Professor and Theologian
The Far Side of the World
Report # 2
Back to the near side of the world! This has been a hectic but very rewarding two months – sixteen days in Bulgaria, seventeen days at home and seventeen days on the “far side of the world.” I have just gotten back from Guam (but my body clock can’t yet figure out where I am).
Reflections on the trip:
- This trip was very different than my previous trips overseas. I was speaking in English—this of course makes the communication process much easier in one sense. I didn’t have to go through a translator. But since two-thirds of my class were not native English speakers I was responsible for making what I said accessible to the students.
- I was teaching grad students rather than undergrads. This too changes the experience significantly on both my end and on the student end of the process. The students all came in as college graduates with a basic awareness (although far from a mastery) of history, philosophy and of course biblical studies. It is one thing to teach theology (what is done on an undergrad level), it is quite another to train students to think theologically and to apply that thinking in their own cultural context (what is done with the same material on the graduate level).
- In Bulgaria I have taught those who were in many senses culturally western in their perspectives and thinking (although Bulgaria is a former member of the Russian communist block of nations its cultural and intellectual heritage is European as opposed to Asian). In Guam, the students by and large come from fairly primitive tribal cultures to which many of the issues that face westerners are very foreign.
For example, the tribal cultures in the Chuuk islands (about 600 miles south of Guam where Pacific Islands Bible College was first founded in 1976) are still rife with tribal blood feuds. (This area is not administered by the USA. It is part of the Federated States of Micronesia.) There are constant reports of medical personnel treating machete wounds arising out of these contexts. The authority structure among the Chuukese tribes invests the eldest daughter in a family with all the power.
A week ago Wednesday evening I had dinner with a missionary couple who spent 20+ years ministering in Chuuk. Much of the evening revolved around conversation regarding students and the social structure of the families in the tribes and how that was reproduced in the social relationships among the PIBC (Pacific Islands Bible College) students from Chuuk. The wife told of one incident in which she had been involved many years ago: she had come to Chuuk as a single missionary from Germany to minister. One day when she was out swimming in the lagoon adjacent to the PIBC campus in Chuuk she was accosted by a drunk Chuukese man (who was a member of a powerful family) in a canoe who tried to kidnap her. She was able to get to shore and back to the college. The Chuukese man followed her to the college yelling threats and waving a machete. She took refuge in one of the buildings. He chopped on the louvers of one of the windows trying to get to her. The dean of the college, himself a member of the Chuukese tribe tried to calm the drunk down and get him to leave, but he wouldn’t be deterred. Finally, because of the danger the drunk posed he picked up a large stick and hit the man to disable him. Shortly thereafter the man’s family came and took him home.
The part of this story that is crazy to my western ears was the outcome: the tribal elders held the dean responsible for the confrontation and assessed a heavy fine even though it was the drunken man who had provoked the incident and endangered those around him.
These are the kinds of cultural assumptions that the students from the surrounding islands bring with them to college. The issues of Christianity confronting culture are right on the surface and a constant struggle.
- As I shared in my last update, the students at the seminary are primarily from the Pacific Rim. The placement of the seminary in Guam makes tremendous strategic sense. The seminary is geographically placed to draw students from many Pacific Rim countries, students who would not otherwise be able to attend a Bible school let alone an accredited seminary due to costs.
The willingness of the students to be stretched and to engage in the material was gratifying and exciting to me. One of the joys of my life is to see the lights go on in student’s minds, the “ah-ha” moments. I was able to experience several of these with my students in the two weeks of classes. A mutual acquaintance told me that one student confided that she saw the Bible through an entirely new perspective as a result of her class experience.
- My next trip to Guam is scheduled for the late March-early April time frame. Pray for the students—they have a lot of work yet to do to finish the class. I am available to them by email and teleconference for the next few weeks as they labor.
Pray too for the faculty and staff of PIBC, they are a dedicated group doing an amazing job in difficult circumstances laboring to advance the kingdom of God into areas where it has never deeply taken root before.
Blessings & Merry Christmas
Professor and Theologian
On The Far Side of the World:
Report # 1
It really is the “Far Side of the World.” If you look on a map of the Pacific Ocean, you will see the tiny island of Guam— motto: “Where American begins its day.” (If you ever wonder if the world will end today, relax. Since Guam is across the International Date Line it is already tomorrow here! ) It is the largest and southernmost island of the Marianas. Despite what we all learned in school about Mt. Everest being the tallest mountain in the world, the island of Guam actually has that honor. It rises from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in the Mariana Trench which is over seven miles deep. Although not volcanically active, it is in an earthquake zone (we experienced a 5.4 earthquake on the first day I was here. But as a Californian I didn’t even feel it!). It also regularly falls victim to devastating typhoons.
Despite the fact that it is rainy season, the weather here has been beautiful. It has rained every day, but only briefly. It is hot and humid the days are normally 85 degrees + with humidity to match, the breeze has come up daily to moderate the heat. (Kay would feel right at home--the weather is like that in the Amazon jungle where she grew up.)
