Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories on new publications about Micronesians authored by Father Francis X. Hezel, a Catholic priest with extensive experience in Micronesia. Read the first story, Helping Hawaii Make Sense of Micronesia.

Civil Beat interviewed Hezel about his work and his views on what Hawaii and the United States can – and should – do for Micronesians, and why.

Civil Beat: You have both a book, Making Sense of Micronesia, and a report, Micronesians on the Move: Eastward and Upward Bound, published in the same year. Why do this now, and why simultaneously?

Francis X. Hezel: With Making Sense of Micronesia, I did it as therapy. (Laughs.) I was working in New York City, and I needed reassurance that I was attached to the islands. Secondly, it was a recounting of my less than spectacular success (in Micronesia). For me it was failures to understand — a lifetime of struggle to have a sense of what’s going on around you — to provide some sort of understanding for one cultural mystery after another. The book presents my own solutions to these questions and my hope that it helps other people, makes it just a little bit easier to deal with these same enigmas.

Civil Beat

Father Fran Hezel, EWC, July 2013.

When you first moved to Micronesia in 1963, was it primarily for the purpose of converting the people?

I always believed that God preceded us. We weren’t bringing God to the islands. We were continuing a religious tradition that had been introduced 50 years or longer before that time. … I fell in love with the people, the islands, felt comfortable working there and reconciled with myself that I would be comfortable being in nowheresville for the rest of my life.

It was the late-1960s, and we’re talking about revolutions, great ideals, Cesar Chavez, people are working in the favelas of Latin America, there is a struggle going on between democracy and totalitarianism, JFK’s call to remake the world, Vatican II — all these trumpet calls to remake society. So, after three years in Chuuk, and six months pursuing a Ph.D. in Australia, I gave up school and I agreed to go back. …

What did you hope to accomplish?

Bring a message. For me, our Christian theology boiled down not so much to giving the people the means of salvation — I assumed that they had the means of salvation. What I was saying, I hoped, was, “We haven’t forgotten you, God loves you. We are here to try and take care of you. You may never be headliners. You’re never going to make news. You’re never going to be at the forefront of anything. But the world has a place for you.”

Looking back, I think I resonated with that anyway. I guess it was kind of a family trait that we had. We tried to look out for the people who didn’t have any friends. We did that around the neighborhood. My brothers are still doing that now.

Now, I don’t want to represent the Micronesian people as friendless and lonely. But I wanted to have a role in introducing them into the family of Man.

Do you feel you were successful?

I don’t know how much success I’ve had, but I sure as hell have tried. The whole idea of the Micronesian Seminar (a nonprofit established by the Catholic Church and engaged in public education) was to engage people in a conversation about contemporary issues — basically, to introduce them: Hello, Micronesia, this is the Modern World. Modern World, this is Micronesia.

I acted as a middle man. It was a role I cherished.

Greg Trifonovich

Government official greeting the chief on Woleai Atoll in Yap State, circa 1970.

What is it like for you when you are in Micronesia?

What you feel is well-taken care of. You may not be able to interpret what they’re saying, you may not be able to figure out what they are communicating even though they are speaking in English. It has to do with the cultural expressions. The timing. The pregnant pauses. The raising of the eyebrows.

So many other things that are part and parcel of communication. You can’t always figure that out, but at the end of the day you feel, “Hey, I’m well-taken care of. I can connect with these people. I may not end up buying into a lot of the things they value. A lot of their life might be a deep, dark mystery to me. But these seem to be good people.”

Tell me more about the Micronesia Seminar.

It was started in 1971 by Jesuits. It was a meeting on what should be our apostolates . … The church was doing plenty as far as educating the kids went. But in the 1970s there was a lot going on politically: future political status, economic development, the monetization of the economy, the question of rapid change. We felt our education ministry should be extended to adults. We needed, we felt, to engage them in conversation about contemporary issues. We needed to get them to reflect. … It was so that they would be able to better cope with the problems they were facing and chart a path for themselves in the future.

What should Hawaii know about Micronesians to help us better understand them?

We owe the islands, the U.S. owes the islands. The Compact of Free Association (the 1986 agreement between the United States and three Micronesian nations) wasn’t just happenstance. It wasn’t just the example of New Zealand working out a deal with the Cook Islands. That was a model, after all. It was something else, it was something based on the fact that the U.S. had a history with these islands. If you want to consider greater Micronesia and Guam, it began with the Spanish-American War. The U.S. took Guam. And the U.S. Navy at the time made strong suggestions that it take surrounding islands. The U.S. became a colonial power.

Some argue that COFA had a time-limit for the U.S. providing financial assistance to Micronesia.

