Salvation Army in Pohnpei

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A look at worship in Micronesia

by Bill Jaynes –

The Salvation Army in Pohnpei faces many challenges. Nearly every village has a church of one kind or another—many are relics of an earlier time of missionary zeal. Since most villages developed from traditional family estates, many Pohnpeians are reluctant to let their family members attend a church in another village.
Other churches frequently offer scholarships to involved students—important to a community where the minimum wage is $1.35 an hour and a gallon of gasoline costs $4.30. These are just some of the factors that put churches like The Salvation Army at a disadvantage in attracting newcomers.

Despite the difficulties, no obstacle is too big for God. He has called his people to stand in the gap; Lieutenants Taylor and Senelyn Santos heard the call and responded. It’s a decision they have never regretted.

The Madolenihmw outpost
It’s Sunday morning in Madolenihmw (mad-o-le-neem´) in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Fifty or more local people are gathered in the tin-roofed, open-sided structure The Salvation Army uses for a chapel. The local island residents, along with the first corps officer in Pohnpei, built the structure themselves and they are justifiably proud of it. It’s a beautiful place to worship.

Many in the chapel participate in programs familiar to any Salvationist: Girl Guards, Rangers, Explorers, Sunbeams, Young People’s Legion and Home League (as it is still known in Pohnpei). Perhaps unique to Madolenihmw is a band of recorders instead of brass. On one of the Sundays I was there, the recorder choir performed “Burning, Burning” by Gowans and Larsson; the flute-like sound seemed to fit the setting, where brass might have seemed out of place.

Located only 7 degrees north of the equator, Pohnpei is said to be the second rainiest place on earth. The rain usually comes in brief but intense downpours separated by periods of bright sunshine and steamy heat.

On this morning, a very gentle breeze is blowing; so gentle, in fact, that I am miserable and distracted. The islanders aren’t fazed in the least. The men wear long pants, something I’ve done only a handful of times since I moved to Pohnpei. The women, in brightly-colored, long dresses, are nearly as colorful as the flowers and birds surrounding the chapel. None fan themselves, so I decide to tough it out. I sit and sweat—the ocean glittering in the distance, beckoning me to dip into its cool waters—I am here for refreshment of a different kind.

The worship service
This is worship as it can only happen in Madolenihmw. It doesn’t even happen quite this way at the parent corps in Kolonia Town, the “big city” in Pohnpei, just 12 miles north.

Though many are seated in new chairs, others sit on the floor and lean against the mangrove railing surrounding the chapel. Everyone is barefoot, which suits me just fine. While the songs are familiar, the singing is beautiful and different. Slow, and slower still are the two tempos. As the voices slide from one note to the next, the beauty of the singing sends chills down my spine:

“Alleluia, meid kalahngan
Alleluia, meid mwahu
Alleluia, meid kalahngan
Allelulia, amen.”

It’s “Hallelujah, Thine the glory…” but since the Pohnpeian language has fewer than 4,000 words, it’s difficult to translate directly from other languages. According to Lieutenant Senelyn Santos, who grew up in Madolenihmw on the very land that the outpost now shares with her family, “meid” means “blessed.” “Kalahngan” means “thank you,” “mwahu” means good. The words are different, but the spirit of praise is familiar.

Taylor and Senelyn rotate sermon duties as many officers in the U.S. do. This morning it’s Taylor’s turn. I understand only a few words, but it’s easy to see that he is in his element. The beaming faces around the room reinforce my impression. Their astonishment and occasional laughter at what Taylor is saying tell me that he is a good storyteller.

Youth ministry
The Santos’ effectiveness is also evident in the growth of the outpost. Committed junior soldiers are being enrolled who are hungry for the word of God. They bring their friends to meetings.

Though Pohnpei may sound like paradise, temptation surrounds the young people here just as it does the world over. While there is little use of hard drugs in Pohnpei, marijuana is easily obtained as it grows well here. And while it is uncommon to hear talk of sexual promiscuity, it is equally rare to find a chaste young person. Teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are widespread throughout the islands.

Alcohol came to Pohnpei in the 18th century with the first non-native sailors. Now, like nearly every place else, it is the most commonly abused substance, and children as young as 11 are known alcoholics.

