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Life in the Marshall Islands: God’s Work in the Remote Pacific Island Nation

With no running water and scant electricity, where short-range radio is the only means of communication, modern life in the Jaluit Atoll presents many challenges for the Marshallese people. But there’s also a strong sense of community, hope, and faith.

In 2019, our team joined Nixon Jabnil, a local translator and church lay leader, on a journey around the atoll, visiting the four Salvation Army corps (churches) on the isolated islands.

Join us for this travelogue short film to see what life is like in this corner of the world.

Read the transcript of the video here:

Nixon Jabnil, Corps Sergeant Major and translator: This is the republic of the Marshall Islands. It is a small island nation, isolated in the middle of the South Pacific. The Marshall Islands are made up of atolls, which are the thin strips of land from the rings of long-dormant volcanoes. The average height above sea level is 7-feet. The lowest temperature recorded was 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The capital is Majuro. And in the west lies the Jaluit Atoll, which has over 90 separate islands. Many of the islands are barely populated and some are completely inhabited. 

Major Steve Ball, Marshall Islands Coordinator: The Marshall Islands are just out in the middle of the ocean, and so you’re already starting remote when you land in Majuro and then you’re going even farther out. There are four Corps that The Salvation Army has in Jaluit Atoll. (Jaluit, Jabor, Imiej, and Narmiej). Here at the headquarters in Majuro, it’s very important that we’re connected regularly to our pastors in Jaluit Atoll. We need to know if something’s wrong out there. We need to know what their supply needs are. We want to pray with them regularly. There’s no phones, so we have to get out there.

-Our crew joins Major Steve to visit the local Salvation Army churches (known as Corps) on the Jaluit Atoll. Accompanying the crew and Major Steve is Nixon Jabnil, the corps sergeant major and translator.-

Steve Ball: The Corps Sergeant Major is the lead elder in the church. The pastor’s right hand man, you might say. Nixon serves with a joyful spirit. He is just a wonderful man. The word of God is very important in his life and he takes time and teaches it as an adult Sunday school teacher. His history in his career has been the mortician for Majuro here.

Nixon Jabnil: [For] 12 to 13 years, I was the mortician in the Ministry of Health. Before that I was kind of really scared when I see…especially blood. During autopsy, sometimes I feel like I am dizzy, because I’m kind of scared. And it’s really scary. But as I work and continue to work, it’s not scary anymore. I’ve always said, “Lord, maybe I may not be a pastor, but I want you to use me.” For years, I’ve been praying for this. I said, “This is going to be my last chance.” 

-This is Nixon’s first return to the Jaluit Atoll in over 15 years.-

Nixon Jabnil: The most populated island on the atoll is Jabor. It’s also the site of the only air strip on the entire atoll. 

Steve Ball: The Jabor area has a generation plant, so they have electricity. They still don’t have computers, there’s no internet and that sort of thing. Jabor has the main high school that has about 500 students. 

Danny Gerish, senior at Jabor High School: I’m Danny Gerish, I’m a senior. My favorite class is math; I like playing with numbers.

Solomon, junior at Jabor High School: My name is Solomon. I am junior class. After I graduate I want to be an archeologist.

Steve Ball: There are many atolls that have no junior or senior high school. So, kids come from Jabor from not just different islands in Jaluit Atoll, but they’ll come from different atolls. And they basically live there for nine months while they go to school. Away from family, it’s very depressing for some of them. 

Solomon: I’m from Ebon Atoll. It’s about 200-some miles. When I first came to this island, I was feeling sad about my family. I tried to force my mind of not thinking of them.  

Steve Ball: It is a very difficult situation. [With] 500 students, they’re scraping to try to pull together a good menu for the kids that’s healthy and that sort of thing. The kids don’t get as much food as they need there. 

Nixon Jabnil: When the ships are not on the right schedule, especially when the weather is not really good and sometimes it’s really hard to bring all of what they need. The Salvation Army has the feeding program for the kids. 

Captain Cooper Silk, Jabor Corps Officer: Part of what we are doing in Salvation Army missions is to give a lending hand for those in need and we don’t want kids to grow up poor and hungry.

Captain Alwina Silk, Jabor Corps Officer: We want to preach the good word of God. 

Steve Ball: They have singing and dancing times. They have sports, bible teaching, of course. 

Solomon: I come to Salvation Army every single day, playing basketball with my friends. Almost all of my friends are from here at Jabor Corps. 

Danny Gerish: I just want to change…a changed life. I want to know about Christ.

Nixon Jabnil: I remember it was 1997. I was one of the team coming here and starting all these corps. First we built this church for his Jabor Corps. And then during the same year we started a corps in Jaluit. Next to Jabor is the island of Jaluit, we share the same name as the atoll. Over time the two islands of Jaluit and Jabor have been connected by a thin land bridge. Although, the communities remain separated by the distance. 

