Indigenization as a Missionary Goal in the Caroline-Marshall Islands
Posted by - francisx
Christian missions have long been a controversial force in the colonial history of Oceania. To some observers, the missionary is the very personification of that spirit of cultural imperialism which has succeeded in wreaking its mindless changes on unsuspecting naive peoples and in making of their islands cultural wastelands. The very word "missionary" often conjures up the image of a religious frontiersman, usually ill-prepared to appreciate the beauty and logic of the culture within which he works, who pursues single-mindedly his goal of "converting the heathen." With cross upraised over the pagan land, he busies himself in baptizing babies, uprooting "degrading superstitions," and preaching a new and better way of life to a people who are in his eyes at best "children," at worst "savages." However noble his intentions, the Christian missionary is an unwitting perpetrator of cultural genocide among the very people he professes to help.
This stereotype of the missionary as imperialist is not without a measure of truth in it. And yet it is surely not the whole truth, for ever since the inception of foreign evangelization in Micronesia one of the chief goals has been the indigenization of the church in those islands. However Indigenization may have been spelt out at different times and by different groups — and, as we shall see, it has been subject to frequent redefinition — its basic meaning has always been the establishment of what might be called a native church. Needless to say, the term "native church" has been variously interpreted. In the early Protestant era, a "native church" was a church whose resources, both personnel and money, were generated from within the island communities themselves so that outside assistance was no long necessary. Such a church was autonomous in that it did not have to rely on foreign churches for support. In recent years, however, a "native church" has come to mean much more than the ability of a local congregation to supply enough pastors and material for the continuation of the ecclesial structure. Within the last decade, a "native church " has been understood to mean a church whose religious content as well as its formal structures are rooted in the local community. Indigenization, in this latter sense, is the process of fashioning a church in which the cultural traditions of the people are the clash from which religious symbols, ritual, and preaching are fashioned. A "native church," then, is one in which Christianity can be thought and lived in terms of the cultural milieu of the islanders themselves, not of the Bostonians or Basques, who brought them the faith.
In this paper we shall attempt to trace the evolution of the meaning of Indigenization, as this was operative as a missionary goal in Micronesia since the middle of the 19th century. We will also tray to point out some of the forces that were in direct conflict with the goal of Indigenization at different stages in missionary activity in Micronesia. The most notable of these, of course, was the colonialist attitudes that the missionary was unable to shuck even as he worked to build up what he saw as a native church. Finally, we will attempt to show how, in the last five years, the missionary charge to establish an indigenized church is seen as part of an even broader task — nothing less than the Indigenization of society itself. This recent movement, which has been particularly associated with the Catholic Church in the Caroline-Marshall Islands, has resulted in a major volte face on the part of the Catholic Church. Those who were formerly regarded as among the vanguard of the colonizers now become the champions of the indigenous rather than foreign institutions. It is ironic that the same institution that for years had advocated conversion to a foreign way of life as well as to a foeing God should lately have acquired the reputation of singing the praises of the traditional ways and issuing warnings against the dangers of rapid modernization. But such is the interesting reversal that is evident in the Catholic Church of the Caroline-Marshall Islands. It only illustrates the evolution that has taken place in the definition of foreign missionaries of their goals within the last hundred years.
At the very outset of its missionary activity in Micronesia, the American Board of Commissioners for the Foreign Missions (ABCFM) professed as its goal the establishment of native churches there, "self-financing, self-governing, and self-propagating." Its work in Micronesian began in 1852 with the arrival of three American and two Hawaiian couple who took up work on the islands of Ponape and Kusaie. In accordance with the established policy of the day, there was no rush to make converts; it was six years after their coming that the first natives were received into the church of Kusaie, and eight years before the first three Ponapeans were admitted. A decade after the start of evangelization there were no more than 27 Kusaieans and 36 Ponapeans who had become full members of the church. One church membership began to increase, however, it was not long before a few were selected to assume positions of leadership in the nascent church. By 1869, the first native deacon (the son of "Good King George" of Kusaie) was ordained, and two years later another was elevated to the ministry. By the early 1870s the training school on Ponape was already preparing native teachers, deacons and pastors, several of whom would be the first to bring Christianity to Truk and the Mortlocks within the next few years. In the Marshalls, which received their first foreign missionary in 1857, progress towards the establishment of a native church was just as swift. Already in 1880, when the training school for the Marshalls was relocated in Kusaie and the last of the American missionaries removed from Ebon, the entire Marshalls mission was left to the care of a small band of Hawaiian teachers together with a few Marshallese who had been trained in the local mission school.
