Monday, 2 November 2009


We continued with our visit to the South East District on Friday when we travelled to the Malta circuit. The church here is a local ecumenical partnership between the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church in Britain and on Saturday morning we were taken by the current Church of Scotland minister, Rev Doug McRoberts, to meet Malta’s Catholic Archbishop Paul Cremona.

Malta is proud of its long Christian heritage, stretching back to the time St Paul was shipwrecked on the island. Over 95% of people in Malta would regard themselves as Catholic and just over 50% still attend Mass regularly, although the Archbishop acknowledged that, as with other countries, this percentage is falling and the Church has to re-evaluate how it responds to the challenge of an increasingly secular society. He was clear that the Catholic Church in Malta needed to embrace modern technology to a greater extent and to place a greater emphasis on Christian formation and education in order to remain relevant to younger people.

We were taken by church members David Smith and Paul Slater to Dar Tereza Spinelli, a home for homeless women and their children, some of whom are fleeing domestic violence. There can be between 10-20 women living in the home at any one time, usually for a few months until they can be helped to find rented accommodation of their own. Many living here are quite vulnerable and the support offered by the staff of the home is vitally important in helping them regain their confidence and independence. The church supports the home with regular supplies of food donated by members of the congregation.

The church is also involved in work with men and women living in refuge centres on the island. Led by the dedicated work of church member Frank Wilmont, pastoral and practical support is offered to those who arrived in Malta when they were picked up from boats between Libya and Italy. Many are from Somalia, a few from Sudan and Eritrea and a smaller number from West Africa. The Marsa Open Centre near the port in Valletta, is home for 600 men and I spoke to men from Somalia who had been living there for 4 years. Most survive on small state payments with only limited opportunities for casual work. Although a small number have been allowed to travel to America, the majority are unable to leave the island and have had no contact with their families in Somalia since fleeing that war-torn country.

The Marsa Centre has received recent investment both from the Maltese government and agencies abroad which has led to improved cooking, washing and accommodation facilities and a very popular internet café. Church members visit regularly, offering pastoral support, teaching English classes and even challenging residents to games of chess, which appeared very popular.

A few miles away, near the airport, is a much more basic camp comprised of a large number of tents. It is another open camp, the majority of the 600 men living here having previously spent months in the nearby closed detention centre.Again the majority are from Somalia but we talked to Ernest and Emmanuel from Nigeria. Ernest told us how he was one of only 17 out of 31 who survived an attempted boat crossing from Libya 15 months ago. An Italian patrol boat lowered a ladder on to the small boat which caused it to capsize. 14 people drowned. After being kept quiet for a year, this incident is now the centre of much media attention.

Ernest was an elder in a Pentecostal church in Nigeria that was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists, the scars on his chest bearing testament to these traumatic events. He fled when his life was in danger. He fears to return to Nigeria and simply wants to use his skills as an electrician but he is unable to leave Malta and has to rely on the limited amount of casual work as he can get it to survive. However despite his adversity his faith remains strong.

Both men, together with a few others from the camp are now attending St Andrew’s Scots Church in the centre of Valletta each Sunday as well as joining the men’s fellowship meeting during the week. St Andrew’s is a cosmopolitan church with over 20 different nationalities from a variety of church backgrounds making up the congregation.

On Saturday evening members of the congregation gathered in the church and I led a session on Men and the Church. We had a lively discussion about possible reasons that acted as barriers to some men and young people in general from engaging with the Church. We concluded the evening by sharing a lovely meal together in the local pasta restaurant, something that would undoubtedly attract many men to come to church meetings if repeated on a regular basis.

On Sunday morning we returned to the church where I led the morning worship. I was able to bring greetings to the members of St Andrew’s, the most southerly Methodist Church in the British Methodist Connexion, from Haroldswick in the Shetland Islands, the most northerly Methodist Church in Britain. It has been a privilege to visit both churches in the last 3 months.

Following the service there was time to look around this historic city and then to head off to the other side of the island with our generous hosts Peter and Elizabeth Lloyd, and their friendly dog Rory, for a walk along the coast. Dotted along the coast are numerous small shooting hides. Shooting migrating birds has been a popular activity in Malta, but now European Union laws are starting to restrict this, and the once unusual sound of wild bird song can now be heard on the island again.

Our day concluded with a pleasant meal with church minister Doug McRoberts and his wife Lesley in the so-called silent city of Medina, the historic former capital of Malta in to which only a very limited number of cars are now allowed to enter.

Today, before we left to return to England, we walked to nearby Mosta to see the impressive St Mary’s Church. In 1942, when Malta was one of the most bombed places on earth, 3 bombs fell on to the church. Two bombs bounced off the large dome and the third fell straight through, hitting the interior wall twice and then rolled across the floor during a crowded service without exploding. Members of the congregation then bravely carried the bomb out in to the square. A replica of the bomb can now be found on display in the church.

We’ve been warmly welcomed and very well looked after during our brief visit to this fascinating island and we leave the South East District, and Gibraltar and Malta particularly, inspired by the generosity, work and witness of both church communities.

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