Fr Paul Martin SJ, a member of the British province, has been the Regional Superior of Guyana for the last seven years. On the 1st October this year Fr Chris Llanos SJ, from the Canadian province, became the new Regional Superior of Guyana which will also include the Jesuit communities of Jamaica and Barbados.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in Guyana?
I grew up in Liverpool and attended Liverpool University where I studied maths. While at University I came to know the Jesuits through Loyola Hall retreat centre. I became interested in Ignatian spirituality and discernment which deepened my thoughts about joining the priesthood which I had had for as long as I could remember. In becoming a Jesuit, I imagined I would spend my life giving retreats at Loyola Hall, as that’s what I saw them doing.
As I began my formation I soon came to realise that Jesuits did many other things. I was asked to come to Guyana for two years of regency, not with any long-term plan in mind. I found the style of church and what the Jesuits were doing in Guyana to be interesting, especially the work that they were doing with the indigenous people in the interior. After Regency I was sent to study Theology in Brazil which deepened that sense of the churches mission in Latin America and especially what it means to work with indigenous communities. I haven’t looked back since.
What has been your most memorable moment of your time in Guyana?
The first thing that comes to my mind, and therefore must be my most memorable moment, was a morning in a small village in the interior when I was taking down my hammock and packing it away. I put my hand inside my bag and felt what I thought was my hammock rope, (which surprised me because my hammock rope was still hanging up behind me). When I took out what I thought was my hammock rope it turned out to be a snake. I threw the snake on the table which woke it, since it had been sleeping peacefully in my bag. Thankfully it opted for flight rather than fight and made a haste exit through the window.. When I spoke to members of the community about this snake, they told me it was a in their words “ a bad snake” meaning very poisonous , if you get bitten then blood comes out of your eyes . I remember this incident very well. Of course, It is very scriptural to have picked up a snake in my hand and still be here to tell the tale. I see it as one of the many examples of God’s providence and God’s care for me during my time in the interior.
What’s been your biggest challenge during your time in Guyana?
Coming from Europe the big temptation is to feel that we have all the answers and that we are here to solve everyone’s problems. My biggest challenge … and at the same time my greatest joy … was the discovery that Amerindians in fact have a lot to teach us about a balanced harmonious way of life and being a “missionary” among them means allowing myself to be evangelized and converted.
What’s next for you?
Fr Chris Llanos will be taking on the role of Regional Superior for both Guyana and Jamaica. This will mean we will be able to develop a greater presence in the Caribbean. My own interests have always been in the Amazon, so I could see myself contributing in some way to the development of our interior mission and our collaboration with the Jesuits in Brazil. But it will be for Chris to decide where he thinks I can best be of use and I am happy to leave the choice of my next mission in his hands.
What is the biggest lesson that you have you learned since being in Guyana?
I have learned the importance of participating in life as part of a community. We Europeans tend to put a lot of emphasis on individual rights, but this needs to be balanced with a sense of responsibility towards a wider community. This, I think, is at the heart of the Gospel message. My life is “not about me” but about the contribution I can make to the common good.
How have you witnessed Care of Creation from the people in Guyana?
I wouldn’t say Indigenous people here are consciously thinking in terms of Caring for Creation. They depend totally on it for their needs and so they have developed a deep understanding of the importance of living in harmony with nature. They never take from nature more then they need so that nature can replenish itself. The way people fish and hunt is in balance with creation, they know that they cannot farm in one place for too long so they move on, giving the earth the chance to recover. This is in marked contrast to those from outside who come to do logging or mining. Their mentality is to take as much as they can get now and not to care about the destruction they leave behind.
How have you witnessed the change in climate and increased need to Care for Creation?
In the past people knew exactly when to plant their crops, but now with the rains coming at different times that is becoming more difficult. When you buy your food from shops this is less of an issue but when you depend totally on what you grow to feed your family this is a major question. Living in a city that is below sea level also has the effect of focusing the mind when people talk of rising sea levels. A couple of years ago the government had to build on an extra piece on top of our sea wall because the water was coming over at high tide. Merely going on adding extensions is no solution.
What do you envisage for the future of The Society of Jesus in Guyana?
The reason for us to be here in Guyana is now broader than working simply to maintain the local church. Pope Francis’s vision of caring for our common home has never been more important. As Jesuits in this extended Guyana Region. we are called to reflect on issues that concern the people of the Caribbean and issues that concern the people of the Amazon. WE then have the opportunity to foster a fruitful dialogue between these two realities. We must work to create networks of solidarity. People on the coast of Guyana are excited about the discovery of offshore oil deposits and the revenue that is promised, but money is not the answer and will not lead the country to find a better future. There are deeper issues of racial harmony and collaboration that need to addressed. In this the dialogue between coastal people and the indigenous communities of the interior will be very important. St Ignatius wanted his men to go where the need is greatest. I think he would be happy to know that there are Jesuits in Guyana today.