I have always been edge, always willing to engage in fight or a discussion. This has made me a great advocate for many causes and it has been one of my best qualities at certain times but when I’m in the wrong it quickly becomes one of my worst. I had made a boogey man out of the Adventist church and my won failures within it. As a pastor at a Hispanic church, I had gone out of my way to espouse ideas and behaviors that I thought were silly at best just to go along and get along.
In the Marshall Islands, I refused to do this. Shannon, Leandro, and I had joined the national band. A government grant had brought a director from Korea who barely spoke English and who didn’t speak Marsahllese. To his credit, he had taken kids who had barely seen any of these instruments and by practicing them 3-5 hours almost everyday of the week had really built them up. With the exception of the three of us, all of them were Marshallese teenagers. Leandro had picked up the tuba for them, I was playing the trombone and Shannon was playing the marimba. We were performing at various events throughout the community including at the capital and I even got to meet the country’s president (while it was very cool, this was not difficult to accomplish for anyone). Controversy arose when the students were going to march on Marshallese independence day which the year we were there happened to be on a Sabbath. The principal and his wife had encouraged me, if not directed me to not play in it to not offend Sabbath sensibilities. Shannon and I blatantly disregarded it and while there were no real consequences, it was a way that I was saying, this is who I am and I’m not bending to placate illogical positions since the Sabbath and celebrating a country’s birthday were not exclusive to me. There would be a few more positions like this. That year the Passion of the Christ came out and while the Adventist tradition of staying away from movie theaters had carried on there, I not only went but organized a group to go. I wasn’t sure I was going back or if I was going away from all of this but in either direction, it made me increasingly confrontational.
I held the staff to very high standards. I didn’t consider the fact that all of these 19-20 year old kids had already left home and country to go literally half way around the world to volunteer to teach kids whose education would likely not benefit them much anyway. No, I wanted them to interact with the community more and actively reprimanded them for failing to do so. They spent a huge percentage of their time after work and on the weekends watching movies in their rooms. There was a whole other country out there, a whole other people and they were failing to get to know them. By and large most of them made very few local friends. Was this something they could have improved on? Certainly. Was it my place to encourage them to do so? Perhaps. Was it fair for someone who was essentially banished out there to be reprimanding them about this as often as I was? Absolutely not.
I did so however and I do so regularly. The truth was that more than their fair share had started dating or at least sleeping together. A few of them were taking in alcohol and other substances while they were missionaries. These behaviors frankly didn’t bother me at all but their constant watching of movies while living in another country, their constant living behind the fenced in compound was shameful. I held God and faith and church responsible and I’m not sure that was entirely incorrect. While one could argue that in any given organization there are always going to be bad people and good people, its unfair to judge the organization by those people. I would contend that if almost everyone who works at a company is racist, that company is racist for all practical purposes. If the majority everyone who goes to an organization is fat, then that’s an overweight organization. They were good kids though. Jared, Farace, Melanie, Autumn, Rordy, Brian; they all meant well. In fact none of them argued with me when I was encouraging them to pursue the culture harder. They were just shy or sometimes just exhausted by taking on a really hard job and just wanted to relax. My nagging was not an effective way to get them to change. In fact when I simply invited them to come with me, while it was still a minority, a fair share of them usually accompanied me.
It’s true that I didn’t give them enough credit for having come over here and dismissed it to easily as people who were trying to pad their resume or surf for a year (shows I had some growing up to do that these didn’t seem like legitimate reasons) but it was then that I started to decide that I would cast my lot with humanity in its messiness rather than faith in its messiness. I became better friends with both the Marshallese and with other volunteers to other organizations from other countries. Interestingly enough many of the non church goers were the ones working hardest at being part of the community. This was not entirely true; I became fairly close with the Catholic priest who regularly used his church and his compound as a place to host entire community events. Shannon and I also very consciously became friends with the Asian kids in the group as well. A huge percentage of the business there were Chinese own and ran and there some tension between the Marshallese and the Chinese. It could be argued that the local culture wouldn’t have stood up but it created some very awkward race relations. Several of those students still contact us (mostly Shannon) to thank us for that and to ask how we’re doing.
But invariably, my past caught up with me. The Adventist system is fairly engrained and enmeshed (in angrier times I would say incestuous) and the rumors that had circulated around PUC came down to the Islands and I realized there was no getting away from it. My scandal had been sexual and those are always the ones that generate the most drama and the most interest. The girls in particular were always trying to hint around at what had happened. One of the missionaries who had come, Alexis Miller, knew that there had been strange things but didn’t know the details. I avoided it as well as I could trying to move on but the questions kept coming. I successfully got through the school year without actually spilling my guys both because I was trying to evade my past but because at PUC I’d gotten very good at lying, obfuscating and detracting away from it. The energy which they pursued the gossip about my life was fairly disturbing and I used it as one more point of criticism. Perhaps, it was just natural curiosity but I wondered why they didn’t use that same vigor to get to know students better.
I shared these ideas with Leandro who kept telling me I needed to focus on God, a statement I’d gotten for quite a while. The truth of the matter is that I’ve heard this my entire life but no one has ever given me a particularly good way to do it. While I realize that no relationship comes with instructions, usually they have some guidelines and I was getting exhausted by the vague ones that I’d gotten. My relationship wasn’t over at that point but it was on its dying days and the life support that was supposed to be the Marshall Islands had not worked. I had allowed to make me more cynical about all that I was broken up about.
It turned out towards the end of the year that I would suddenly not be there for the summer. I was not a US citizen at the time and due to the Bush administration having tightened some regulations, anyone who was not a US citizen and was gone from the country for more than a year would lose their residency unless they had filled out a form before they left the country. I had not done so and so I would have to head back for the summer. I looked at various places but ultimately took a job back at New Horizons working with juvenile delinquents. Back to Angwin, we went….