The dispatch with which the first American Congregationalists sought to carry out their commission — i.e., to "set in order native churches, raise up a native ministry for them, ordain ministers in the important places, and train the Christian community, thus organized, to the power and habit of self-government and self-support" — did not go unquestioned1. Mission letters during the 1980s complain of a relapse into heathenism by recent converts in the Mortlocks who resumed the use of turmeric and tobacco. Blame was usually laid upon the native teachers i these islands, and some were afterwards removed. A foreign missionary, writing in the Annual Report of ABCFM: 1890, laments the "inadequate supervision" over the work of native teachers in the Mortlocks that has resulted in "the lowered character of preachers and teachers, the feeble life of the churches, the want of discipline, and of (poor) numbers in the schools." There were apparently others, missionaries and non-missionaries alike, who shared his belief that the Protestant churches were being turned over to native ministers and teachers too quickly. Rev. Robert Logan, the first American missionary in Truk, wrote just a few months before his death in 1887 of his own misgivings in this respect. "What folly to expect that these races can take on pure morals and Christian civilization in a few years! Souls can be saved, morals and manners improved, the seeds of all progress planted and nourished, but the century plant grows quickly in comparison with true civilization."2 And the great German ethnologist August Krämer, who visited the Marshalls shortly after the turn of the century, expressed surprise that the spiritual care of a "community of 13,500 natives" could be responsibly entrusted to "one or two dozen uneducated men."3
The intention of the American Board was clearly to set up native churches throughout the Micronesian mission and then to withdraw outside support at the earliest opportunity. From the very beginning of its missionary activity in Micronesia, it discouraged excessive dependence of local churches on funding from abroad. Each native congregation was required to contribute food and labor for the support of its church.4 Chiefs in Truk who requested native teachers for their islands during the boon years of the early 1880s had to promise to build a suitable home for the teacher and his family, construct a church, and provide for the continual upkeep of both. Dr. Gulick, one of the first American missionaries on Ponape, wrote in 1854 that he was frequently compelled to refuse the request of chiefs on that island for small gifts lest he subvert the clearly-stated goal of a self-supporting church. This policy, admirable though it may have been, was not without its difficulties. The insistence of Congregationalist missionaries that natives buy, rather than receive gratis, clothes obtained through the mission led to the accusation in later years of avarice and mercantilism on the part of its representatives. This unfounded charge was given all the more credence because of the rigorous insistence of pastors that natives be modestly attired if they wished to attend church services. The first Catholic missionaries, by way of contrast, had no such scruples about the long-range effects that their practice of distributing gifts might have. When they gave out trinkets to the people of Yap and Ponape in the early years of their work in the Carolines, they hoped that their liberality would win the affection of the natives and prepare the way for their conversion. The hard line of the early Congregationalist missionaries eventually did lead to the establishment of self-supporting churches, but according to one witness it was also responsible for the defection of a good many members for pecuniary reasons and the decision of others against joining the Protestant church in the first place. One visitor to Ponape at the turn of the century recorded what had become a cliché by this time: "I shall not become a Protestant for I am poor. I shall become a Catholic, for the Fathers do not ask me to pay for anything."5
Despite the difficulties inherent in its policies, the American Board succeeded in accomplishing the task that it had set for itself. By the turn of the century there were 20 ordained native pastors, and 80 more native preachers and teachers serving the church membership of over 6,600 in Micronesia.6 Contributions from local sources totalled about $7,000 a year. The Protestant Church was well on its way to becoming fully autonomous.
Catholic missionary efforts in the Caroline and Marshall Islands, which were initiated in 1886 on Yap and a year later on Ponape, did not exhibit the same urgency for the establishment of a native church that marked the Protestant activity during the last century. Although the number of baptized Catholics in 1905 — only 20 years after the founding of the mission — was recorded as 10,000, there were no native pastors, no catechists, and no collections. The financing and leadership of the Catholic Church in the Carolines remained securely in the hands of the Capuchin missionaries who were entrusted with this field. This can be explained in good part by the theology of missions that prevailed in Catholic circles of that day. The task of the missionary was to save through his direct apostolic intervention as many souls as possible in the pagan land in which he labored. The charge of the Catholic missionary, as it was formulated in the encyclical of Benedict XV, was "to open the way of heaven to those hurrying to destruction." The personal salvation of pagans was no less an object of concern for the Protestant pastor, of course, but the external constraints imposed on him by his mission board has the effect of recalling him to the more distant goal of Indigenization. It was not until the 1920s, under the foal of establishing a native church in a mission land — like that which guided Protestant missionary work during the 19th century — won any wide acceptance at all among Catholics. Thereafter, :implanting the Church" came to be canonized in exxlesiastical pronouncements as the primary aim of missionary activity.
