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A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter IV. The Consecration of a Bush Church

SOME days in life are never to be forgotten! One day in the early part of this year will rank amongst such days for some of us, who live and work on the shores of the great Gulf of Honduras, near the Caribbean Sea.

It was between four and five o'clock that morning, February 17, while it was yet dark, that we were splashing the sleep out of our eyes in our cold baths at Monkey River, on the coast of British Honduras, and soon after, just as the day was breaking, we were gliding swiftly in a dorey, or dug-out canoe, down the coast to Punta Negra, some twelve miles away. I and my son, the Rev. P. B. Simpson, and three of his people formed the party, and we were the guests while the other four paddled our large and comfortable craft over the rippling waves.

A young Creole, Solomon, lithe and slender as a panther, stood upon the bow, now paddling and now poling--for it was often shallow; next him came Mr. Simpson, one of the best dorey men on the coast; next him "Dode," a Creole with a little of the Carib in him; we were placed next, and in the stern sat another Creole, Adol-phus. The four sent the dorey swiftly along, the fish shooting out of the sea and through the air in all directions as we went. Then came the sunrise, and the most wonderful tints following it, and in due course we were at our destination.

Punta Negra is one of the most delightful places I have ever seen. It is a small collection of timber and wattle-houses at a very stormy point on the British Honduras coast, but is a quiet and peaceful little place in itself. Whenever I have been there the clean white sand, and the waving cocoanut palms overhead, the blue sky and sapphire sea, with the pure fresh air blowing in from the sea, have made one feel that it was like some little corner in the Garden of Eden.

The lives of the people there are as clean and wholesome as their surroundings. "There are no nasty vices lurking in the shade here," said Mr. Simpson to me when I went there with him for the first time from Monkey River, where he is Rector; "no bad habits and things to find out. All is just as you think it to be, when you see them assembled to welcome you, in their white attire."

Last year I had a Confirmation in this place--three young fellows just going out in life, to begin fishing for shell--and the little timber-room that did duty for church and school could not hold the people. It was then that Mr. Simpson asked if I could help him to a Bush Church, and the result has been a wonderful little building which holds a hundred people.

It is built of "cabbage," which seems to me a most unsuitable and unworthy name to give to the wood which one gets from the trunk of the royal palm, and which is so very splendid for its purpose, in resisting both the effects of the weather and the attacks of insects.

The frame, of course, is of ordinary "lumber," and it is raised well above the ground on tall uprights; it has good windows, is well floored and prettily painted, and has a grand roof of palm-leaf thatch--far the best to have at that part of the coast--and without the benches and all the other necessary fittings it cost only ,£50. It is expected to last at least from fifteen to twenty years, and, if carefully repaired, will probably last a great deal longer. Of course, the people themselves, including the Rector, have worked hard at the erection of their new church, but still the actual technical labour is included in the cost above mentioned.

It is a most dainty and attractive little building, and it was very touching to see the thankful and innocent pride with which the people looked on as I made my first inspection of it after my landing. It was to them a cathedral! "How wonderful it is!" "It's grand!" "What a place!" "Splendid!" with deep breaths to emphasize the words, one heard on all sides; and certainly it did look very attractive in the morning light, especially the interior, which was fitted up with gifts from friends at home, and linen, etc., from the guild of my former London parish.

A large red cross rises from one of the gables. Nothing was wanting! And that perfect day! I shall never forget it, following immediately upon a wet and dull one; but as I spoke of it to little groups of women they replied at once, and in a most matter-of-fact tone, "Yes, it is, Bishop; but we have been praying for it for weeks"--to them a full and sufficient explanation.

The people of Punta Negra are cocoanut growers and fisher folk for the most part. A "cocoanut walk" is quite profitable if properly tended, each tree yielding a profit of about four or five shillings a year, as cocoanut oil is in ever-increasing demand; but the Punta Negrans have but a few palms each, and are not on the way to fortune yet. Fish is very abundant, and the Caribs and others live principally upon it, with the yams and other vegetables and roots they grow. Eggs and fowls now and then, with turtle occasionally, are their only other dishes.

As soon as we had made all the necessary preparations the Consecration followed, everyone--man, woman and child--who could possibly get there being present. The Rev. P. B. Simpson led the way, then my son, bearing the pastoral staff, and I followed, pronouncing the "Peace be to this House of GOD" as we entered, all then joining in our Processional Psalm, "The earth is the LORD'S and they that dwell therein." It seemed as if all beautiful influences from the world of Nature entered with us to assist at that Consecration service!

