In Theory: How ready for isolation are you?

Do you like ocean views, peace, quiet and solitude, and a captive congregation? Then the island of Tristan da Cunha could be perfect. It's advertising for a new parish priest — the previous incumbent left in 2010.

There are some catches, though, which is possibly why the island has been without a religious leader for two years. Tristan da Cunha is officially the world's most remote island — positioned in the South Atlantic some 1,750 miles from Africa, 2,100 miles from South America —and has a population of 262. There are two television channels, no airport, and ships visit from South Africa nine times a year. Island native Lorna Lavarello-Smith is training to be a priest in Britain. She would like to return to Tristan de Cunha "one day" and describes the island as "a very special place.... If you are looking for a ministry where you want to be close to God and close to nature, then Tristan da Cunha is the place for you." Not every island priest was so happy, however; the Rev. Edwin H. Dodgson, brother of author Lewis Carroll, wrote, "It has been my daily prayer that God would open up some way for us all to leave," after the "unnatural state of isolation" began to prey on his mind.

Q: Does Tristan da Cunha sound like the place for you?

Thanks for the lighter-side topic. I think I would like to go to that island for one year max, or maybe two years. I would treat it like the Peace Corps. I would realize that I wouldn't be there forever, and since I could see the light at the end of the tunnel from the beginning, I think I might be able to handle the isolation.

One thing's for sure: The nine days those ships would arrive would be celebration days, really times to look forward to. Isn't there a song in "The Music Man" that sings, "oh, the Wells Fargo stage, she's a comin' down the line...." or something like that? In 19th-century America, a stage or a train coming through town was a big deal, and I think that's how those ship arrivals would feel. And just think, guys who like corny jokes would be able to say, "You know, pretty soon my ship is coming in!" B-dom-bomp.

On the serious side, we preacher types should realize that island dwellers are children of God, too, just like us cool Angelenos, and they deserve good pastoral care and good preaching, too. Also, living in such a different place would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing how people very different from us live. Depending on one's viewpoint, living there for a relatively short time could be the opportunity of a lifetime — or else the biggest drag in the world. One would have to choose whether the glass was half-full or half-empty. If the glass is half-empty, fill it up with a cool rum drink and learn to dance the hula!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


It doesn't. Personally I enjoy the variety and greater opportunities a larger community provides. I thrive on connection with a broader group of people that goes beyond the "us four, no more" mentality.

But then, when Jesus calls people, he says, "follow me." He makes no promises where that'll take us, save for the place he is preparing for us in his father's house. When I graduated from college I remember saying I'd be willing to move just about anywhere — except for Los Angeles. Now I've lived here longer than I lived in my hometown. Maybe I should tell God I'd be happy with anything except wealth, health and beauty for decades to come!

On a serious note, Jesus told all who followed him: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me" (Luke 9:23). No matter where we follow Jesus, there will be no service without sacrifice, no position without problems, no opportunity without opposition. But those who follow Jesus can be equally assured that every cross will ultimately be rewarded with comfort, every burden will yield blessing and every tear will turn to rejoicing.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


Once upon a time, when Constantine made Christianity cool and all of the hip people wanted to belong, the Truly Serious Christians left the city for the desert to live in caves and fight their demons. They believed that simplicity and relative solitude would enable them to clear their minds and souls of distraction, and that they would ultimately be truer, more loving disciples of Jesus Christ. Some of the sayings of these fourth-century Desert Fathers and Mothers survive, offering us deep wisdom on humility, the "soul's passions," and the saving grace of God.

I am sure that it does little good to appoint a spiritual leader to the island equivalent of a desert cave unless that spiritual leader is prepared for the "gifts" of simplicity and solitude. Most of us are happy enough to have the distractions of the city keeping our demons at bay until we choose to grapple with them.

St. Anthony was heard to wrestle loudly within the abandoned Roman fort that was his home for 20 years, afflicted by "boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women." When he finally emerged from the fort, most expected him to have wasted away or gone insane, but instead he emerged healthy, serene, and enlightened. People came from miles around to seek his wisdom.

If there were Methodist saints, I doubt that anyone would nominate me after a long stint on Tristan de Cunha, but with a little blessing, I'd return peaceful, patient, prayerful, and, of course, tanned.

The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church


The question this week reminds me of a story about a sailor who arrived on a small and remote island in the Pacific Ocean and found only one man living there. He seemed very happy to be on the island alone and showed the traveler around, pointing out three buildings. The first building was his house and the second his church. The visitor asked about the third building. The man replied, "Oh, that is my former church."

We can laugh at the seeming foolishness of such a story. But in our own country, the number of religions and sub-categories within those traditions is huge. Our "island" of the United States is just a lot bigger than the one in the story or Tristan da Cunha. It is hard to believe that we really need so many disparate religious groups within our country. And it amazes me that so many of these groups, even those from the same religious heritage, seem to think that their particular "take" on religion is the best or only true one.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am happy to say that we welcome people of a variety of different theological perspectives, or none, and don't feel the need to make others feel wrong when they are living lives of integrity and compassion. That does not mean that we always agree with each other, but we have a covenant to treat all people with dignity and respect. That is probably why we have a number of interfaith couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, who find our church a comfortable and exciting place to be.

So I would not be interested in becoming a member of the clergy in Tristan da Cunha. Things would probably be just a little too calm there for me. I would miss the lively exchanges that are so much a part of our congregation. But it might not be a bad place for a vacation.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


It's not the place for me.