Even if early Catholic missionaries to Micronesia had espoused the goal of creating a truly native church, the structures within which they were forced to operate would have put its attainment out of their reach. Although Catholic missionaries seem to have admitted new members with relative ease when compared to Protestant missionaries, there was an extraordinarily long process of acculturation required before a baptized CAtholic could assume a position of leadership in the Church. There were not the intermediate ecclesial offices, such as preacher and teacher, in the Catholic Church to provide a means of screening and selecting those who would become pastors. One was forced to leap from the pew to the pulpit, as it were, in one long, arduous bound that demanded commitment to the priesthood from the beginning rather than a series of more modest steps forward. Ordination of Micronesians to the priesthood was the only means of achieving native church leadership at that time, and the obstacles to ordination were formidable. It meant long years of study abroad, the mastery of Latin, and a life of celibacy among a people for whom this was all but unthinkable. The training program for native Protestant leaders, conducted as it was in a boarding school set-up, was deliberately intended to shield students from undesirable cultural influences — "the contaminating influence of their homes and the interference of their chiefs," as one missionary put it8. But the training only lasted two or three years, and the school was located in an island environment. Seminary training for the Catholic priesthood demanded a complete severance of the candidate from his community and the psychological capacity to live as a stranger in his own land upon his return from the seminary.
All things considered, it is hardly surprising that it was not until 1940 that the first Micronesian priest was ordained, Fr. Paulino Cantero from Ponape. At the present time, there are only two native priests, in the Vicariate of the Caroline-Marshall Islands, although in recent years alternative forms of church leadership have been added, particularly through the establishment of the married diaconate in the Catholic Church.
Despite the obvious differences in the professed goals of Catholic and Protestant missionaries during the last century with respect to the formation of a native church, there is a good deal that the two approaches had in common. It could be said that both Catholics and Protestants sought to convert the heathen — not just to a religion, but to a civilization as well. This may not have always been as unabashedly proclaimed as it was by the Spanish padre in Palau who boasted that he and his confreres, "flying two flags: the cross and the Spanish colors, have been working not only to convert the natives to the Catholic faith, but also to make Palau a real Spanish land."9 Certainly the peculiar symbiosis of the church and state in the Spanish realm was unique. A union such as that which existed between la espada y la cruz during the Spanish administration was never to be had again in Micronesia. Nevertheless, a glance through missionary correspondence, no matter what their nationality, is enough to reveal that foreign missionaries have always thought of themselves as performing a civilizing function in Micronesia. It doesn't matter much whether the missionary seeks to save the people from "degrading customs" and "ignorance and superstition," or from the dangers of malnutrition and the health hazard of a contaminated water supply, he is the harbinger of a new and better way in either case.
It is understandable that the missionary should have been concerned with the human development of the people he served. The representatives of foreign churches have never been exclusively taken up with the care of souls, for they have recognized from the beginning the link that exists between the material and spiritual dimensions in man. There has always been an instinctive awareness, however poorly it my have been articulated in their theologies, of the truth of Berdyaev's axiom that "care for the life of another, even material bodily care, is spiritual in essence." Still, it is not the readiness of the missionary then or now to work for the advancement of a native people that is at issue, but his presumptuous belief that his ways are necessarily the path of advancement for this people.
Missionary annals in Micronesia are brimming with examples of what has lately been termed cultural imperialism. The censure of Protestant missionaries against long hair, native dances, and the use of turmeric with which Carolinians traditionally adorned themselves come to mind immediately. Then there is the tired old question of why missionary hackles should ever have been raised by when natives entered the mission compound without pants and dresses! Certainly more than one missionary must have gloated over the fact that after 1884 "those who have not enough clothing on for purposes of decency" were not to be admitted into church in Truk, while two years later it was decided that no nude babies were to be accepted at the baptismal font in the Mortlocks. Catholic missionaries, who were inclined to be more tolerant on the above matters, drew the line at divination, belief in spirits, and the use of all kinds of "magic." Baptismal names were Spanish or German, depending on the period, and religious processions were exact copies of what one would see in Western Europe in the day. The illustrations may be rather trivial, but they help to underscore the point that the "true civilization" that Logan helped to nurture an the "new way of life diametrically opposed to the old way" that was the goal of the Spanish priest on Palau implied much more than the change of a few religious values. Missionary activity in Micronesian was geared to a sweeping program of social reform, whose model was the civilization from which the agents of this reform had come.
The blatant ethnocentrism of these early missionaries appears to us in hindsight, but it was only representative of the conventional wisdom of the day. The Christian mission was conceived and carried out as a civilizing mission. The meaning of an indigenous church for these early missionaries fell well short of what we imagine it to be. The phrase was understood to mean that once converted, the "heathen" were to perpetuate the church and the civilization that had been graciously brought them from across the sea. The native pastors were to be the caretakers of an essentially foreign institution that had been bestowed on their people. The end product of this effort was, as the Filipino Jesuit Horatio de la Costa puts it, "not a native church, but a church staffed by natives."10
The church was not a young shoot planted in the strange soil of a foreign land to take root and grow as it might, but it was a greenhouse plant that could only thrive in the carefully regulated temperature and sheltered protection of the hothouse. If the conditions simulated those in the country to which the plant was endemic, it might flourish. Otherwise, it would shrivel and die. Thus , the drive on the part of missionaries to instill "true civilization," while it was partially the result of unconscious cultural biases, was also prompted by the desire to do what they could to create the type of environment in which alone they imagined Christianity would thrive.