A Creole gathering for Divine service is always picturesque. Everyone, of both sexes, tries to come in white; the women like to have a bit of colour also and the men a flower if it is a special service; and they love to worship. One can't have too many hymns, they can't have too much to do; and the Sermon can't be too long, especially if it has any interesting reference to the occasion.

It was a most reverent and beautiful service, and we all realized that day, I think, the solemn presence of Him Who, "though the Heaven of Heavens cannot contain Him, much less that house which we had builded," yet is ever "in the midst of those gathered together in His Name," and continually fulfils His promise, when worshipped in spirit and in truth, and in the place where His Name is placed, to "come unto us and bless us."

Every communicant in the place and neighbourhood received the Holy Communion at that service, and I verily believe that that little church will be more and more consecrated, as the years go on, by the prayers and worship of its simple people. The accompanying photograph was taken just after the service, and before we all went our different ways to breakfast.

In the afternoon we had an opportunity of seeing what the coast is like a little further down, and all three went for a six miles' walk, to visit Blue Bight, or "Little home," as it is called by some. The tropical sun was very fierce, and we were bathed in perspiration, but the fresh air blowing in from the sea kept one feeling cool, and it was delightful to sit at the end of our walk, and rest and chat in the hut of some old Creoles who had lived there practically all their lives. The articles of furniture were very few, the floor was white sand--"a carpet which never needs shaking to get the dust out of it," I remarked, which brought tremendous laughter from those simple folk. They had nothing to offer in the way of refreshment except a fresh cocoanut or two, from which we drank the water; but we could desire nothing better, and the whole scene was one of simple, clean, honest life and domestic duty and peace.

We must try to give them a little place of worship in time. It is far for the old people to go up to Punta Negra, though they were all there that day, of course, and at present they have their services, when they can get them, in the house we visited.

In the evening at Punta Negra, once more, we had our Confirmation, with all the same people there. Everyone present was there to share in the service, not to look on! In the "short space for silent supplication" one felt that everyone was saying "Come, HOLY GHOST," and that every soul was "inspired" that night with new desires of servicef All this made one feel the reality and beauty of the prayer after the Confirmation, as it brings out the ministrations of the whole Body of CHRIST, in the act and person of the bishop, when he says, "upon whom after the example of Thy Holy Apostles we have now laid our hands."

The service ended about half-past eight, and one stood at the door shaking hands with those warm-hearted people, receiving their "GOD bless you, Bishop!" and "A safe passage back!" and laying a hand of blessing on the little children's heads as they were carried past by their mothers, fast asleep; and then we all turned our thoughts to our return. We had been looking forward to it all day--our return over the sea by moonlight when the wind had dropped--but, unfortunately, it had not dropped, and was blowing half a gale, and return was impossible until it had ceased, and we must wait.

There were no spare beds in Punta Negra, though there were a few forms and a canvas trestle arrangement, facetiously called a cot, which fell to me. My son and I elected to sleep out of doors by the sea, I on the cot and he on forms, under the cocoanuts. We were reminded, when a great nut came crashing down and bruised my elbow, that we must be careful in such a place. If it had been my head I might not have been writing these lines.

But we rested well on our rough couches, muffling up our heads when the mosquitoes became too numerous and too attentive, and snatched some sleep ere we were roused, just before five, with the welcome news that the wind had changed. Soon we were launching our dorey through the heavy surf, and then speeding back to Monkey River, gazing at the wonders of another golden sunrise out of an opal sea!

Monkey River is a characteristic little bit of British Honduras, and gives me the opportunity of describing a little station on the coast and offering my tribute to a good man's work there, though I fear he will be very cross with me should he ever read these pages.

The Rector in question went out to British Honduras at the age of twenty-three, and is now, I believe, about thirty-seven, and has never, as far as I know, had a holiday all the time, nor desires one. He has stuck to his work and kept to Monkey River, though he was once transferred, for a short time, to what would be considered a far more agreeable place, but on the first possible opportunity hastened back to Monkey River.

This is his day. In the early morning he sees his people on their temporal concerns, giving them advice and information, signing papers, and so on. At nine o'clock he goes into school, held on the ground-floor of his large Rectory in a room which has to do duty for church also, the altar being curtained off, and there he teaches some eighty or ninety children from nine to four with an interval at mid-day for a meal.

In the short time which follows, as it grows suddenly dark immediately after six o'clock he has to do his visiting and other pastoral work. He can have no leisure at all, and when I have been with him I have been very much exercised both as to the food he ate and the time he got for sleep.

