Fr. Joe Marina, S.J.: On the Road with the Lord
February 20, 2017
I had never heard of Chuuk before joining the Jesuits in 2004. And, if someone had asked me to point to the Federated States of Micronesia on a world map, my finger probably would have landed on a spot somewhere between Thailand and Malaysia. But now the names of those places and their locations have been burned into my mind and heart. I will never forget them.
My journey to Micronesia began on the morning of January 2, 2017. Over the course of nearly 34 hours, I flew from Syracuse to Chicago to Tokyo to Guam and, finally, landed in Chuuk around 4:00 p.m. on January 4th. The voyage seemed endless, especially for a nervous flyer like me!
As my plane came in for a landing, I was struck by the beauty of the Chuuk Lagoon, a round robin of small islands surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see. We deplaned at the edge of the airport’s singular runway where I was greeted by the sight of something more familiar—Fr. Dennis Baker, S.J. standing by a fence—one Jesuit waiting for another, as has happened thousands of times since the founding of the Society of Jesus.
I would be on the island of Weno for one week and three purposes: to lead the faculty of Xavier High School in a retreat, to interact with students and coach the seniors as they prepare for college, and to spend time in prayer and community with my brothers, in this special place so far from home. What I didn’t realize was that God had brought me here for a fourth purpose—to encounter His love yet again through a very new and different experience.
I suppose that most people notice the same things when they visit this sacred island: its breathtaking natural beauty, the genuine kindness and warmth of its people, its biting systemic poverty, the impact of Xavier High School, and, of course, “the road.”
The lushness of Chuuk is unparalleled in comparison to anyplace I’ve seen, including Jamaica and Dominica. Palm trees, papaya, and all kinds of brush grow everywhere. Saplings seem to sprout from anything, including fallen trees. And the water calls out to you from every angle, tempting you to enter it and cool yourself from the enduring heat and humidity. Most houses on Weno are small and weather beaten, some without windows or doors. In the absence of television and internet, people spend time with each other, often near “the road.”
The students of Xavier High School are, in many ways, like the kids you might find at any co-ed Jesuit high school—energized, bright, funny, gregarious, and sponge-like. But they smile a lot more often and they even sing! Yes, they sing with the voices of angels in fact. It’s part of their lives and their culture. They sing at Mass; they sing to welcome visitors; they sing to celebrate just about anything. And with smiles that light up the world. It was so easy for me to see the face of God in theirs.
I was surprised by the youth of Xavier’s faculty. Some work for a humble stipend, while others belong to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. For a change, Dennis is one of the older folks on campus! And these young teachers do their jobs without the creature comforts of American schools, without air conditioning, high-speed internet, or the latest innovative pedagogies. They take cold showers every morning and eat whatever is served to them. And still, their smiles nearly rival those of the students, as they do the work of the Lord and advance the Jesuit mission.
As for the Jesuits themselves, they are before anything else, missionaries. That was the intention of Ignatius the Pilgrim. It was the life of Francis Xavier, Apostle to the Indies. And it has been the experience of countless Jesuits throughout the last five centuries. In a very real way, every place we land is mission territory. But it takes a special man and a lot of grace to accept the missionary assignments that are spelled with a capital “M.” My present assignment as provost and academic vice president at Le Moyne College is very challenging. But I have my hot shower every day and my high-speed internet. I control my own heating and air conditioning and eat what I choose. I have all of that and so much more.
But what about the road? Well, the road is simply that. It’s a mostly unpaved thoroughfare that stretches from one side of the island to the other. It passes the airport, the harbor, a barber shop which doubles as a tailor (which closes for long lunches every afternoon), and the few hotels that attract tourists interested in wreck diving. The road passes simple dress shops and food stores, a Mormon compound, the post office and hospital. It moves through the lives of God’s people, most of whom are very poor. But visitors remember the road mostly because of its awful conditions and the damage it causes! I have never seen a road like this, anywhere. To say it is plagued by potholes would be a terrible understatement. The road is essentially a series of ditches strung together for several miles and it is not for the timid of heart. It even makes walking a hazard. Traversing the road is like passing through a dry river bed and it made an impression that I’m sure I’ll remember forever. One can only imagine how much the quality of life on Chuuk might be improved if its people were given a better road. That’s one of the goals of the high school—to improve the road near Xavier—and I pray for its success.
To whomever may be reading this, let me assure you that Xavier High School is doing God’s work and doing it well. The school stands on holy ground and the Spirit moves across its campus, every minute of the day. St. Ignatius said that, for Jesuits, our community is “the road.” He meant to remind us that all Jesuits are missionaries, in one way or another. That is certainly true for Dennis, Tom Benz, Wylly Suhendra, Ardi Jatmiko, and Naoki Ochi who make up the Jesuit community on Chuuk. It is true for the students, faculty, and staff as well. I spent all of one week in Micronesia and I will never be the same again. I can only imagine what it must mean to Dennis and everyone who stays there longer. Kinisou chapur, Lord. Thank you for being with me, on the road.
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