Missionaries could hardly have been e expected to make any serious attempts to reconcile their gospel message to the cultural tradition of the people when they looked upon the latter as basically inimical to Christian values. Even if the old missionary refrain on the "native ways steeped in degradation and debasement" need not always be taken at face value, it is clear that the missionaries regarded a good many of the elements of the cultures as subversive of their evangelical work. No less a thing than the language itself came under attack on this score. "The native language and purity," one foreign missionary in Ponape write, "can never travel the same road." He went on to explain that the natives "have sounds to represent all the bad, but their vocabulary is a barren as are their hearts of all good."11 The same point was made by another missionary when he wrote in 1861 that the languages of Micronesia, which are "wonderfully prolific in unchaste and impure words and terms," are destitute of words and phrases to convey correct ideas of God and moral subjects generally."12 If the very language was little more than a reflection of the "moral and spiritual nakedness and deformity of the people " in the eyes of many a missionary, then it is difficult to see how other parts of the culture could be more highly regarded.
Communal land ownership was another traditional practice that often drew fire from missionaries. Lack of private property, they argued, tended to prevent the development of individual initiative and responsibility — virtues that were generally thought of as indispensable to a genuine Christian morality. The conviction of one pastor was that:
Humanity here is a soft and viscid mass, with just enough consistency to resist all separation into parts, but not enough to assume an independent shape and bearing. We are obliged to work upon the whole, the mass as such, because we cannot find an individual. In fact, there is no such thing here as an individual action or individual responsibility.13
To combat this "socialism," as they called it, a few of the Protestant missionaries in the 1879s attempted to introduce gradual reforms in the land-holding system on Ponape through the establishment of land. In order to bring about this legislation, however, the missionaries found that they first has to work out ways of democratizing the tribal government, the result being the founding of a kind of municipal legislature.14 In the end, the efforts to do away with communal ownership of land, which proved unsuccessful, led to their tinkering with a number of interlocking traditional institutions in the name of Christian morality.
In his study, Political Factionalism in Palau, Arthur Vidich shows the unforeseen social and economic consequences of a more successful attempt by a missionary group to alter traditional institutions. Interference by the German Capuchins, he maintains, eventually put a halt to institutionalized warfare and concubinage that had formerly served the important function of conferring wealth and prestige.15 Like the Congregationalists on Ponape, the Capuchin priests saw these traditional features of the culture as baneful to Christian morality, and they could not have understood the enormous implications that the cessation of both ritualized warfare and concubinage had on the culture. But even if they had by some chance, they surely would have fought for the abolition of both on moral grounds.
Even apart from those elements in the native culture that missionaries judged to be a direct threat to the gospel message, they often seemed to exhibit suspicion of rather neutral parts of the culture. The presumption was that everything, no matter how slight, was liable to be contaminated in some way by pagan perversion. In the words of an anonymous missionary on Truk, "The whole life of the pagans is determined by their religious views, so that even a seemingly harmless custom is connected in some way or other with religion.16 In the face of what they saw as a culture"steeped in degradation," it is understandable that missionaries should fear for the purity and integrity of the gospel message that they bore. Syncretism was a danger that had to be avoided at all costs, even at the risk of making Christianity appear a far more alien belief system than it might have been otherwise. Missionaries' response, then, was ordinarily flight from the culture rather than a proclamation through the culture.
This analysis, of course, does not do complete justice to the complexity of the situation. Not all missionaries were cut from the same cloth, to be sure. A survey of missionary literature reveals a rich variety of personalities with, as we might expect, widely differing opinions on many matters. And then, too, the attitudes of individual pastors towards the people and their ways could change to an astonishing degree as they gained a deeper insight into the culture. The same missionary who had at first judged the Ponapean language "as a barren as the natives hearts of all good" and who failed the spirit of communalism for hindering individual responsibility wrote in a far different vein of their religious beliefs after 25 years in the field:
The Ponapean heathen are very far from being irreligious … It is to our great advantage that we recognize the religious faith of these people. Paganism is infinitely more cultivatable than atheism. The heathen who sees God in everything is a much more hopeful subject for the missionary than one who sees no need of God. We do well to study the religious thoughts and habits of these people. We ought never to attack their beliefs or worship. It will not compromise our religion to recognize them as our fellow religionists. … We gain nothing by weakening the heathen's veneration for deity.17
Statements like this serve to correct the mistaken impression that early missionaries as a genus were incapable of seeing any value in the traditional culture. Indeed, some of the best ethnographical studies in Micronesia were written by missionaries like Walleser, Erdland, and Salesius, who had more than merely an academic interest in the customs and beliefs that they described.