I visited Central California after living in L.A. for many years and I found myself griping about slow drivers as I drove a snail's pace through my hometown. I had nowhere urgent to be, mind you, I was just used to moving fast to get wherever I was going. I'd been converted to Southern California speed, and it was one with which I've grown accustomed. Despite the fact that everything costs me more here, I know that what I need, I can get; what I want to experience, is available; and there are enough people here to keep me company in our mutually frenetic pace.

As I consider a remote locale like Tristan da Cunha, I don't imagine myself getting closer to God and nature. I like nature and I love God, but I can find nature in my own backyard and I'm more mindful of God in the masses than in places where all I can do is contemplate my navel and occasionally run into a neighbor. Maybe my perception is off, but with a population as small as I know exists there, I'm guessing the church congregation would be far smaller.

Throw in the volcano, and I can't say I'd feel especially safe there, let alone productive, with the years I hope to have and use for the Lord. Sure, the people there need spiritual direction, but it would be a ministry of a special kind, with a pastor of special temperament. If the whole population comprised the church and life there afforded some measure of spiritual outreach, then maybe it would seem more productive, but it might be better if the island were deserted and the population joined the civilized world. My feelings.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


I have great respect and admiration for men and women of the clergy who take on difficult assignments in faraway locales, especially when they are raising a family and have young children. The fact is that geography does not determine whether an individual will need more or less religious assistance; everybody needs some spiritual guidance and thrives on positive religious inspiration. Nobody would argue that just because someone does not live in a major city like Los Angeles, London or Buenos Aires, they are less deserving of spiritual support.

That said, living and preaching one's faith in the far reaches of the planet is definitely not for everyone. It takes a certain kind of individual who is able — and willing — to withstand the challenging feelings of loneliness and solitude that can overwhelm even the strongest among us. Taking up a spiritual post in these remote locations is definitely not for the faint of heart.

As a student rabbi, I spent several summers traveling to distant areas of the world visiting and studying with Jewish people who lived well outside established Jewish communities. I recall once visiting an out-of-the-way village in Jamaica and seeing the absolute joy and elation on the face of the one Jewish person who lived in that village, removed from civilization. He had felt alone and estranged from the religion of his ancestors.

I imagine it is moments like this one that make the difficult task of serving in remote ministries worthwhile.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center


It came in the mail about a week ago, a brochure full of beautiful seascapes from a place I never heard of, Tristan da Cunha. They were advertising for a Protestant minister for a small parish, and were offering a lovely vicarage with a garden and sea vistas.

This seemed to be an invitation to live out a pastor's dream in paradise-like surroundings. How taxing could it be to keep up with 150 church members? Due to the small population, there are only seven surnames to learn on the whole island. I pictured myself spending long, leisurely days on the beach, with plenty of time to focus on my writing.

I'm glad I decided to investigate further. Turns out the island is largely uninhabitable, with only one "town," Edinburgh, also known as "the settlement." Having relatives visit would be difficult as the only accessibility is by ship, and there are only eight or nine ships a year that put into port. Recreational activities are limited to fishing, walking, a few holes of golf, or rockhopper penguin watching, if you're into that sort of thing. Temperatures are mild, mostly in the 60s, but there's a lot of rain, at least one-half to two-thirds of the days each month.

Worse yet, downtown Edinburgh consists of a few shops, a museum, Prince Philip Hall, which serves meals on an erratic schedule, and the Albatross Bar, the only pub. There are two television channels, both from the British military forces, so I can just imagine what that programming is like. There is Internet access, but connections are frequently disrupted.

No, I don't think Tristan da Cunha is for me. I mean, where would I get my Chinese food or kimchi? And how could I survive without watching Lakers games?

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


When I was a child my mother used to be soloist with her church choir. There was a chorus of a song that began: “There are days I’d like to be all alone with Christ my Lord.” Pastoring, with its demands of leadership, meeting with boards, preparing sermons, and other duties, is a very social job. And it takes time to prepare to execute each of those duties. A friend of mine once shared: “Being a pastor is like having homework every day for the rest of your life.”

There are indeed days when being in an island paradise where the breeze is wafting over the island, and the way of life is far different from that of a world class city seems very appealing. Even Jesus stole away from time to time from his Disciples to meditate and pray. But he came back to them. And together he and his disciples interacted with diverse peoples.

The vicarage at Tristan da Cunha calls for a priest that can play the organ and teach school. I have done all of those things. What I would miss the most in a place like Tristan da Cunha is hearing other people play the organ, other people preach and minister, and other people teach. Tristan da Cunha might be a great place to teach people to be ministers, teachers and musicians. Even in an isolated place like Tristan da Cunha, seeking out, fostering, and celebrating the diverse gifts that people display when encouraged, might be a way of building a healthy happy community rather than trying to keep things the same way all of the time, and inadvertently giving birth to people who feel led to act out on the society. Usually this seems to come from people who are living in tension with the way things are and the urges they feel inside. They feel isolated and desperate.  If I lived in a place like Tristan da Cunha, I would want its people to see and feel how unique they were in their paradise, and how equally connected they are to the rest of God’s world.

The Rev. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


This posting is not for me, but I enjoy imagining myself tottering there in 2048 for a good view of a solar eclipse, with totality estimated to last 2 1/2 minutes.

Serious or not, this In Theory topic is timely.

Reading up on Tristan da Cunha made me wonder why such a remote and inconvenient settlement, no longer needed as a refueling stop for their ships, is still supported by the United Kingdom.

Because of the recent death of Dame Margaret Thatcher the answer to my own question came quickly.  One of her acts as either the Iron Lady or Wicked Witch, depending on your view, was to send her Navy to defend and preserve for the UK the Falkland Islands, which like Tristan da Cunha are a tiny, symbolic remnant of their imperial past.

Roberta Medford


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