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Micronesian Seminar: 25 Years

By Francis X. Hezel, S.J.

Religion

"How often does the Micronesian Seminar meet?" my visitor asked me. I then proceeded to explain, as I had so many times before, that MicSem-as we casually refer to it-is an institute rather than a discussion group. Think of it as a research-educational institute, I told her, or a social-pastoral institute.

"Well, if the Micronesian Seminar is not a discussion group, what does it do?" my visitor wanted to know. What does it do? After years of running the research-pastoral institute, I wondered whether it wouldn't be simpler to tell my visitor what it did not do. At the time we had just finished doing a series of articles on the political status question that Micronesia faced, I was well into a book on Micronesian history, and we were beginning a round of talks on the suicide problem that was becoming a major concern for the islands. We had just directed a survey of all high school graduates in one island group, the better to determine the extent of the recent education explosion. Together with two other Jesuits, we were organizing a workshop for church personnel engaged in the production of radio programs. What single statement, embracing all these different activities, could be used to describe what the Micronesian Seminar does, I wondered. "A little bit of everything" is the expression I hit on a few years later to describe our operation.

The Micronesian Seminar was founded by the Catholic Church in Micronesia in 1972, an age in which the cry for social justice was being raised from all quarters. The Catholic Church in Micronesia, then just completing a reassessment of its ministries, had made a heavy investment in high school education years before. Jesuits also had the sole responsibility for running all the parishes in the Caroline and Marshall Islands. All of this was unquestionably a great service to church and society, but it left a question or two that gnawed at many of us who had been trained or re-trained during the strident sixties. Granted the church's commitment to the education of the young, what was it prepared to do to relieve the burdens of social injustice that fell upon adults in these island communities?

Island Micronesia, we knew, did not suffer the grinding poverty, the homeless scavengers, the slum dwellers that are common sights in most other parts of the Third World. There was no political repression at the hands of a military junta or oligarchy, no threats of civil war, no real risk of genocide. In Micronesia, as the tour books proclaim, nature has been prodigal: the food can be picked from trees or plucked from the sea. It was hard to describe island people as "poor" or to identify the concrete forms of "injustice" under which they suffered.

Yet, Micronesia has been in the throes of great change for several decades. The people in Micronesia often seem adrift, lost in the sea of changes that had swept over their islands and left them without the familiar landmarks to steer by. Their cultural milieu was being eroded in ways and for reasons they did not fully comprehend. They were puzzled at the passing of the old ways and did not fully understand the new ways that were fast gaining acceptance in their islands. They wondered why so many of their children were leaving for the US never to return, why the young didn't go to church, why so many of their children committed suicide, and why drunken violence was so common. It might not be an exaggeration to claim that Micronesia's poverty lay in its ignorance.

From its slender beginnings-a dozen boxes of books on the Pacific, a few rusty shelves and a battered Olympia typewriter-the Micronesian Seminar grew. Slowly at first, as might be expected of an operation run on only a few hundred dollars a year and dependant on whatever time and energy its director could summon at the end of a full day teaching high school.

We held yearly conferences, drawing leaders from the very ends of Micronesia to discuss some of the most pressing issues of the day. What did political sovereignty mean and how vital was it to human dignity? What should the schools of the future look like? How could a people have economic development and still retain their traditional cultural practices?

During the 1980s MicSem turned toward social research. The suicide epidemic that had broken out ten years earlier was the first target. Other subjects of concern were alcohol and drug abuse among the young, the seemingly growing incidence of psychosis among males, child abuse and neglect, and domestic violence. No matter what particular problem we studied, the arrows always seemed to point in the same direction-toward the breakdown of the extended family as one of the major underlying causes.

Modernization is not without its price here or anywhere else in the world. If the MicSem is to serve the new Micronesian societies well, it cannot be content with issuing a catalogue of woes to these fast-changing cultures and wringing its hands in despair. It must join, sometimes even lead, the search for a clearer understanding of these problems and the causes that contribute to them. For only when they are understood can they be properly addressed and healed.

Another Jesuit, Fr Joe Cavanagh, and I began making regular visits to the major islands to run what became known as "reflection weekends." If the leaders could no longer be summoned to attend the kind of large-scale conferences we held during the 1970s, then we would go to them instead. Each year we would arrange to hold on ever major island a two-day reflection program on any issue of people's own choosing.

MicSem also began holding monthly discussions, which attracted a large number of national government employees. The topics range as widely as the audience, from the status of the fishing industry in the islands to what we might do to improve our schools. Edited summaries are sent out to all participants and are made available on the MicSem webpage. MicSem also publishes an occasional bulletin on social and development issues.

MicSem's early passing encounters in the area of media developed into a more permanent program in 1993 when a series of grants enabled us to equip a video studio and begin editing our own documentaries. The leap into television production began with a series of half-hour educational shows entitled "Island Topics." One of the earliest shows in the series dealt with how the traditional roles of women have changed; another looked at how Micronesians handle anger. All these shows are distributed to the local TV stations throughout the region for telecast.

Over its 25-year history, Micronesian Seminar has changed its location several times. Its programs have changed with the needs of the times, as have the formats of its educational ventures-from large conferences, to weekend retreats, to evening discussions. It has alternated from face-to-face education, dabbled in radio, and lately experimented in TV. Its scope of activity has ranged over dozens of areas of interest: political status, economic development, reform of government service, local history, social problems of every description, mental illness, and nearly everything in between.

MicSem has assumed many different faces in the past. Perhaps its greatest strength over the years has been its flexibility, its willingness to mold itself to whatever form might best serve the people of Micronesia. But one thing will never be altered-Micronesian Seminar's commitment to its basic mission to "encourage reflection on current issues in the light of gospel values." Whatever form its work may take tomorrow, you can be sure that MicSem will be attempting to carry on public education at its fullest and deepest level.


Unpublished. 1996.

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