Pacific Islands Bible College (where I am teaching) was founded in 1976 as the Micronesian Institute for Biblical Studies on the Island group of Chuuk (about 500 miles SE of Guam) serving students on the Chuuk Islands (the culture there is tribal and primitive even compared to the tribal cultures of the other Micronesian Islands). Its mission is to train native Micronesians for pastoral ministry so they would not need to send students across the ocean for their education. Eventually several campuses were established: two on the Chuuk Islands, one on Palau (an Island nation of about 30,000 people closely connected to the USA) about 1000 miles west of Chuuk, a campus on Pohnapei about 400 miles east of Chuuk. In 1997 a new central campus was established on Guam for strategic reasons and since that time the student enrollment has increased nearly two and one half times to about 225 students.
This year PIBC inaugurated a new Seminary (tentatively named Pacific Islands Bible Seminary) to offer Master’s Degrees (they have attained accreditation from the accrediting association). Its vision goes beyond the school’s original mission and looks toward becoming an educational hub for training pastors all over the Pacific Rim. The initial seminary class of 10 has drawn students from Korea, China, and the Philippines(2), from the Micronesian country of Palau as well as from the territories of Chuuk (thePacific Island chain where Truuk Lagoon, the site of a huge navy battle between the US & Japan in WWII is located) andtwo from the USA!
I have been in class a week now. I am finding that the students though few, are thoroughly engaged and even more eager to work and learn than many students I have taught in the states. They are eager to see how theology can connect to their own culture and how what we as Christians can penetrate their cultures in a vital way.
Hedrick, one of the students in my Introduction to Theology class who, after graduating from PIBC, went back to his home country, the tiny island nation of Palau, to work in his church. The experience produced great frustration. Although he had been grounded in the Bible and learned doctrine, he could not figure out how to relate what he had learned to his culture. He has come to seminary with a burning desire to learn how to communicate and relate the liberating truths of the gospel to a Christian culture that has become rigid and legalistic. The church in Palau has and taken on nineteenth-century American cultural mores left over from the days of American missionaries as defining what it means and looks like to be a Christian, and in the process has become estranged from the rest of Palau’s culture. (They are entrenched in American sensibilities e.g. in the tropical heat, the church even insists that their pastors wear ties when preaching. Note: this is in an environment that causes heat stroke to new-comers [no air-conditioning there!]. Hedrick has become the class leader consistently asking probing questions about the contextualization of the gospel in culture without compromising God’s eternal truth. He also has been on mission trips to New Guinea, has a real burden for the indigenous people there as well, and hopes to spend time ministering the gospel on the front line helping establish churches there in a context that is hostile to Christianity.
As they say in Guam, “Hafa Adai!” (roughly equivalent to the Hawaiian Aloha!)
Off To Guam,
Professor and Theologian on the Far Side of the World
I got off the phone with Eric Sorenson last night. We discussed my upcoming trip from October 31- Novmber 17. I will be visiting Professor at the newly established seminary at Pacific Islands Bible College. I will be teaching Introduction to Theology (in English this time!) the down side is that for all the students English is a second language. The students come from all over the Pacific Rim and Eric believes that the seminary can become a new hub for training students to return to their own home countries without coming all the way to the US. He observed that although the students from China and Korea and other Pacific Rim countries have cultures that have a high work ethic and commitment to excellence, the local culture in Guam is laid back and this rubs off on the students after they have been in Micronesia for a while. This includes a procrastination mentality: one that puts things off to the last minute. In keeping with the local culture, I will be teaching as many classroom hours as I did in Bulgaria, but they will be spread out over a two week period--a lot less intense.
Most of us have just heard of Guam and know that is somewhere in the Pacific, but don't know where. It is a U.S. Territory (that means no passports and I don't have to worry about translating my dollars into Euros, levs, Kronys, Swiss Franks or anything else. There is a major US military presence there at Anderson Air Force Base on the north side of the island.
The weather is tropical--spell that hot! 80-85 degrees with 85%+ humidity. I have never gone scuba diving, but I have been told that people come from all over the world to dive in Micronesia--it is reputed to have the finest diving in the world.
"The Chamorros, Guam's indigenous inhabitants, first populated the island approximately 4,000 years ago. The island has a long history of European colonialism beginning in 1668 with the arrival of Spanish settlers including Padre San Vitores, a Catholic missionary. The island was taken over from Spain by the United States during the Spanish American War in 1898. As the largest island in Micronesia and the only American-held island in the region before World War II, Guam was occupied by the Japanese in December 1941, and was subject to fierce fighting when American troops recaptured the island in July 1944. Today, Guam's economy is mainly supported by tourism (primarily from Japan) and U.S. military bases.(from Wikipedia)
To the left is the founding faculty and students of the seminary. My good friend Eric Sorenson and his wife Karyn had little idea what they were getting into when they arrive there a bit over a year ago. Eric was expecting to teach Bible and history at the college. Karyn is a therapist and was looking forward to ministering to the emotional needs of the students and the locals. While there was an idea of bringing graduate theological education to Guam, there was no expectation on the front end of being part of starting a new seminary right out of the chute.
Pray for me as I journey out into this new area. Kay will not be accompanying me this time. The plan is for her to come with me as I make a return trip in the spring.