Fr Jim Conway is a Jesuit priest who has been living and working in Guyana for the last five years. Jesuit Missions helps to fund many of the projects that he has worked with. He is currently back in the UK for a few weeks and we were lucky enough to catch up with him the day he landed to ask him a few questions about his life there.
Tell us a little bit about who you are?
I’m originally from Newcastle and joined the Jesuits at the age of 31. Before that I had done a lot of travelling and had a real passion for International development including spending a year with Oxfam in Bangladesh. Although I was brought up a Catholic, I drifted away from my faith in my early twenties and it took me a while to get back on track. During my time travelling, I became aware personally of a spiritual element in me and my faith illuminated my passion for social justice. When I was in Pakistan, I often escaped the chaos of the streets to find solitude in the mosques. I met a Muslim man one day who had such a strength of faith when talking about Islam that he ignited a spiritual fire within me and I realised I wanted to learn more about my faith. I have been with the Society of Jesus (SJ) for almost 25 years.
Why did you choose to join the SJ?
I came across my first Jesuit priest in a café in Sydney. He was working with young people who had a drug problem and I couldn’t believe that he was a priest. He showed me a new way to be a priest which I found really interesting. On my return to the UK, I met with a priest friend of mine and went on a retreat which happened to be Jesuit. As I learned more about St Ignatius and his vision of finding God in all things, it really resonated with me and I knew it was the right thing for me. Although it took me a long time to realise that becoming a priest was the right thing, once I knew the process was all very quick.
How did you end up working in Guyana?
On my tertianship, my last year of Jesuit training, I was asked to go to Guyana to be a coordinator of the mission. I had been once before to Guyana as a novice on a pastoral placement on the coast. I have now been there for the last 5 years.
What have you been doing there?
The main work I have been doing is pastoral care. I have been working in the interior indigenous communities in the savannah region towards the south of the country near the border with Brazil, and in the Pakaraima mountains. We have four houses situated in four different Amerindian communities. Jesuits occupy three of them and a group of Ursuline Sisters live in the fourth. The Sisters make an invaluable contribution to the Jesuit mission. The communities we work with speak three main languages of Patamona, Wapichan and Macushi which are also spoken in the northern areas of Brazil just separated by a river.
Although English is the national language of Guyana, the children of these communities grow up speaking one of these native languages. When they start school, they are expected to study and learn English immediately. We are working with the Ministry of Education to try and get them to recognise the challenges that this brings. Children are often left behind as they struggle to make the transition to a completely new language. We are working on a new bilingual program whereby there will be a more gradual transition, so the children can study in their native languages for the first few years of education while learning English. It is important to try and protect the native languages, as they are mainly oral and not much has been written down historically.
I have also done some work with Laudato Si. Climate change is a visible reality for the people in Guyana. The dry and wet seasons are becoming more and more unpredictable. They found it interesting that Pope Francis was talking about living more simply when that’s what they already do. You can’t get more simple living than sleeping in a hammock with no electricity and washing in the creek. There is very little need for energy and it makes you realise how wasteful we have become in the western world and how far gone we have gone.
What have you learned about yourself since being overseas?
It took a while for me to be at ease in silence with other people, but I have learned to appreciate other people’s company and that sometimes sitting in silence is a way of communicating with each other. I learned to value the present, not to live in the past or worry about the future but to soak up the present moment and concentrate on today. I find that it’s very easy to get caught up with your life back home through social media which can lead to becoming distant from where you are, and you miss what is going on around you. It’s about finding the right balance of keeping in touch with people and enjoying where you are and not missing the internet when there is no connection.
What will you miss when you leave Guyana?
The people and their resilience. Their languages aren’t valued and often as a community those living in the interior are looked down upon by those living on the coast. However, they have an incredible sense of dignity and self-respect which I admire. At the heart of their world view is well being and being in harmony with the earth. They have a real sense of sustainability, they never over hunt or over fish, its very much what they need for that day. I will miss their story telling. They’re not great conversationalists, but what they do say is worth listening to. They have a real sense of solidarity and community with one another and I was often referred to as their brother even when they had just met me.
Is there a story that sticks in your mind that you’d like to share?
People have the time to walk six hours through the forest with you, stay over night and walk back just because they want to accompany you. I will never forget walking through the forest and the abundance of wildlife and people’s real sense of being aware of what’s around them. Once when we were on a walk through a forest, the man next to me shot a bird which he had heard. When I asked if we would be looking for more to shoot, he looked at me and said no we only need one for dinner this evening. Only the minimum required is ever taken, no more. But everything is shared so generously, there’s always room for one more person.
Have you noticed much of a change since you’ve been there?
Things are definitely changing. There seems to be more of a need for everyday cash. For example, even though education is free, there is a need for books and uniform which requires money. More and more men are leaving to work in Brazil and with that they bring new things back into the villages and new experiences. Other people then want to experience what they have, more people are exploring life on the outside which has its pros and cons.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since you’ve been there?
The language barrier is always the biggest challenge. The mission covers a vast area geographically and there is often rough terrain to travel between the areas. This gets worse during rainy season when a lot of the flat savannah gets flooded. This can mean that it’s difficult to coordinate as a team, especially as we have very limited internet connection.
What do you miss from the UK while you’re there?
I miss the seasons, especially Autumn and Spring. In Guyana there is only the dry and wet season and even then, sometimes this isn’t so clear cut. All year round there is 12 hours of day and night, so I miss the long summer evenings we have here.
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Posted on 09th February 2018