Sundays he has for church, and week nights also, and there are four places, to my knowledge, where he gives services and visits his people.

These are all of the labouring class, fisher folk, banana and cocoanut growers and the like, and they form his only society, as they have done for years. He is their trusted friend and constant companion, and though their conversational powers must be strictly limited by the surroundings of their very simple lives, he remains in all his tastes and development and interest just what one would have expected an educated man to be if he had had all the advantages and resources of our modern civilization, instead of the many and serious deficiencies of Monkey River.

I have never seen the "simple life" lived as it is in that Rectory by the sea, and never been more conscious of its effect and power. Who would not back up such a man, and thank GOD for him and for others like him all over the Mission Field of our Anglican Communion to-day?

I have not ventured to lift the veil of his daily life because I think him entirely and altogether exceptional (and therefore I hope he will pardon me for not respecting his dislike of publicity, as he will certainly think I ought to have done), but because I look upon him as typical of some of our best men whose work is often only really known and understood and appreciated by their bishops in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and every part of the Empire, as well as in the vast area covered by the work of our daughter Church in the United States of America.

It will always be a sad thought to me, now that I have been called to other work, that there is little or no probability of my ever seeing Monkey River or Punta Negra again, but I shall ever take' and show, as opportunity offers, the very keenest interest in the work Mr. Simpson is carrying on there, as indeed one will in other parts of the Diocese, as well.

There is now a little Rectory at Punta Negra. I believe Mr. Simpson was a little concerned, his people were greatly shocked, at his bishop having to sleep out in the open, on the Consecration day of their little church, and so he set to work and built a little Rectory, which like the church itself cost another £50. Imagine a church and Rectory for;£ioo! This Rectory was to be my abode on my next visit, and though I shall probably never see it I can picture it exactly in that pure air on the white sand, the cocoanut palms above it, and the beautiful sea washing the shore close to where it stands.

And the church too, so near at hand. I must add an encouraging experience about that as I conclude this chapter. It was on February 17 of last year, it may have been noticed, that I consecrated it, and then it was thought to be pommodious enough for all purposes, for everyone who could get there from far and near was present that day, and all were comfortably seated.

But this year, on my return from Jamaica, I had a letter from the Rector saying that the church was now too small and would have to be enlarged, and he was preparing to set about it at once, and had already sent to the Standing Committee of the Diocese for permission to begin, giving them a rough sketch of his plans.

He didn't say where the money was to come from, and I knew that he himself must have drawn upon his own resources for the little Punta Negra Rectory--my clergy as a rule had about £150 a year, and that in a country where wages are rather high and food dear--his people too were all poor enough, and therefore I could not help wondering how he was going to provide the money.

Nor was I greatly surprised when, in his next letter, he briefly said that the Standing Committee had refused him permission, in accordance with the Canons of the Diocese, as he had no funds, which of course was quite the correct thing to do.

But I was just beginning my last round of sermons and meetings on behalf of the Diocese, and I determined to start with the Punta Negra enlargement. The following Sunday, accordingly, in a little country church not far from London, I made my appeal.

At the end of the morning sermon, I took my congregation out in thought to the white sands of Punta Negra and those clean-living people, and told them of that miserable little shanty in which I had my first Confirmation, which would not hold twenty people, all the rest having to stand outside, a place of which I said to them: "Hardly any of you here would think it good enough to use as a bicycle-shed, and they have had to use it for years as a church."

Next I told them of the £50 church and how it was built and equipped, and how much it was appreciated. "And now," I went on, "it needs enlargement, but at what cost I don't know, for the Rector does not mention it, and indeed does not beg at all; but if a church only cost £50 to build, I should imagine it could be enlarged for £25. I hope I may get a good help towards that amount to-day."

The people were all interested, but I did not expect a very large collection, and when it was spread out on the vestry table before me while I was unrobing it did not look much, and I had to share it with the S.P.G. My share, as a matter of fact, came to £5 for the two services when it was all reckoned up. But then came our little surprise! Just as the amount for the morning collection had been entered into the vestry book, a young man came in from the church with the offertory-bags in his hand, which he had been taking away, and holding up a tiny scrap of paper--

"This," he said, "I found sticking out of one of the bags as I was putting them away. I don't know if it matters."

I took it and opened it out, and read--

"I shall be happy to give the £25 required," and the name of a parishioner followed.

The enlargement was secured at the first appeal, and I don't knov when I wrote a note with greater pleasure than I did next day when sending out a cheque for the amount required to the Rector of Monkey River.

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