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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Sally Sanderson's sermon


2nd April 2006

Sally Sanderson

Montserrat

I want to tell you about Leroy. No, not the one who appeared on bus shelters and other places to declare that he had been there; but Leroy whom I met about a couple of weeks ago in Montserrat.

Let me explain what I was doing there. Our diocese has links with the diocese of the Caribbean. To strengthen those links it was arranged for nine Readers and three clergy to go there to study with their Readers, to see how the churches worshipped, to work with them, to lead worship and above all to get to know them. We all learned from one another. Bishop Christopher was meant to lead the team, but he was not well and so Dennis Stamps, the Diocesan Ministerial Development Officer, took his place. We all spent the first week in Antigua, studying with the Readers there. We stayed with families scattered all over the island, and we worshipped and worked in the particular church where our host family worshipped; so we were not all in the same place. We hope to raise some funds to assist the Readers from the Caribbean to come to our diocese in June 2007 to work with us here.

The second week we went to another island, one of our own choice and so with two other Readers I went to Montserrat, where we found we had to get up even earlier in the mornings. Sunday worship in the Caribbean lasts about two hours, with a sermon of at least twenty minutes. The bible is read antiphonally, with the reader and the congregation taking alternative verses and there is much hymn singing. In Montserrat, Early Morning Prayer each weekday morning was before sunrise and we sometimes led the worship. This service didn’t last so long. But one very elderly lady walked about two miles to attend a church each morning: and Montserrat is very hilly.

It reminded us of Devon lanes except amongst the hedgerows there were banana, cocoanut and palm trees. But it was not in church that I met Leroy. It was at his home, because we had gone with the priest to visit his mother, and to give her communion and a blessing. Leroy was in the process of building his own house. He didn’t have a great deal of money so his land was not in the best position. More expensive land is on the flat; his is on an incredible slope. From the road you go down five flights of steps cut into the hillside, and he explains how he sent the concrete down a shute to make these and the house below. The steps just reach the top floor; he is fitting out other rooms below for his son. Leroy is the most cheerful man you might meet. He says, “Oh, I praise the Lord man, for just being alive.” You would think he was younger than he really is, but his black hair mottled with white, and the age of his mother indicate that he is well into middle-age. Ruth, his mother, is now ninety-four and her brain is as alert as her son’s, but she is becoming frail and has to attend hospital every few months. This journey means that Leroy has to carry her up the five flights of steps to his car, and later down again.

Leroy pointed to his small flock of goats some way down the hillside. “Oh, you’ve got to have livestock man.” He told me. In 1989 he had a large flock of goats – 315 to be precise. On 17th September that year came hurricane Hugo. Leroy said, “When there was the lull in that terrible storm I was pleased when I saw they were safe, my house was already gone but they were sheltered under the cliff face. But when the wind returned the cliff collapsed and they all perished.”
The islanders look back at hurricane Hugo as the worst in their history: nobody’s house was spared any damage and some like Leroy’s were blown away. In a book written about Hugo, the author remarks ‘Montserrat had suffered the worst natural disaster experienced by any Caribbean island during the last 80 years. He goes on to say ‘that the people set to work to repair what they could with astonishing cheerfulness. The very first reaction of everybody was not so much concern over that had been lost but gratitude for what had been saved – their lives.’ And like the other Montserrateans, Leroy built another house and renewed his flock of goats – another 250 this time plus a dozen cows; and he was urged to make good fences to keep them safe.

But another disaster, worst than Hugo could throw at them, raged the island beginning in the year 1995; the worse damage coming in June 1997, when the pyroclastic flow from the volcano on the Soufriere Hills destroyed a lot of the island, and yes, Leroy was again left with no possessions, no house, no livestock. Like many of the islanders he had to move two or three times during what they call the volcano crisis. There was some compensation, but like most schemes, they have failed to fully compensate the people. Many are trying to pay off three mortgages one house lost to Hugo, one to the volcano and their present house, and they are well in debt. But they are all Leroys – praising the Lord for his goodness that their lives have been spared and that they could have been worse off.

The islanders know that the volcano is still active and is growing to spew out again, but the people know it as part of their lives to respect and to be lived with. I didn’t meet anybody that complained about their lot. Nobody blamed God. They all looked to the future with hope and thanksgiving for their lives having been spared. They are regularly reminded on the local radio of the presence and the goodness of God. In the crisis they were urged to keep their radios on, to keep up with progress of the volcanic activity. This is still mandatory in some places, if you go into the exclusion zone, close to the volcano, but elsewhere it has become habit. The local radio sends out religious programmes several times a day, and because we were interviewed for some programmes, the islanders immediately knew us in the street.

It is not very often that we come into contact with people that have had their lives totally turned upside down like Leroy and his countrymen have. They are resurrection people. And we easily forget that we too should be resurrection people. In our gospel reading Jesus tells the people not to hold onto the things that they love in this life, but to look to the future eternal life that is theirs if they follow his teaching. Many times in the gospels Jesus tells his disciples not to be interested in material things. He tells the rich man that he will not be able to have eternal life because he has a wrong approach to his money, in that his wealth is more important to him than doing the will of God.

In this time of Lent we are often convinced that we must give up something for our own benefit. One problem is that we gratefully take it up again as soon as Easter comes round, not that is has gone for good. Another problem is that we feel very good that we have done this thing. Bishop Robin used to say don’t give up anything; it only makes you smug. Give up being smug. If we suddenly found that we had nothing left of our possessions would we be thanking God for what he had left us, or would we be complaining of all our losses, and blaming God for our poor lot? The experience in Montserrat moved each of us in that we found people who put God first and wealth last, and they constantly gave praise for health and the gift of life.

Remember Leroy and his fellow Montserrateans in your prayers, as I will continue to do. They are trying to get a new harbour dug to make it easier for people to get to the island and expand the tourist industry. Many people are discovering that it is a beautiful place with lovely people, great scenery, gorgeous flowers and of course the attraction of a volcano that glows red on a clear night, that at the moment is growing at the rate of five cubic metres per second, and I heard by email yesterday is ashing on the people. But they are safe and the amazing attitude of the Montserrateans is how they praise God for his goodness. They are Resurrection people and we have a lot to learn from them.

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