I was so sick on our Fiji stopover. There we were in the Nadi airport, on our way to the Solomon Islands, and I was throwing up in every available receptacle, excusing myself from my coworkers because, of course, this was a business trip. What could be more awkward?
But Fred found me. I was at a low point, crouched on a curb between two taxis, and then there was the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, sitting down beside me, bringing some tissues, his face all kindness, his brow deeply furrowed.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, has an antenna up for the vulnerable. Throughout the 11 long, hot days of our March visit to the Church of Melanesia in the Solomon Islands, the man could hone in on any pet or a baby within eyesight.
A scrawny cat wanders into a sunny lunchroom where we’re eating with faculty from a theological college. When someone kicks it, Fred winces and tries to lure it back. “Puss, puss,” he calls.
In an airport lounge, a tired mother plays with an equally tired baby on a blanket. Fred, passing by, waves a big hand. “Hiya, little guy!” The baby looks up in surprise.
How does such a big heart travel to a developing country, where needs jut out as exposed ribs, bare feet, or stories of kids who can’t pay school fees?
Or worse, kids sold into prostitution-a problem that’s increasing as foreign loggers move in to strip big trees from this green land.
There’s hardly time to feel, it seems. Our team-Fred, Dr. Andrea Mann, global relations coordinator, and myself-is driven around all day to see busy, complex ministries throughout the Anglican Church of Melanesia. We visit four religious orders, two schools, a farm, a prison, and more.
Everywhere they greet us with songs, sung high and loud, and garlands of orchids, frangipani, ferns, turmeric.
Often, Fred is asked to “share the word,” as local ministers say. Some of this he knows in advance, so he pulls out a handwritten sermon that usually wends its way back to the Marks of Mission.
But at the prison he has to wing it. We learn about this en route, as we’re bumping towards the Rove Correctional Centre in the church’s pickup truck. When we arrive we are ushered to the stage in front of several hundred inmates-tattooed, burly men, filled with nervous energy. I feel nervous too, but Fred prays slowly and takes a moment for silence.
“I’ve been called many things on this trip,” he says, “Lord bishop, Archbishop, Primate of all Canada…but my name is Fred and I am a sinner.”
The tension slips out of the room.
This is not Fred’s first trip overseas. He went to India and Tanzania as diocesan bishop of Nova Scotia, and Burundi, the Middle East, and Cuba as Primate.
He has his own travelling rhythm: a well-worn duffle bag for vestments and a suitcase three-quarters packed with gifts. He wakes up early to journal and pray. When he can, he calls his wife Lynne, who sometimes holds up the phone to the furry ear of Joe, their beloved Golden Retriever, so Fred can say hello.
During the day, Fred is all grace as a traveling dignitary. He can shake hands and smile for the camera. But he clearly longs to be a man of action.
In some ways, it’s a tricky time to be an international partner. Our church can’t offer the funding we used to. Fred does not yet have a discretionary fund that would let him write cheques for the immediate needs he sees on these trips. There’s a lot of talk about renewing our almost-50-year partnership with the church here, but not a lot of specifics yet.
On the last day, we try to nail down some details with Archbishop David Vunagi. Fred names the ministries that have touched him. How can we help a sisterhood finish their retreat centre? How can we connect with the vibrant youth ministry here? Support more theological students? We make plans and take notes.
But Fred is at his finest in the children’s ward of the National Referral Hospital, two simple concrete rooms filled with families who have travelled days by boat and truck to get their sick kids some care. They have meningitis, malaria, bronchitis or worse, and Fred bends down beside each child. He learns their names. He learns their parents’ names.
Compassion and action meet for moments here. Before he leaves each bedside, Fred smiles and gently places his hand on the sick child’s head. He asks, “May I bless you?”
To see more photos of the trip to Melanesia, click here.
Watch video clips here and here.
Ali Symons is senior editor at General Synod. More of her stories on the Solomon Islands trip appear in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.