That’s a small-minded argument. What the U.S. has always desperately needed was a route, a pathway across the Pacific. Now, if you think Hawaii and Guam constitute enough of a route, fine. The only thing is that it seems as though something more is required. … There will always be a need for these islands, and for some sort of cushion around it. There will always be a need for a pathway across the Pacific.

Father Francis X. Hezel

Micronesian Seminar video crew films a documentary interview, 2010.

Also, many people feel we’ve had a history, we’ve grown up together. It’s like my growing up in the islands, my spending 50 years here. I owe people something. At least, that’s what I feel. So, even if I get moved someplace else, I always tell people, I’ll help you from a distance in any way I can. I don’t know what I can do for you, but I’ll keep trying. Well, isn’t the U.S. in the same position? Doesn’t it have some kind of obligation, a moral obligation, if you want, to continue to help people?

Let’s talk about health and educational services, something that has caused problems here. It has been suggested that the U.S. help provide dialysis in Micronesia to reduce the numbers of migrants coming here for medical help.

I have no sympathy at all with the education (challenges). What they’re experiencing is the kind of regular thing that is the problem that comes with each wave of migration. That’s going to go away; that’s temporary. But you have to take care of it. This is not overburdening. We’re talking about a population of 8,000 from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), maybe 2,500 in the schools. That’s not crippling the system.

So, what I suggested to (the AG’s office) is, concentrate on the big stuff. And the big stuff for Hawaii is medical. Break that out. Do a special deal with the U.S. Hawaii is doing something terrific for Micronesians — for the Marshalls and FSM. Basically what it is doing is keeping alive people who would have died, had it not been for MedQuest and the Medicaid system here. Hawaii is unique in that respect. And it is unique in that it understands what it means to take care of poor people who don’t have the wherewithal to do this.

Regarding the nuclear testing in the Marshalls, and the feeling by some that there are still lingering effects. What are your thoughts?

I am of two minds. On the one hand, I do think that the U.S. does owe the Marshall Islands proper medical treatment, especially for that. That’s the positive side. I think that anything they could do, particularly using Tripler (Army Medical Center in Honolulu) and its resources, to help out would be terrific. And just.

On the other hand, I’ve written an article about victimization. And this was the suit against Big Tobacco that was carried on by the Marshall Islands. And they were getting to the point I think at that time where they were saying, “See, all that we have is our tin bowl, you know, along the side of the road.” And my attitude was, “Cut the crap. Come on, you guys are doing better than that. You can’t present yourselves just as victims of this thing.”

I’ve always been torn between these two different approaches. On the one hand you want to kick the guy in the butt, overturn the tin cup, get him on his way. On the other hand, you know you had some responsibility for this.

Your paper, Micronesians on the Move: Eastward and Upward Bound (published by the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program, explains emigration patterns from Micronesia to the U.S., including Hawaii. Where is the pattern going?

Micronesian Seminar

Wedding feast preparation on Kosrae, circa 1990s

Twenty years down the road we are going to have a 1:1 ratio. We are going to have as many people living outside of FSM as there are in the islands themselves. RMI (Republic of the Marshall Islands) is going to be in the same position. Palau has been in the same position for years now, because migration began much earlier there.

But for Hawaii, I like to use a different formula, where it is just a temporary stop on the way to the mainland. The reason is because of the high cost of rentals here and the high rate of homelessness. We’ve got 12 percent of the 8,000 FSM-ers who sought shelter help in 2012. There are too few factory jobs. What you want to do is go to Kansas City and Portland (Oregon) if what you are doing is setting up your family for the long haul. The fact that the temperature is not as nice there is more than compensated by the socio-economic change.

What’s the role of the church in helping the dialogue between Americans and Micronesians?

The role of the church can’t be exaggerated. It’s hugely important. It’s been understated in the past. I think that churches in the mainland U.S., churches that I’ve seen, form community centers. They bring together people, Micronesians from a particular island or language group, but larger groups of Micronesians also. They provide economic backup. When somebody needs money to send a body back to the islands for burial, they have collections. They all contribute money, and the person who needs the money to ship the body back can draw on it. And it is expected that that person will repay. If a person can’t pay power bills, they depend on people in the community. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.

Secondly, the church is important here in Hawaii, as a way of getting in touch with local people. You will never handle it properly family by family. But you have eighteen or nineteen or twenty pastors who will connect you with virtually everybody in the migrant population of 12,000 or 13,000.

The problems that people have right now, they’ll pass. Remember, keep this in historical perspective. Keep this in the perspective of what Hawaii prides itself on, its willingness, the rainbow thing, that fact that we’re all different ethnicities, and the language groups and so forth, that there has been wave after wave that have been successfully assimilated into Hawaii’s culture. What, do people think there is some problem with incorporating this one? (He chuckles.) Does this grand history stop all of a sudden? I don’t think so.

About the Author