Thursday, 3 October 2013

Volunteering on Iona – a welcoming community

You have 2 hours and a half till you’re back to work. You’re not obliged to do anything in this time. You may sleep. You may go for a walk. You may go for a cream tea at St Columba’s Hotel. You may read. You may join the guests in their sessions. You may play cards with your friends.... You bump into a fellow volunteer who invites you to join a group of them heading over to Port Bann to swim (possibly) and just hang out on the beach. Why not? You grab your raincoat – just in case – and off you go, hands empty, but the air filled with conversation and laughter.

Spontaneity, freedom, and community characterise Iona. The spontaneity simply comes from living so much in the present moving from Saturday night welcome service, to Monday-night-ceilidh, to Tuesday’s pilgrimage, to Tuesday-night-healing-service, to the goodbye-mexican-wave as guests leave on Friday morning. But the time in between is used as you yourselves need and determine. By freedom, I don’t necessarily mean the freedom to do whatever you like – you are working according to a timetable after all – but a true freedom to be who God has made you to be. No living up to others’ ideals, or even your own ideals. But freedom, in its truest form. By community, I refer to the practical inclusion, support and love, but also to the common path we walk during our time on the island. There’s a unity of vision and an instant sharing of experiences and life. Community is built remarkably quickly as a new group of guests arrive and leave each week, but there’s always a sense of joining something far larger, something that has lasted decades and which is constantly evolving with the people that leave and join. “We have come from many places for a little while”.

The Isle of Iona is home to only about 130 residents, but with 100+ guests per week, up to 30 volunteers at any given time, and about 20 resident staff working at the two centres used by the Iona Community - the Abbey and the Macleod Centre - and the hundreds of touristy visitors that explore the island each day, the village becomes a hub of life. Iona Community members are dispersed across the whole world, although the offices are based in Glasgow (

The pilgrimage
I was only on Iona for six weeks, the shortest stretch of time one can volunteer for, working on the housekeeping team in the Macleod Centre. My working days consisted mainly of meal set-up (all except the food itself), clearing/washing up at the end of each meal, a constant stream of laundry ranging from bedsheets to towels to volunteers’ clothing, training guests in their chores during their stay, and on turnover days, cleaning the centre from top to bottom. Days off often involved trips off the island – once to the puffin island of Staffa, twice for walks/hikes around the Isle of Mull, once to Oban on mainland Scotland – or adventures around the island, joining the guests for the weekly pilgrimage or making my own way around. A short walk to the North End or elsewhere on the island could take you to what feels like the most secluded spot in the world. I rediscovered the joy of reading fiction!

 The vision for the two centres is to build a brand new community,of staff, volunteers and guests, each week. This involves worshipping together at the daily morning and evening services, eating together, sharing in daily chores or tasks, and making that conscious effort to get to know one another.  Community happens quickly, with a core  continuity of people each week, and its yet inherently different each week, due to the different combination of people engaging in it. It’s a dynamic, evolving phenomenon which brings so much joy and challenge to everyone who is part  of it. All are invited and welcomed to join!

Elinor Rhys