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Excerpt: 'In the Eye of the Storm'

Finding Home: The Miracle of Communion

I'm as far away from home as I've ever been. In the Solomon Islands, in the Anglican Province of Melanesia, staying with a diocesan bishop on this remote Pacific island.

The bishop's residence is hardly a palace; he lives in a sparely furnished, modest house, partly covered with a thatched roof. There is almost no food, but somehow, as if by magic, meals seem to appear—bread bought at a local bakery for breakfast; a handful of meat for supper, cooked into a stew with vegetables and poured over a huge bowl of rice. Each of us has a spoon—the only cutlery in the house.

Cold water is available for about two hours here and there during the day. Electricity is on again, off again. Hard-shelled bugs scamper across the floor. Rats the size of cats appear just outside the doorway. The only sign of twenty-first century life is a small laptop, hooked up to an agonizingly slow dial-up connection.

The bishop is host to a large household. It's not uncommon in this part of the world for young men—too old to remain at home, but not yet ready for marriage—to live in men's households, and nearly a dozen such young men live here. The bishop provides them with a social and moral compass in their formative years. I begin to understand just a bit of their pidgin language, which adds to the universal sign language we all use to communicate when words fail us. I am welcomed as a brother in Christ.

This hard-working missionary bishop has a tough row to hoe. Some of his parishes are nearby, of course, but some are a difficult journey away—perhaps a couple of days in a car, many hours in a canoe, and finally two or three days walk into the bush. I feel very spoiled when I think of my complaints about a four-hour drive on good highways to my remotest parish, near the Canadian border.

It's hot here, near the equator. Most of life is lived outside. We sit around at night, talking. I'm fresh meat for the mosquitoes. It's hard not to think about the fact that everyone here has chronic malaria—and I may be next.

One of the local priests learns of the death of his uncle and asks if I'd like to accompany him back to his village to pay his respects. I am honored to be his companion. We must leave immediately because in this equatorial heat, the body cannot be held from burial for long. A tortuous jeep ride, dodging potholes and passing village after village, brings us to this priest's ancestral home. As we approach, we can hear the women wailing the loss of this important man in the community's life.

First off, we go to pay our respects to the chief, whose dwelling, standing up on stilts, is the only one that looks like a real house to Western eyes. Then we make our way to where the body lies. This is a large village, perhaps a thousand men, women, and children, all of them scantily clad. Clothes don't make much sense here, and I feel terribly overdressed. No one runs for shelter when an afternoon cloudburst opens up. After all, there are no clothes to change into, and besides, you dry off quickly in the equatorial heat.

The young girls are weaving magnificent wreaths for the burial: fragrant mangipany, colorful hibiscus, and exotic orchids, which grow at the edges of the village, all arranged in beautiful, symmetrical designs.

We walk over to the church. This priest's grandfather led his tribe down from the mountains and out of the bush when the Anglican missionaries settled here in the early 1900s. He is buried in the place of honor, just at the bottom of the steps leading into the church. Off to the side, between the church and the bay, lies this priest's father's grave, and beside it, a hole already dug for his brother, who lies in state.

Here by the church there's no electricity, and the water comes from a communal well. No possessions are in evidence besides the clothes people are wearing on their backs. I see no books, no furniture, no "stuff." I can't help but wonder what people do all day, what they talk about, what they hope for. My Western mind, tuned to accomplishing things in the American entrepreneurial tradition, wonders how these people fill the hours of every day, beyond providing for life's basic necessities. Although I surely don't feel that my life is better because of the things I own, I ponder what life would be like with so little. It would be easy to wax romantic about such a simple life on a sun-drenched Pacific island, but I'm not convinced that there's anything romantic about it. Still, a life stripped of things and distractions has a certain appeal.

Perhaps as many as five hundred people are sitting around the thatched hut on stilts that holds the body. Naked children are sitting in the laps of their parents or brothers and sisters. Everyone is quiet—either out of respect for the dead, or because they're curious about the white guy wearing a pectoral cross who's just arrived.

We remove our shoes and climb the little ladder that leads up to the house. There is no furniture inside. It is dark, even though it's the middle of the day. The women continue their wailing as family members sit with the body. The priest I'm with asks to see the body of his uncle. The women begin to uncover the man, beginning with the cloths that shroud his body. The final covering is a layer of banana leaves, which, when peeled back, reveal the man's face. A new wave of wailing possesses the women as the dead man's face appears. We silently attend the dead. And then the priest announces that "the bishop will now pray."

Surprisingly, the wailing stops. Immediately. It's then that I realize that while these women obviously knew the deceased and mourn his passing, they are performing a ritual, liturgical role as wailers. Their cries do not need to wind down gradually in an effort to control their grief because they are here to do a job. All goes silent.

I begin to pray: for the deceased, for the family, for the village. I give thanks for his father and his role in leading this tribe to this place, and ultimately, being responsible for their conversion, and their Anglican expression of that conversion. None of which anyone understands, except for the priest I'm with.

And then it happens. The miracle of communion. I begin to close the prayer and I decide to bless the people. It's what a bishop does. And as I say the words, "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," everyone in this tiny hut crosses themselves. And in that moment, I am home.

They probably hadn't understood a word I'd said before that, or after. But they did understand that this priest and nephew had brought a brother in Christ to pay respects to the dead. I had traveled seventeen thousand miles to be here. On the surface, these people and I shared almost nothing in common except our humanity. Their lives could not be more different from mine. I could no more imagine what it would be like to live their lives than they could imagine living mine.

And yet, in that mystical moment and at the uttering of those holy words that have blessed and cured and comforted Christians for twenty centuries, all the difference between us is erased into matters of no significance. And in that moment we are One, bound by our love of Jesus Christ and our experience of a loving God. Here is the Anglican Communion, on full display in a small hut perched high on stilts, beside a beautiful bay, in a group of islands somewhere in the vast Pacific. And at the invocation of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" we remember who we are and are reminded that we are One because of whose we are. And though I am halfway around the globe from where I live, I am home.

Excerpted from In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God by Gene Robinson, with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing. Copyright (c) 2008 by Gene Robinson. All rights reserved.

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Gene Robinson