Empty shelves, a shortage of essential goods, not being able to travel easily; such has been the lockdown experience in the UK. For the parishes on the islands of the South Atlantic, however, such things are a normal part of life.
Travelling around the island parishes, what I have learnt above all is to abandon everything to Divine Providence. It is all so unpredictable that you have little choice but to trust in God. Flights and shipping schedules are liable to change at a moment’s notice. As one islander said to me, timetables are more of an aspiration than an actual guide.
On nearly every visit to the Falkland Islands, my flights have either been delayed or cancelled. At times, this has been because some vital bit of the engine had fallen off the plane, but normally it is to do with the weather. On the Falklands, the wind can blow in from four different directions at the same time.
Setting sail from Cape Town to visit the other islands you are simply at the mercy of the South Atlantic swells (which are anything but swell). On the islands, the availability of food and clothing is hit and miss. Patience is essential.
On my travels, though, it helps to be a little cut off from the outside world. Wall-to-wall 24-hour news can be disturbing and perhaps generates more heat than light. My eldest sister is a matron in a hospital in Hertfordshire. During this pandemic, she has banned my parents from watching more than one news programme each day (and no one disobeys my sister). We can become overwhelmed and even paralysed by non-stop updates on what is happening. This is not to say that the Islanders are unaware of what is happening in the wider world, but it is always in the context of living their own day-to-day lives.
Thankfully, the virus did not spread far among the South Atlantic Islands. The Falkland Islands had around a dozen cases, but these were all contained within the garrison. Ascension Island had a few cases as well. These were all American servicemen and women and they returned to the US. St Helena and Tristan da Cunha have been spared, thank God. While it has been a worrying time for the whole world, on small islands like these, if one person becomes sick then pretty much the whole population is at risk.
Church services were suspended on the Falkland Islands and on St Helena. Both these islands have airports and so it was a prudent decision. On Ascension Island, the church cannot be locked; it does not have a door or windows, nor many walls for that matter. However, with the permission of the civil administration, the parishioners of St Joseph’s on Tristan da Cunha kept going to church on Sundays. Like most buildings on the island, the church door of St Joseph’s has no lock and it only acts as a barrier to keep the cows out of church. Since the island is cut off completely from physical contact with the outside world, it was possible for the islanders to continue with their Sunday celebrations. However, in an act of solidarity with everyone back in the UK, they chose not to receive Holy Communion on Good Friday. It was a simple gesture and a truly heartfelt one.
All of the islands now have some form of quarantine in place for when visitors arrive. Fr David, the parish priest of St Helena and Ascension Island, was on his first holiday in two years when the pandemic struck. This meant he has been “locked down” in Cape Town for the past three months. Thankfully, just this week, he has been allowed to return to St Helena. When he gets there, he will spend two weeks in quarantine before being allowed to return to the parish and his beloved cat.
Despite the difficulties, the generosity of the islanders is incredible. On Tristan da Cunha, Harvest Sunday is normally at the end of March. This year, while everyone in the UK was going crazy and stockpiling loo rolls, the parishioners of St Joseph’s gathered food parcels – as they do every year – to send to Cape Town to help the city’s homeless. They knew that they themselves would be facing a difficult time if the shipping schedule had to be abandoned. The island has very few natural resources and they would now get no income from passing cruise ships (everyone wants a T-shirt from the most remote island in the world!). Yet they still gave generously to others. That is not only loving our neighbour, but trusting in God. It is taking seriously what it means to say, “Lord, thy will be done.”
Abbot Hugh Allan is Apostolic Administrator of the Prefecture of the Falkland Islands and Ecclesiastical Superior of the Missions sui iuris of the Islands of Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha and Titular Abbot of Beeleigh