“You are going to be a Christian Missionary” It was a jestful statement from my friend Tyler. These are words I genuinely never thought would be applied to me. After all, when I was awarded the ‘Religion Award’ at my 8th grade graduation my mother swore the roof of the church would cave in. Sitting on a deck under the late evening summer sun, beer in hand, I realized Tyler was partially right. I had known this all along, however, the thought of being a ‘missionary’ was one of those things I kept shoving to the back of my mind and disguising when I told friends I was going to teach in Micronesia. I kept recalling reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart during my catholic high school years and discussing the negative impact of missionaries throughout history. To make a long story short, there are a lot, and it is not something I want to be readily associated with.
While I was raised like most Irish Catholic American children – attending parochial school and getting dragged to mass on Sundays – these days I guess I would better be categorized as agnostic. But labels are useless as beliefs are fluid. I guess one could say I have fallen out of the fold of the Church because I do not believe in its historical power structure. The questions I have been asking myself over the past decade essentially boil down to “would I rather be in the mountains thinking about god, or sitting in church thinking about the mountains?”.
So how did I find myself working at a missionary school on a small island in the South Pacific you may ask? It all began almost a decade ago with a scuba diving trip. My father, a graduate of a Jesuit high school, was exploring the wrecks of the Japanese Imperial Fleet in Chuuk Lagoon when he crossed paths with a Jesuit priest who happened to run a high school on the island. Xavier High School in Chuuk provides one of if not the best educations in the Federated States of Micronesia. Upon his return it became a bit of a family joke that whenever I reached an impasse in life (e.g. which college to attend, what to do after college, what to do after graduate school) I should just move to Micronesia and teach english for a year. Thus it was moderately fortuitous when I received an email attached with a flyer for the volunteer program at Yap Catholic High School. I decided that after a decade, I should try to put some actions behind those words. However, I knew I could do a bit better than English. When I had my Skype interview for the volunteer position (imagine two priests in clerical collars and a guy in a tropical shirt with palm trees blowing in the breeze behind them) I point blank told them where I stand religiously. However, I also threw in some statements about my affinity for SPAM and living in far-flung regions of the world…having a MSc. in petroleum geoscience didn’t really hurt either as they are constantly in need to math and science teachers… So here I am, sitting in the humid village of Nimar, being awaken by the crowing of the omnipresent roosters at 4 AM, preparing my lesson plans for Earth Science, Physics and Algebra.
“Both religion and science need for their activities, the belief in God…” -Max Planck (probably...at least according to the internet)
After being here for a week, I am at peace with the fact that Tyler might label me a missionary (despite the fact that I am not). The majority of the island is already catholic, thanks to its original colonization by the Spaniards. I am here to teach the scientific method, not evangelize. Now if that will enhance someone’s faith, fantastic. But if it leads them to question it, even better, as one’s beliefs are only strengthened through critical assessment. After all, Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “The more I study Science the more I believe in God” and Max Planck as “Both religion and science need for their activities, the belief in God…”. Every single person I have met here has thanked me for coming to their Island. They have an idea as to life in America, and thus a vague notion as to what I am giving up to be here. However, the mission is important. Currently Yap is gaining roughly 1 bachelors degree every year*. If Yap Catholic High School, with its class size of up to 24 students, can help increase that number to let's say 4 or 5, the future of the Island and its people is suddenly looking much brighter.
*statement dropped in a conversation and has not been fact checked.