The World's Most Unique Seminary?
We're out of the starting gate! You may (or may not) remember that we came to Guam as Project Missionaries with the Evangelical Covenant Church. A big project on Eric's side was to help establish a seminary through PIBC, a long-time dream of the president and board. After a relationship was established with Hawai'i Theological Seminary, we adapted their general curriculum and were granted permission by our accrediting agency to offer the Master of Arts in Religion. The MAR is a two-year "introduction to seminary" degree that feeds into the typical Master of Divinity, which we hope to begin offering in the next year or so. Even though we're still in the learning phase, we're pleased to be offering four classes this fall through our humble seminary program that may be one of the most unique in the world.
We gathered the other day for our opening meeting. In true Micronesian style, it wasn't what one might call "formal," but also in true Micronesian style, it did involve food, as you can see in the picture! In the middle of our introductions, it struck me: the ethnic diversity around the table was stunning. Here we have arrived in Micronesia assuming our work would be with Micronesian people, and I was looking at a group of students from all over! Going around the table I looked at a young Chinese woman sitting next to a Chuukese guy, sitting next to a Palauan guy, sitting next to a Filipina, who was next to a Korean, who was next to an American! Our first group of six students (three were absent) represented six different countries! I defy you to show me another seminary classroom of six students from six different countries! By the way, these are not American-born people of their various ethnicities; our students were born in those countries. What an exciting mix! Our academic dean mentioned the fact that seminaries in the US are spending thousands of dollars trying to diversify, and thus open up, their schools to people of various ethnicities. We made no effort and behold, a picture of "people from all tribes, and languages, and nations" (Revelation 11). What a day of celebration, and an extra blessing to a project that is off to a great start.
The longer I'm here on Guam, and the more I rub shoulders with our students, the greater insight I get into their lives and their hearts. It is also true that the more I hang around our students the more they realize that the goofy white guy from the States is OK, and better yet, he's safe. Thus, they are now more comfortable with leading in prayer at the beginning of class, which affords me the unique vantage point of really getting to hear their hearts. Incidentally, "hear" often requires great effort since our students tend to pray very quietly out of respect to God! Nevertheless, what I have heard has burned into my mind how different my world is from the realities that others live with on a daily basis. Two times now I've heard different students pray something like this: "Thank you Lord that we're alive today." At first that struck me as odd, so I dismissed it; until I heard another student, on another day, say essentially the same thing. Why would someone pray that he's glad he's alive? On the one hand, I figured that the prayer could be a way of attempting to say, "Thank you Lord, that you created us." That wouldn't strike me as especially odd. On the other hand, I wondered if the poor student had just missed getting hit by a car on the way to school (not unlikely around here). Upon further reflection, however, I'm sure that's not what was being implied. Plain and simply, those prayers are literal, heart-felt thanksgivings, that "Today I'm alive and haven't died yet."
How many times have I prayed that? What about you? For me, I never think of praying that way because death seems such a distant reality to me. The fact is, however, for most of the rest of the world, death is not the distant reality it seems to be for most Westerners. For instance, our PIBC student missions trip to Yap over Christmas took a different turn than planned when a 30ish year-old man suddenly died, followed by the death of his younger wife the next day! Accidents, disease, and illness are much more apt to claim lives in the island homes of our students than they are for us. The assurance most of us have that our newborn will survive to adulthood is not quite taken for granted on the islands as it is for us. And so I ask, which world is better? The one where long-term health and survivability is assumed, or the one where death is much closer? The one where you take everything for granted, or the one where you realize daily how deeply indebted to the grace of God you are? Food for thought.
I serve the Lord in a unique art of the world. To be sure, there are lots of unique places, but the Western Pacific covers a vast ocean paradise that contains its very own culture, and a smattering of sub-cultures within the larger culture. One of the islands that dot the seascape is Guam, home to Pacific Islands Bible College (PIBC), which is home-away-from-home to a whole host of Micronesian students. I often call this place “the far side of the world.” Hopefully, this entry will help you get a glimmer of the many levels of meaning in that phrase.
The Federated States of Micronesia (600 extremely beautiful and remote islands located several hundred miles south of Guam) are comprised of the island-states of Chuuk, Yap, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. The region also includes the Republic of Palau (as in “Survivor”). A vast number of these islands have no electricity, cars, running water, or stores. Each island has its own culture, language, and many dialects within a language. One thing they all have in common is they are comprised of clans. This clan “system” has some amazingly great attributes producing stability and provision for its people. Tragically, it also has the tendency to produce power struggles and misuse of authority.
Recently, at PIBC’s annual Spiritual Emphasis Retreat, my wife and I had some very intimate and disturbing discussions with some of the students from the Chuuk islands. There are some huge challenges to bringing God’s love to this people group. There is a clear cycle of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, and alcoholism, which is humanely impossible to eradicate. My wife’s heart breaks for the Chuukese, especially for the women who, on some of the outer islands, must literally crawl on the hard, rocky ground, in a dress, in order to stay lower than their biological brothers to show respect. There are no police stations to report abuse, and if the victims were to come forward, they would bring shame on their immediate family and ultimately the whole clan. This is the greatest sin in their eyes – to bring shame upon your people. Therefore, your family/the clan would potentially be more upset at you for exposing the evil, thus bringing shame on them, than they would be at your being raped, sexually abused, etc. Plus, most likely, the perpetrator would beat you (or kill you) for exposing him.
It is this same people group that has many pastors who are not Christians. The pastor is appointed by the village chief and the position will go to someone in his family or someone to whom he owes a favor. Even when Christians are appointed to the pastorate, inevitably they have inadequate or no biblical training. The church tends to be very legalistic, ridden with rules and regulations. It seems that they have never heard of grace and don't understand the concept of a loving father. In some settings, if you cross the pastor or break one of their many rules, they will have a public ceremony where they literally erase your name out of their book (all "Christians" are recorded in this “Book of Life”). This would bring terrible shame on your family. Standing up for truth or healthy change could result in having your name erased. Essentially, it is NEVER safe to buck the system.
We are desperate for God's wisdom and guidance as to how we can best contribute to changing an entrenched system. Most of all, we covet your prayers as we prepare for the spring semester courses. We want to wisely choose books and be able to integrate information into the classes that will lead to life-transformation. We move forward in confidence, heartily believing that God has the power and desire to bring change here on “the far side of the world.”