Even if most missionaries did carry with them a pronounced sense of cultural superiority over the natives, this did not necessarily vitiate their effectiveness. It is clear from the writings of some of them that a genuine respect and affection existed between these men and women and the native peoples they served. Rev. Logan's distinctive trademark — the black umbrella that he always carried when he walked into the middle of a fracas between hostile parties on Truk — always guaranteed his safety and usually also brought an end to the fight; and tears of grief were shed by Trukese at his funeral in 1887. If the relationship of the missionary with his flock was decidedly paternalistic in its tone, this was not altogether the fault of the former. Most church members were only too well aware of the awesome prodigies that the white man had created with his superior technological knowhow and were inclined to listen respectfully to his religious beliefs. They would have been as little likely to shout down a foreign preacher with charges of cultural imperialism as they would have been to do battle full tilt with a foreign man-of-war in their sailing canoes. They had for the most part acquired a healthy respect for the power of the foreigner.
We may suppose, in the absence of real documentary evidence, that the tendency of church members after some exposure to mission influence was to cling hard and fast to the foreign symbols of Christianity. Religious medals, short hair, white smocks, and the like would have been the badges of acceptance into the new (even if still somewhat unintelligible) society. They would have served to reassure natives of their membership therein much as the black trousers and the white shirt of the government employee a few years ago accomplished the same purpose in a different sphere. The "convert syndrome" is a widespread phenomenon among new Christians and naturalized citizens alike that produces a conservative set of attitudes towards the institutions in the social group of which they have just become a member. It is easy to imagine that the majority of Christian converts would have earnestly desired to retain religious practices exactly as they received them from the hands of the foreign missionaries. Even the plans of the first churches, which were singularly poorly suited for a tropical climate with their small windows and box-like construction, appear to have been rigorously imitated in succeeding years by native pastors. So, too, was the precise order of the service. The same could be said of religious hymns, which for many years were simply translations of such New England standards as "Never Be Afraid to Speak for Jesus" and "I Am so Glad that Jesus Loves Me." To depart from conventional models in favor of something better adapted to local needs requires that the innovator feel at home in the institution, have a firm understanding of its nature and purpose, and possess a good bit of self-confidence. These conditions were not verified in the case of the native pastor or catechist.
Overall, we can conclude that for a number of reasons the attitudes of both missionaries and native Christian s were not conducive to the cultural adaptation of religious practices and teachings to the local traditions. Indigenization meant, in the case of the Protestant churches, a native clergy supported by a native congregation — but it went no further than this. Catholics had not progressed nearly as far in promoting native church leadership nor in working towards self-support, although they tended to be somewhat more tolerant of native customs. Neither Catholics nor Protestants adopted any positive policy that might deliberately promote a synthesis between the Christian faith and the culture of the people. The Christian churches in Micronesia remained carbon copies of their western models.
The liberation of religious faith from its Western trappings required nothing short of a revolution, and this did not take place until within the last two decade. The rise of nationalism in Africa and parts of Asia that followed the movement of many ex-colonies towards political independence brought with it a new consciousness of the Third World and its aspirations. One theme that emerged strongly in every quarter was the quest for identity. The new states, once they had achieved political freedom, were bent on achieving selfhood, discovering what they really were and what they were to become. It was only to be expected that these aspirations should be reflected by religious leaders, as De la Costa points out, and that they find their echo in the churches. Always influenced by the mood of the age, theological reflection focused on the importance of respect for a people's cultural identity during the course of missionary activity. While the faith must be brought to foreign lands, it was held that evangelization could and must be brought to foreign lands, it was held that evangelization could and must be done in such a way as to avoid the inadvertent colonialism of bygone missionary days. Christianization and westernization were seen as two quite different things, and care had to be taken by the missionary not to confuse them in his work among a non-western people. The Christian message, although it is not shaped by the national aspirations of any people, should be able to accommodate these easily, for Christianity is not the possession of a single nation or culture, but of the entire family of man. It should not, therefore, be represented as identifiable only with a particular cultural group.
These new theological currents were publicized and legitimized for Catholics in several of the statements of the Second Vatican Council. One of the documents states expressly that the "Church is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nations, nor to any particular way of life or customary pattern of living, ancient or recent."18 Missionaries, them, were called upon to be collaborators or partners in the establishment of the native church rather than the sole architects of this work. To put it in other metaphorical terms — those used by Ivan Illich in an essay on the nature of missionary work — the missionary is a mid-wife who assists in the birth of a "new community in the world."19 He is not the one who gives the local church its final form, but presides over it during its infancy. In time, the ritual and worship, preaching, and theology itself should grow out of the living culture and express the singular character of the people for whom the church exists. The task of the missionary is to help the local people to whom he is sent fashion a church in which Christianity is thought and lived in terms of the people's cultural tradition.
