TRINIDADIAN RC priest Collin Jackson has vowed not to abandon his flock in St Vincent, even in the face of the threat of La Soufriere volcano, which continues to erupt and cause devastation throughout the island.
Jackson, born in Sangre Grande, has been in St Vincent for almost two years and is now in charge of the St John the Evangelist Parish in Mesopotamia, in the southeast of the island. He was ordained a priest last August.
A history and religious education teacher at St Martin's Secondary in Kingstown, Jackson has put down roots on the island, which he described as "absolutely gorgeous."
Now, however, it's almost unrecognisable. Near the volcano, in the red zone, the land has been scorched by pyroclastic flow, destroying everything its path. In the relatively safer orange and green zones, St Vincent is masked by thick layers of ash, ruining vegetation, and leaving even its capital, 20 kolometres south of the volcano, looking like a town in an old Western movie.
But Jackson said, "You can't really see it because of the dust, but St Vincent is an absolutely gorgeous place. You get to go down to the Grenadines and go to Tobago Keys – wow. I do believe Tobago Keys is a piece of heaven that fell down. It's just gorgeous."
The 39-year-old said it was not a difficult decision to migrate to St Vincent, as he had a close relationship with its bishop, Gerard County, also a Trinidadian.
"The other reason is that the Vincentian people are really warm, and I felt I could do ministry here with them. So I felt this was where God was calling me to be. So I just stayed put."
The volcanic eruptions have not shaken his faith; he believes fate has put him there.
He said some of his relatives and friends in Trinidad have begged him to return to safety at home, but he refused.
"Mummy and Daddy understand, but I have children that I would have worked with. One young man isn't speaking to me because he said, 'Come home,' and I said, 'I cannot abandon the people that God (gave me).'"
He added, "When I came here, they accepted me with open arms. For me to run out now is ridiculous – just the thought of it.
"But people are worried and because of this, they want to send aid, which is great."
Jackson acknowledged the enormity of the task, which he said sometimes feels overwhelming.
There are over 3,000 people at almost 100 shelters around the island. Red Cross personnel from TT arrived on Tuesday to aid their local counterparts on the ground to help maintain "dignity and respect" to women, children, and other inhabitants.
Jackson said, "There are people in shelters who ran out with just the clothes on their backs. I saw this on news and never understood until a woman stood in front of me saying, 'Father, I have nothing.'
"I was thinking, provide food, but, no, you have to find clothes, medicine, like (blood) pressure pills.
"I'm not so much afraid because of the volcano, I feel somewhat inadequate for the task of co-ordinating all of these things."
The senior priest in the parish, Msgr Mike, helps tremendously, he said, and parishioners have opened their purses to buy diapers and other items.
Jackson said he feels emotionally drained by the destruction in Georgetown, at the base of the volcano.
"One of the places I go to when I'm under a little stress and want to cool down is Georgetown. It is the nice mix of urban and rural. I would go down there and the Redemptorist Fathers who run that parish are very hospitable.
"Every year we take students up to volcano for a hike. I never made it up to the top, it's quite a walk. You develop an attachment to the place. Just looking at the destruction and devastation, it's moving emotionally."
Jackson said after the volcano erupted last week, he and some other priests drove up to the volcano.
"We wanted to see," he said. "People had left, the place was like a ghost town and ash was falling like rain. We then heard the volcano rumble for the first time, and I ran outside to take pictures – not using common sense. It then rumbled again. By the third rumble, one of the priests said, 'Let's get out of here.'
LEAVE THE RED ZONE
"By the time we got to the car, it was covered with ash. We drove just outside of Georgetown, where there is a hill, and we saw the size of the plume and the amount of ash. We're accustomed using masks because of coronavirus, but normally when it's just three of us we would take out the mask, because we also live together – but we couldn't breathe properly."
He said when he returned home to Mesopotamia, at the edge of the green zone, and got up Saturday morning, outside was white like snow.
"People were calling, asking, 'Father, are you okay?' But I was concerned for them."
Jackson echoed calls by St Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves for people still in the red zone to get out.
"There comes a point where common sense kicks in. Your life is in danger. Material things could be replaced. I look at the pyroclastic flow and you realise you can't stay here. You need to leave.
"Additionally, you're putting other people's lives in danger. Because when things get really dangerous, the Government has to send people to help and if they don't, the Government gets blamed. If someone dies, who is to blame? You have to answer for that, because you were asked to leave over and over again. So get out."
Jackson said there is much for Christians to learn from this natural disaster.
"Most of the islands in the Caribbean are volcanic. Volcanoes were responsible for our existence. Mother Earth will do what Mother Earth needs to do. This is part of Mother Nature's processes for herself. It erupted because the pressure built up.
"How do we process this as Christians? The message is that we have to take care of each other. The world – and St Vincent is no exemption – we have become very insular, and self-concerned: 'What do I need for me?'
"Well, we are forced now to open our homes and shelters and have people come live with us who have nothing to provide. They can't pay us.
"The test of our Christianity is to show that we understand what Jesus is saying. The idea that God just gives and gives and gives is at least not a Catholic idea. How can we take care of each other and show our faith in this time?"