Major Nancy Ball, Marshall Island Coordinator: The life of the Marshallese centers around family and around events. Those are times when everyone comes together. Everyone participates and contributes to the activity that could go on all day long. From probably as early as three years old–children join in the singing all the way up through the oldest, and they all sing. It’s a part of the tradition of gathering together. It’s a beautiful expression of their faith in God and of the way the body of Christ really functions as a body and also as ministering to the community.

Nixon Jabnil: I can see many changes here. I remember the church was very small. The corps was kind of, made by local materials. But now it’s beautiful. The floor with a concrete block and cement. And a tin roof instead of pandanus leaves. But it’s been quite a long time…10, 15, almost 20 years. I missed them a lot.

“Really I missed you people. I really missed you. I still remember some of the older people who are now gone, so this really makes me emotional. As I look at the children, I see their faces and remember those I used to know.”

From Jabor it is a three hour boat ride north across the lagoon to the small island community of Narmiej. We come here by outboard motor. 

Steve Ball: They are sort of off the grid. They just have solar panels that they can charge a battery during the day and maybe run a couple fans and some lights at night.

Nixon Jabnil: Life here, sometimes it’s kind of really difficult for them, especially to get what they need.

Steve Ball: It’s very difficult to get good nutritious food out here. There are no stores, no place to shop at all. And they do rely on the natural plants and the ocean, of course. 

Nixon Jabnil: They get their drinking water when it rains.

There are no lakes, rivers, or any other fresh water sources on the Marshall Islands.

Steve Ball: The only water that’s here for drinking, cooking, and other stuff is rainwater. 

Nixon Jabnil: They use a water catchment.

Steve Ball: A water catchment is a container, really. Typically, it’ll be next to a house where rain hits a roof that runs off to a gutter, which is going off in a little channel and that’s everything to the people out here. We haven’t had as much rain in the last few weeks. And we know families right now that have no water in their water catchment. They’re already going to other places and trying to carry water back. So, it is a day to day challenge. The corps is the hub of the community in many of these places, because there isn’t a whole lot out there. 

Nixon Jabnil: Yeah, here in Narmeij–everybody knows everyone. It’s just like a small community and a family.

Envoy Jim Rainer, Narmiej Corps Ministry Leader: I am blessed to work here as a leader in this community. I see a lot of differences from when I was a child. I see how the church touches the people in our community and in our home too. At low tide, the kids walk here from their little islets.

Nixon Jabnil: I see the movement of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel is moving so fast. Some of the guys that I’ve never seen them come to church–I see them in church now. Oh, that really encourages me. Definitely yes. 

Perhaps the most unique island on the atoll is Imiej. The people there have made their homes among the concrete ruins of a World War II Japanese military base. 

Steve Ball: So this island here served as a regional headquarters for the Japanese during World War II. So there’s a lot of remnants, including this one we’re standing in here, of office space, and there’s storage facilities, leftover artillery and things like that.

After the Japanese empire relinquished control in World War II, the Marshall Islands became an American territory until 1986 when it became the independent nation it is today. 

Nixon Jabnil: I consider this place like home. 

Jewel Lanwe, Imiej Corps Ministry Leader: Since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a pastor.

Raston Lanwe, Imiej Corps Ministry Leader: I’m happy because I know this calling is from him.

Nixon Jabnil: When I started to ask for one of the very known, and close friends of mine, they showed me where to go. And he led me and he said…and I said, “Whose cemetery is that?” Well, he says, “didn’t you know?” And I said no. So, he said, “Well, this is where they buried my friend.” Sorry…I thought he was still on the island. Then I began to cry. That’s where he used to stay. But now the granddaughter and the kids, that’s where they are staying. As you can see on my left, this is where they lay him. I feel like a part of me has been missing because I consider him as one of my brothers here. You can’t really read the…his name is Nelson. N-e-l-s-o-n. The good thing about him is I know he is one of God’s children. He has taken the Lord as his savior and I know where is he…I know.

Steve Ball: The gospel is for all people. God said that he doesn’t want anyone to perish, but that all could come to salvation. That’s the beauty of Christ’s message. His gospel good news is that every person, regardless of where they live, the color of their skin, what language they speak, the types of food they eat, what houses they live in–can find Jesus Christ and have eternal life. 

Nancy Ball:  We’re all part of the body of Christ. God has made us all equally spread across the globe with all kinds of backgrounds. Whether you live in the Western world or out here, we’re all seeking the same God, and receiving the same grace that God gives through his son, Jesus. 

Nixon Jabnil: I hope that the people here in the Marshall Islands will really begin to understand how important they are as a child of God.


Do Good:

  • See more videos like this in our video feed.
  • Learn more about The Salvation Army’s ministry in the Marshall Islands at marshallislands.salvationarmy.org
  • Did you know The Salvation Army served more than 23 million Americans last year fighting hunger, homelessness, substance abuse and more—all in a fight for good? Where can you help? Take our quiz to find your cause and learn how you can join in today. 
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