New emphasis in post-conciliar Catholic ecclesiology was placed on the relative autonomy of the local churches to balance what had in the past been a one-sided stress on the unity of the universal Catholic Church. Catholics slowly regained sight of a truth that had always formed a basic tenet of Protestant missionary activity — that the Church is in fact composed of churches. Only when this principle is paid its due can structures be developed locally that really meet the needs of the local church. Rites need not be conducted in a universal ecclesiastical language, seminary training must not meet a universal standard, worship must not always follow a single pattern.
Protestant churches, on the other hand, which had tended by and large to limit mission activities to those of a more directly religious nature, embraced a broader vision of the missionary role in the Third World. The statement of the National Council of Churches of Christ on its goals for the mission in the 1970s reflects a deepening concern for human development, as do other documents of this period. Although the summons to religious faith is still very much seen as the express goal of missionary work, there appears to be a thrust towards a multiform type of ministry that takes greater account of the concrete human needs of different communities.
With the advent of the new national consciousness among former colonies and the theological repercussions that it set off, then, the stage was set for a new era in the indigenization of churches. The ripples of this movement were felt in Micronesia only within the last five years.
In the remainder of this paper, I shall discuss this new thrust towards indigenization — or enculturation, as it might more properly be called — exclusively within the Catholic Vicariate of the Caroline-Marshall Islands. Although it is not my intention to belittle recent Protestant missionary efforts in this direction, there is reason to believe that the Catholic mission has assumed a pioneering role of late. Just as it was the Protestant churches that took lead in implementing a concept of indigenization in an earlier age when the Catholic mission was not yet prepared, either tactically or ideologically, to carry out such a policy, so now it appears that the Catholic Church has taken the lead in formulating policies for the realization of the new notion of indigenization, as spelled out above. The reasons for this apparent reversal are not altogether clear. Perhaps the Catholic mission, which has had so much more ground to make up, has been swept forward by the revolutionary impact of the Vatical Council and the call to church reform that it sounded. It is also possible that the very success of the Protestant drive towards establishing native pastors may have retarded further movement towards inculturation. Just as, it has been observed, African clergymen who have undergone Catholic seminary training frequently return to their land "more Roman than Romans," it may be that foreign-trained Protestant ministers are habituated to think of the church that they have received from the hands of their mentors as definitive. Whatever the reasons, we shall proceed on the assumption that the Catholic mission in Micronesia today has found itself in the position of standard-bearer for the new indigenization.
The occasion of the first meeting of the Vicariate Pastoral Planning Council (VPPC) in June 1971 was a watershed for the Catholic mission in Micronesia. This meeting of representatives from the entire vicariate charted a new course for Catholic missionary work in the islands. Three years earlier, at the first mission-wide meeting of Jesuits in Micronesia, plans were laid for a future pastoral congress at which needs of present-day Micronesia would be assessed and programs shaped to answer to these needs. In addition, the diaconate was discussed and approved as a suitable means of promoting native church leadership. The significance of the VPPC, however, lay in other things than the programs that eventually resulted from it. The theme that dominated the first two-week session was the self-realization of the Micronesian people. The church of Micronesians must be truly a Micronesian church; it must be their own. But beyond this, it must reach out to serve the needs of the entire society. Moreover, the greatest form of service it could render to the Micronesian community-at-large in this day is to assist people in acquiring a sense of power and ownership over other areas of their life that are alien to them. Only in this way could it contribute to the development of a genuine sense of pride and self-esteem, qualities that are perhaps the most badly needed now. At a time when Micronesians are subject to numerous pressures from without, caught in the teeth of cultural change and conflicting values, and confronted with problems they have never had to face before, their self-confidence is bound to be weakened. Pride in themselves and their institutions is the inner resource on which everything else in the development of Micronesia depends.
