MicSem Publications

Serving the Poor in Micronesia: One Approach

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1987 Religion

"An unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates is reputed to have said. But an unexamined life is precisely what too many of our island people are content to endure. Years ago at a major planning meeting for the diocese, we determined that one of our top priorities would be to assist our Micronesian people in coming to a deeper awareness of what was going on around them. "Conscientization" was the word that had then become the rage, although too often this was diluted in practice so that it became merely more instruction. The original concept is as essential to our pastoral work today as it was then, and it remains as important a goal of church efforts as ever.

In islands such as these, with their natural abundance of food crops, it is not easy to determine just who the "poor" are. We don't have the grinding poverty, the homeless scavengers, and the slum-dwellers that are common sights in most of the nations of Southeast Asia. Neither do we have the political repression at the hands of a military junta or oligarchy that characterizes many other countries in the Third World – at least not yet. There are no threats of civil war, no guerrillas in the mountains; and no real risk of a coup. But the islands are not pure paradise; we have malnutrition and a host of health problems, as well as ricelines following periodic typhoons and droughts. The educational standards in the school system leave a good deal to be desired, and of course there are never enough jobs to go around. So who in Micronesia today are the "poor" to whom we Jesuits are to show preferential love? In my twenty years here I've made enough parish visits to know that some people live much closer to the margin than others. There are the families that don't own an airport to keep the water for coffee hot and can only offer the visiting priest a drinking coconut. They are the ones who have no supply of ship biscuits or ramen to set before a guest, but are reluctant to invite him to eat pounded breadfruit for fear that he will find it distasteful. I also know that, however unappetizing the food may be, these are the families that leave me with a warm glow afterwards and the satisfying feeling that this is where I was meant to be. But as the glow fades, I ask myself what besides my sacramental repertoire I can possibly bring these good people. Perhaps a consoling word and a short prayer is enough, but I would like to think it was possible to embody the word of love that we are to speak in some other way-something that will serve as a convincing sign of our commitment to help them grow in life and love. Wasn't it for reasons like this that the early Jesuits founded homes for wayward girls, hospices and schools?

The real poor in Micronesia today are probably not so much the breadfruit or taro eaters, or those without a stove and outboard engine of their own. The real poor, it seems to me, are those who feel like strangers in their own land. They are those who are lost in the sea of changes that have swept over their islands and are without the familiar landmarks to steer by. They are those who were raised in a cultural milieu that is being transformed in ways they do not comprehend, and their number is legion. They are puzzled at the passing of the old ways and do not fully understand the new ways that are fast gaining acceptance. They wonder why so many of their children leave for the US never to return, why there are suicides in such numbers in recent years, why the young don't go to church, and why drunken violence is so common. It might be stretching things a bit to call them victims of oppression or injustice, but they certainly suffer because of their ignorance at what is happening to them.

The schools in Micronesia, as fine as they are, don't respond to this sort of poverty. They do an excellent job of developing young minds and teaching basic skills, but they cannot be expected to assist adults in reflecting on the inner workings of their society so that they can understand cultural change and gain some control over it. Schools can perhaps help by developing the critical faculties in that relatively small percentage of the population that make up their student body, but the main brunt of this work must be carried on outside the classroom in a variety of settings, as occasion presents itself. The Micronesian Seminar, the arm of the diocese that was formed fifteen years ago partly to assume responsibility for conscientization, is not in itself equal to the task, for it does not and cannot reach people in their villages. The work of conscientization, all of us recognized many years ago at our big planning meeting, must be carried on by all of us in the mission if it is to be done at all. With the people in these islands pleading to be given help in understanding the social change that is reshaping their lives, what are we to do? Can we, to paraphrase and adapt the often- quoted passage in James 2, simply give them a blessing and send them on their way admonishing them to trust that God will provide? On the contrary, we have repeatedly affirmed in pastoral planning sessions that we must commit what resources we have to helping them deepen their understanding of who they are and what is happening to them.

In years past some of our parish centers have worked with select groups, usually adults but sometimes also youth, in training sessions that might last from a few days to a couple of weeks. This training focused on a particular theme related to their lives-often not an explicitly religious one-and was aimed at preparing them to conduct similar sessions in the villages and smaller islands. In groups of four or five, these "mobile teams" would visit more remote places and raise questions through a variety of different techniques-case studies, role-playing, mini-dramas-that would, it was hoped, help people understand facets of the question that they may not have reflected upon before. Besides furthering the work of conscientization, these mobile teams served as excellent proving grounds for those considering other church ministries.

Mobile teams have perhaps had their day in this mission. The same seems to be true of the Micronesian-wide conferences that once drew an array of church, government and business leaders to discuss key issues in the development of what was then a single island territory. The week-long conferences were heady affairs that made their mark at the time, but with the onset of self-government and the fragmentation of the territory into four separate political units, it became far more difficult to summon such conferences. And so began the search for new formats to replace the old.

