected in other churches in other countries.
Time and again, as he traveled to the dioceses of Central Melanesia, Central Solomons, Ysabel and Malaita, Archbishop Peers was welcomed as a symbolic presence from abroad whose very appearance in the Solomon Islands was valued as recognition that the local church is remembered elsewhere.
The Solomon Islands is a country where the churches still matter a great deal, as evidenced by a farewell banquet given in honor of the Canadian Primate, attended by the Governor General, the deputy prime minister and the chief justice of the high court, among other dignitaries and clergy.