What emerged from the discussions during the sessions of the VPPC was a widespread appreciation among participants that one age had ended and another had begun in Micronesia. If at one time the greatest needs of the people of Micronesia were better housing, a more varied diet, roads and docks facilities, and the other signs of material development, an entirely new set of needs were now surfacing that must be attended to by the churches. Without denying the importance of these other things, members of the Vicariate Planning Council directed their attention to those social/psychological needs that often follow upon a period of rapid cultural change in a society. An individual and communitarian sense of self-respect was singled out as the most pressing of these. Micronesians, it was agreed, had been told in hundreds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they were only second-class citizen s in their own land. A foreign-born educational system, begun decades before by missionaries themselves, was imposing on them the burden of having to meet alien standards and then condemning them to mediocrity for not having met these standards and then condemning them to mediocrity for not having met these standards. Okinawans, Koreans, Filipinos and Americans were building their schools, running their hotels, fishing their waters, and laying their water pipes. The effect of this was to make people ask whether there wasn't anything that they could do and do well. While planners, managers, and even church-men pondered the quickest and cheapest way to get the job done with thoughts focused only on the quality of the finished product, many Micronesians wondered aloud whether they wouldn't ever be real participants in the creation of their own society. Everywhere the problem seemed to be the same — a sense of powerlessness and futility in the face of a "progress" that were hurtling on with awesome speed.
As a consequence, the missionary thrust of the Catholic Church in the Caroline-Marshall Islands changed, if we may oversimplify a bit, from promoting materials development as measured by Western standards–better houses and high quality schools–to helping people achieve a sense of self-confidence and mastery over their destiny. The ideal missionary was no longer the man who erected edifices, whether concrete buildings or parish clubs. He was the man who spent himself so that his people might learn who they were and what they could do. This is not to say, of course, that housing cooperatives and schools were jettisoned at once. But there has been a perceptible shift in emphasis during the past five years or more, and if such institutions slowly fade out it will be owing less to their financial difficulties than a reordering of priorities on the part of the churches. Missionaries have always seen themselves as jumping in the breach to meet the most urgent needs of the day as they perceived them, and in our time they are recognizing that a different set of problems has come to the fore. "The society, and with it the church, must be restored to the people" has become the rallying cry of the "new" missionary — not to gratify their own liberal political instincts nor to emulate what has become fashionable in other parts of the Third World, but to make persons whole once in the conviction that they can be masters of at least their own corner of the globe.
The concern of Catholic missionaries was more than indigenization of the church; it was indigenization of the society itself, if we may speak of such a thing, with all its political and economic structures. This new thrust appeared in different forms, not all of which were explicitly church-related. It is really not surprising that the missionary concern for indigenization should carry beyond church matters to the secular sphere, for it was from what they observed there that Catholic priests and nuns first sensed its importance. As is usually the case, stirring were first felt in the City of Man and only later related to what was afoot in the City of God.
Although it is difficult to generalize on such matters, one could say that the prevailing spirit among Catholic missionaries was, and still is, something resemabling "power to the people." Not just ecclesiastical structures, but all structures should somehow be brought under the control of the Micronesian people. If the goal was to nativize the church, after all, why should not the hotels, fishing industries, and even the government itself also be nativized? The same logic that urged missionaries to turn the workings of their own churches over into the hands of Micronesians also urges that foreign investment be carefully controlled and that the government eventually belong as completely to the Micronesian peopled as possible. By contrast with former ages, missionaries have recently started to lean heavily in the direction of the traditional rather than the modern, the Micronesian rather than the foreign. This applies equally to clothes, foodstuffs, legal codes, and roofing materials — to mention but a few things. Although often mistaken for a type of cultural archaism that idealizes the past and downgrades the value of innovation from abroad, this new missionary attitude is based on the recognition that precisely those parts of the Micronesian cultures which are most unique are also most capable of helping people affirm their individuality as a group. We might say that the cultural idiosyncrasies of Micronesians are of more value than those cultural elements that they share with nations of the developed world, at least for the purpose of symbolizing an identity of their own. And certainly achievement of a corporate identity is one of the most critical problems facing Micronesia!
The consequence has been a spurt of mission-sponsored conferences, workshops and training programs whose aim is to inform people regarding the social, economic and political realities of life in Micronesia today. Other conferences, held for a limited number of higher-level participants, have tried to promote analysis and discussion of the issues involved in the choice of political status and in determining the goals of an education system. Emphasis since 1970 is very much on raising the level of awareness of the populace and on stimulating them to confront the major problems of their day. In most of the programs of this sort sponsored by the Catholic mission, there is a discernible bias towards what might be called "societal indigenization," as described above.
With respect to the creation of a native church, efforts at indigenization were concentrated in three main areas: leadership training, financial responsibility, and incorporation of meaningful cultural symbols into worship and preaching. The first of these, leadership training, was implemented with the beginning of the first diaconate training program in 1971 on Ponape and in 1973 on Truk and Yap. At about the same time, teams of catechists were trained to visit the villages for a week or two at a time. The intent of these programs was to prepare Micronesians to take responsibility for communicating the religious message to other Micronesians rather than to have the foreign missionary do it himself. Like the second element, financial responsibility, the emphasis on preparation of native leaders was late in coming to Catholic churches in Micronesia, as we have already seen. The third element, founded in the obvious principle that what is religious is not necessarily Western, was implemented with the first adaptations of liturgy to include such traditional symbols as the bestowal of the mwaramwar at baptismal rites and the us of sakau, or kava, at penitential ceremonies on Ponape.
