From the moment I arrived on the Marshall Islands, there was a sigh of relief. It was just good to be someplace different, someplace new. For the first time in my life, I was “white” as the Marshallese are very dark. I had a mix of friends in California of all types of races but still had tried to keep track of the fact that I was Mexican. Here the white people would see me as brown and the brown people would see me as white.
We were greeted in the school gym and were given these wreaths to wear and drank milk right from the coconut. Out every window in my small one bedroom apartment, you could see the ocean. Walking out there was a porch which I eventually installed a hammock in to just sit and watch the sea pound and feel the sea breeze. On clear nights, the moon was glorious and on moonless nights the stars sang for joy. Everyone should get the chance to live in at least two different cultures in the world and this was the fourth country I’d gotten to live in and I was grateful. Here was a place not too different from Mexico, little corner stores everywhere. There were some unique part of the cultures, taxis were more like buses where you hopped on and off anywhere for just 50 cents. It was a rock island so only four things grew on it: bananas, pandanas, coconuts and breadfruit. Everything else had to be imported so grocery shopping for us westerners was very expensive. We bought a pineapple our first time grocery shopping, also the last time since it was $12 and our salaries were $400 a piece.
The Marshallese lived in houses made up essentially of four wooden walls on a dirt floor. All of their furniture were comprised of strategically placed mats. Different ones were for different purposes, one was the table, one was the bed. The missionaries were not nearly as efficient and had regular furniture. We had a small table, a couch and a bed. The infant mortality was really high and so the biggest birthday celebration was the Cayman (Kay-man) which occurred when a child was 1 year old. It was a huge party that all friends and family were invited to. While I tried to participate in all the cultural aspects of it, I had to pass up the traditional eating of the turtle (and turtle head). Funerals lasted a week and the body was kept in the living room in an airproof casket (the humidity in the Marshall Islands is almost always 80-100%; I used to make a crack that I didn’t understand 100% humidity, shouldn’t you then be underwater?). The funeral process was such that people came by in small groups. The most important person in the group gave a small speech (in our groups when I went with my students, it was usually me), the family gave a small speech saying thank you and then everyone got in a line and deposited their gift in the glass immediately above the dead person’s face. I’d been to one person’s funeral by choice in that entire time and with everyone on the island knowing everyone else, I was doing this regularly. Looking that often into a dead person’s face both freaked me out and gave me my first real sense of my own mortality. At both the cayman and the funeral, the gift from everyone was the same: a dollar or two per person or for the really poor, a small bar of soap.
The Marshallese also had a fairly casual attitude towards sex and quite a bit of the islands practiced wife swapping or sleeping around. It wasn’t completely accepted but the mores were far more relaxed than they were in the states. The school secretary, part of the Adventist denomination, had children fairly close in age from various fathers. This was incredibly common. Far too many of the students I would teach over my time there would take out time for the first year of their kids’ lives. However, despite this attitude about it all, there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy where no one ever talked about sex.
There was not a single doctor on the Island so it wasn’t a place you wanted to get sick. There were at any given time four interns from a college in Hawaii but again, not a place where you’d want to be ill. The jail was a place that was more like camp with only two or three people in the entire country behind bars. Many of the prisoners were released for the weekend and would have to check back in during the week because frankly there was no place to go and no one was all too worried about it.
While I was most focused on “paying penance,” I’d left open a window that maybe, just maybe, this was a place for solutions. Ideally I would serve my time here and then go back to the real world unencumbered and I’d hoped feeling absolved. But the glory of creation made me hear the echoes of the work of God resonating in the sky and the people and somewhere in the chambers of a soul I’d forgotten I had. I began to settle down, to calm down, to let some, though very little, of the anger subside. A few weeks into it, I cut my hair and regained my identity. For the first time in weeks, I began to again pray, sometimes on the rocks overlooking the ocean, sometimes on my roof while absorbing the sunrise and the sunset, sometimes on my knees in our one bedroom apartment. Often…on my knees…by myself, apologizing and begging forgiveness, hoping against hope, dreaming my own life would have its own sunrise. But just as quickly and if not more powerfully, I’d led cynicism sink in. I’d remember the people who worked so hard at hurting me again failing to notice that most of those efforts had gone on without consequence. I would also remember that it felt like God had not been around through most of that and that the theology majors and the pastor types had gone with him, all too good to be around sinners. And then I would stand up and walk away from those knees and that prayer.
Shannon and I also started dealing with our choices and their repercussions. We had done plenty of this at PUC but the environment was toxic for our healing and there was the distraction I had made of Natalie. We had long conversations about what had happened and often these would grow angry and there would be plenty of yelling, some so passionate that any bystander might have guessed we were inches from blows and they might have been right. As often as not, I would cowardly say some mean complaint and make her be the one who had allowed me to sink into this and storm out of the place and find someone else to talk to, something else to do. We would pick it up again. This is not to say that we didn’t have good days, most of them in fact were. It was simply that the bad days came with conviction. Eventually, we discussed all that had happened and at the end we forgave each other but while it has been years obviously we haven’t forgotten. To say that it doesn’t affect our relationship to this day would be naïve, but its stopped overwhelming our relationship; now it’s an old injury that acts up on cold days and is irrelevant most days.
We asked some pointed questions of each other. Many people had said that they could never imagine Shannon being a pastor’s wife, one of them even less than subtly suggesting that perhaps Shannon had sabotaged all this. She was honest with the fact that she didn’t think she was completely suited for it and that her own belief system had never been quite as steadfast as mine. She added that she wasn’t sure I was suited for it. She stated that she wasn’t so sure that I was a good speaker because I was passionate about God but just because I had a flare for being a performer. We talked about never having kids because our relationship had owned so much drama. She asked if I preferred her or Natalie and if that would have been true even if I had the choice from the starting gate if you will. We even talked about those uncomfortable sex details and came to grips with the fact that neither of us now, perhaps ever, agreed with how big of a deal people made of sex in their lives. (Certainly, the Marshallese style of constantly having it and not ever discussing it was not healthy and perhaps the population there and everywhere would be better served with some conversations about the consequences and biological possibility.) And slowly, intellectually, emotionally, perhaps in our own detached spiritual way, we fell in love again. It was more guarded, more hurt but it was more candid as well, more grown up.
I was teaching religion and Spanish and she was teaching English. I was teaching religion with all the conviction I’d always shared God’s word with, perhaps with more so, overbalancing my doubts. I was preaching at the church on occasion, exalting God’s grace and his endless effort to communicate with us even going as far as to shave my head once in the middle of a sermon to illustrate what the prophet Ezekiel did. But I was tired and I was broken and I wasn’t falling in love with God again nearly as easily, if hardly at all. I’d failed Him and in my perspective, He’d returned the favor. All my questions about the universe, the Bible, the church were now the focus instead of the obstacle to the focus. It was like when you break up with someone. They had the same quirks that they did when you loved them, but now their quirks were the reason you broke up with them; and then became the reason you couldn’t stand them. They hadn’t changed and perhaps neither had you, but the relationship has changed and the perspective you had on each other had because of it. Like I had been with Shannon, I was back and forth on whether or not it was best that this relationship continue and at that point the pendulum could have gone either way.