One technique that has proved very successful over the years has been the radio. Even if purists would object to using the word "conscientization" to describe what is being done through church-produced radio programs, the truth is that these have been a valuable means of helping people to reflect on their life in its myriad dimensions. The most popular of the programs are half-hour dramas studded with stock figures such as the nagging housewife, the spoiled child, the drunken young father, and the hard-to-budge teenage son. Around such personalities are woven soap opera-like stories that illustrate-and in their own way, analyze – many of the tensions in modern island life. The programs touch topics like child neglect, displacement of negative feelings, the changing Micronesian family, and the impact of education on old cultural institutions. The weekly church program has become so popular in Truk that it is played twice daily six days a week, and the actors are frequently called by their fictional name during chance encounters in restaurants or coffee shops. In a land where radio still reigns despite the growing popularity of video cassettes, these programs are probably the most effective way of reaching great numbers of people. Four of the five island groups in the diocese are now producing radio programs as part of their ministry. At times the ambiguity of these programs draws fire from critics who like their messages straightforward. "Tell us what's right and what's wrong," one person complained, "and don't leave us to figure the meaning out on our own." Yet clear and pat answers is just what the programs seek to avoid, for they aim instead at prodding people to reflect and to question and to make judgments for themselves. To this extent, the media program as operative today in Micronesia can be regarded as the legitimate offspring of the conscientization furor in the 1970s. We are looking forward to the day when, in a combination of the new and the old, a small team brings the radio tapes to villages where they may be used as openers for discussion on the issues that lie closest to the heart of the people. Or possibly by that time we'll be arriving with VCR and monitor in hand to allow people to view, rather than hear, the discussion-starter.

Another project, begun two years ago by the Micronesian Seminar to replace the yearly conferences, is the Reflection Weekend. We felt that somehow or other we had to continue reaching the more educated-the power brokers, the movers and shakers-even after it became apparent that the day of the major conference on key developmental issues was past. If leaders would no longer come to us to attend such a conference, perhaps we should consider going to them. Thus, we arranged to hold a two-day reflection program on some issue of people's own choosing in each of the major island groups. Any and all who speak English, whether Catholic or not, are invited to participate. The Reflection Weekend is billed as an opportunity to spend a Saturday and half a Sunday each year with as many as 50 or 60 others exploring a social issue in the light of the Gospel. As in the radio programs, there are no ready-made answers from the two of us (Fr. Joe Cavanagh and myself) who chair the sessions. There are only what we hope are further searching questions and periodic attempts to summarize, all in the interest of probing into the depths of the problem so that participants may discover the resources that they possess and gain the confidence to analyze such problems on their own.

Meanwhile, some of us carry on research on social issues that we hope will aid Micronesians in fathoming the extent and the effects of the cultural change that has swept these is lands. Fr. Bill McGarry, now back on Pohnpei after a six-year stint as President of the JCEA, is currently working on a study of value changes on that island. These value shifts both reflect and contribute to fundamental changes in some of the key institutions in that society: the title system, the use and sale of land, and the workings of the Pohnpeian family. My own work on the suicide epidemic in Truk is beginning to point to a restructuring of the Trukese family as one of the major underlying causes. The lineage system, with its broad distribution of authority over the young, has given way to the autonomy of each household in the lineage. This means that today the father as head of the household must manage his own affairs and raise his own children without the support that he enjoyed in the past. Authority over the children is now consolidated in the parents to a hitherto unknown degree. This not only increases enormously the likelihood of a serious buildup of tension between parents and children, but it also denies children the access they would have formerly had to aunts and uncles and other older lineage mates to act as mediators or buffers. Our suspicion is that something similar is happening in other parts of Micronesia to account for high suicide rates, and an attempt is already being made to extend this research to other islands.

Everywhere one looks, traces of the structural changes in the shape of the Micronesian family surface. Studies on child abuse and runaway youth completed a year or two ago indicate that remarriage is presenting problems that were unknown before. The same can be said of illegitimate births, even though in the past children born out of wedlock always had a secure home in the bosom of the lineage. The old multi-parent family has in most parts of Micronesia collapsed into a two-parent, and sometimes even into a single-parent family. But the changes in the family go beyond this. The traditional Micronesian family was once a balanced system that is often still compared by people to the sailing canoe with its hull and the outrigger that served as a counterweight. The hull represented the mother's lineage while the outrigger symbolized the father and his role in the nuclear family. With the weight of authority shifting to the outrigger, as it has today, the canoe is in danger of capsizing.

We will soon be beginning a study on psychosis, a problem that seems to have grown rapidly among the young in recent years. The preliminary data already collected shows a much higher incidence of mental illness among males than females. Can this be explained by some of the same factors that account for the very high rate of suicide and other forms of alienation among young men? Are there features in the social environment, especially in this period of rapid change, that produce such tension that they are pushing many more youth over the precipice into clinical psychosis? If mental illness were merely a matter of genes and heredity, we would expect rates to be steady over time and equally distributed between the sexes. Yet neither is true. Perhaps this area of research, like so many of the others, will point to disruption in the family as the key factor.

Social research on problems like these is only the beginning of our church work in Micronesia. For as we proceed through these studies, we invite our people to reflect and learn with us at every step along the way. Projects of this kind open whole new areas that can be explored in radio dramas or in village education sessions-to say nothing of workshops and sermon-all to the end that people may be better capable of understanding and coping with the transformations that the 20th century has worked on their societies. If, through any of this, they are empowered, more confident in themselves and their own resources to heal the ailments of their community, then perhaps we have helped the "poor" in some small way after all. In that case possibly the saving love that Christ brings is just a bit more real to our people.