But neither brown-skinned men in the pulpit nor mwaramwars in the church suffice to make a church truly indigenous, as many missionaries have accurately testified. One author writing on African churches points out that it is often the Westerner who picks and chooses those elements in the culture that he judges suitable for religious worship and compatible with Christian doctrine. Often such attempts lead to mere tokenism with its "superficial substitution of African songs for Western hymns and drums for organs."20 In such cases, the outsider later finds to his dismay that he has only selected cute but often meaningless bits of culture for assimilation into what remains essentially a foreign system. Such "benevolent cultural paternalism" is at heart artificial and ornamental. So, too, is the cultural romanticism that sometimes inspires it, for an indigenous church must be a living part of today's culture, not yesterday's.
Likewise, the training of native pastors, while indispensable, will not of itself guarantee the indigenization of the church. What must also be communicated to the members — and future leaders — of the native church is the propriety and even urgency of utilizing those things that are distinctive of the people in the religious response that people of a culture make. They must know in a profound way that God bids them fashion their church out of whatever woods and metals are to be found in their land rather than follow slavishly the specifications set down for the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The must know that their own culture is the stuff out of which religion is made and that the church must take on the shape of the unique culture in which it is situated. If this instinct is not somehow conveyed, native pastors will be simply lackeys of their white teachers and do nothing more than imitate what they foreign missionary has taught them for years.
If the missionary avoids the pitfalls of sterile archaism, cultural romanticism, paternalism and tokenism in his attempts to assist in the indigenization of the church, he still faces the most dreaded of them all — neo-colonialism. Yesterday the missionary stood before his congregation and told them of the glories of his civilization; today he stand before them to proclaim the wonders of their own. But if the content of the message has been remarkably changed, one thing often remains the same: the oracular tone of the missionary's pronouncements on cultural superiority. One of the greatest tactical problems that the churches in Micronesia face today is how to speak out in endorsement of the local cultures, while avoiding the taint of new-colonialism in doing so. If indigenization of the entire society is of real importance as a goal in Micronesia today, how can restoration of the power of choice and self-determination to Micronesians be preached without issues that, strictly speaking, are outside of its competence? The very fact that the Catholic Church in the Caroline-Marshall Islands has been charged by many Americans and Micronesians with adopting a pro-independence political stand and, therefore, of yielding to the temptations of neo-colonialistic ways simply points out how real the dilemma is for the contemporary missionary.
For all the risks that the missionary today runs of adopting the same paternalistic or colonialistic stance that was all too evident in the past pages of mission history, the missionary goal of indigenization has ran a far course since the coming of the first Congregationalists in 1852. Indigenization of the church today, which is described by one author as a "new creation: a march into the future, and not a return to the past or mere adaptation of the present,"21 is quite an advance from the "self-financing, self-governing and self-propagating": church that was the goal of the early ABCFM missionaries, and even more of an advance from the European-bound church that the earliest Catholic missionaries envisioned. The indigenous church, as today's missionaries understand that term, implies a true cultural synthesis between the gospel message, even in its Western cultural crust, and the living culture of the people who respond to this message. The resulting religious response, while maintaining some continuity with the traditions of churches of the East and West, should be a unique entity that reflects that which is singularly the culture's own. Furthermore, in Catholic circles at least, the new-found emphasis on self-identity as one of the most urgent needs of the Micronesian people is bound to lead for some years hence to continuing efforts on the part of the foreign missionaries to extend indigenization to extra-ecclesial areas of life. It will mean missionary involvement in "secular" areas such as politics, economics and the like, even if their involvement lays open the missionaries to charges to adopting partisan positions and meddling in areas that are not directly related to church work.
Indigenization has always been the proclaimed goal of missionary activity. Yet, it is only in recent years that this term has come to mean more than the capacity of the local church to furnish sufficient human and material resources to perpetuate itself. A truly native church, as it is understood today, can only mean one that throbs to the pulse of the living creature. It is one that draws upon the life forms of the people. If such an understanding of "native church" was impossible for early Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the Caroline and Marshall Islands, it was because they professed to save the islanders from their culture. Today Catholic missionaries proffer salvation for the islanders and their culture. Even if the dangers of crypto-colonialism are every bit as great today as they were for Spanish Capuchins or American Congregationalists in the last century, due recognition has at least been granted the principle that Christianity does not demand Kusaie be made over into Boston or Yap into Madrid.
16. "Some Remarks about the Religious Views of Our Islanders," unpublished manuscript by an anonymous missionary on Truk in 1915; later translated by Micronesian Seminar, Woodstock, MD., 17.
Micronesian Seminar ©2010 all rights reserved.