Despite the difficulties, young people are committing their lives to Christ. The outpost recently enrolled senior soldiers; all now wear uniforms recycled from Senelyn’s pre-maternity wardrobe. The girls I met are proud of their uniforms, but prouder still of the commitment they have made. They don’t have S’s for their epaulets yet, but they are on their way.

The Salvation Army uniform—a “magical suit”
On wearing U.S.-styled uniforms in the tropics, Taylor says that he thinks of his uniform like a “magical suit.” “Sometimes when I get up in the morning, I’m just really tired and I don’t want to do anything. I put on my uniform and I’m energized. I’m proud of my uniform…The only thing I don’t really like is…what do you call it? Oh yeah, a tunic! It’s too hot for a tunic here.” It is, indeed.

Senelyn likes the American-styled skirts because they seem more like a uniform than the locally made maternity skirts she currently wears. Both say that the uniform is a tool for witnessing. Taylor said that most people view the uniform with respect because they know it is a religious uniform. Even so some of his friends make fun of it “because they don’t really know about it.” He says it’s a chance to tell them what it stands for and to witness for Christ.

Taylor and Senelyn—their paths to the Army
Taylor wasn’t always a Christian. Many of the friends he tells about Jesus knew him when he was a different person. He says he used to “drink around” in the clubs every weekend. When he met Senelyn, he says it was during a time when he had “big guilt” in his life and was searching for meaning. He began attending churches to find the answer.

How did he come to find himself in the Army? He chuckles in his usual good-natured manner, “That’s a romantic question.”

Senelyn’s uncle moved to Pohnpei from the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) just as The Salvation Army began its work in the home of a newly assigned officer. He’d heard of The Salvation Army in RMI but had never attended. He became involved in the home meetings and invited the corps officers to Madolenihmw. The new outpost opened and Senelyn became involved.

She says that she’d been a Christian all her life but only became committed once the Army came to Madolenihmw. In 1999, she attended The Salvation Army’s College for Officer Training in Rancho Palos Verdes but the adjustment to life in California was too difficult for her and her son. She left after four months. Shortly afterward she became the envoy in charge of the Madolenihmw outpost.

Taylor was careful about his decision to become a soldier. He wanted to be sure that it was God’s will for his life. Once he was certain he jumped in with both feet. Since they accepted the assignment as commanding officers, he and his wife are now the leaders of The Salvation Army in Pohnpei.

Taylor and Senelyn are related to many, though by no means all, of the people to whom they minister. Family lineage in Pohnpei is the basic organizational structure of society. Many Pohnpeians still live on the traditional lineage estates of their ancestors, and their family includes everyone with a familial link. Along with those family ties come many expectations. The Santos’ feel very fortunate that their family members support their ministry and understand that it is their highest priority.

Ministry in Pohnpei
The method of ministry in Pohnpei may be different, but the concerns of the Santos’ are shared by many officers in the U.S.

After the holiness meeting in Madolenihmw, Taylor heads to the Kolonia Town Corps where he helps lead the service. Senelyn, at this time seven months pregnant, is left to lead Sunday school on her own. On that day she was the only leader for more than 50 children. The parents depart after the holiness meeting, leaving their well-behaved children behind to attend the school. Though this is her favorite part of ministry, it’s difficult to hold the interest of a Sunday school class including kids ranging from elementary through high school. She needs help from local officers, and the Santos’ are constantly praying toward that end.

After Sunday school there is a sports ministry. People of the corps gather to play volleyball, one of the favored sports in Pohnpei.

Then there is the problem of transporting people from all over Madolenihmw. They are grateful to have a 15-passenger van, and recently a driver began handling transportation details.

The Santos’ say their backgrounds help them relate to people who face temptation daily, for in the past they have succumbed to some of the same temptations. They are strong people standing in the gap, supported by the all-powerful hand of God. Pohnpei is fortunate to have good, committed local people working on its behalf.

A personal note
My wife, Tamme, and I moved to Pohnpei in January, 2001. We are former officers and still involved in The Salvation Army. My wife is a bookkeeper and I am editor of the only newspaper that covers news from all of the FSM. I’ve seen and reported on alcohol-related deaths of many people not legally old enough to drink. I’ve reported on the increase in sexually transmitted diseases. My partner at the radio station I ran here at one time drank himself to death at 38-years-old. These things happen everywhere, it’s true. Perhaps because of my job I am more aware of the battle the Santos’ fight on a daily basis.

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