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Marshall Islands church in Spokane retains Pacific traditions

Marshall Islanders, who are among nearly 900 Pacific Islanders and native Hawaiians living in Spokane County, turn to their church to help them retain their culture, language and community. 

Church retains Pacific traditions

Lise & Shem Mito
Lise and Shem Mito of the United Church of Christ Marshall Islands in Spokane

Marshall Islanders, who are among nearly 900 Pacific Islanders and native Hawaiians living in Spokane County, turn to their church to help them retain their culture, language and community.  Those who have moved to Spokane for educational and job opportunities face adjustment to a different economy and different values, said Shem Mito, deacon at the Jaran Radrikdron Congregational United Church of Christ in Spokane.

Those who have moved to Spokane for educational and job opportunities face adjustment to a different economy and different values, said Shem Mito, deacon at the Jaran Radrikdron Congregational United Church of Christ in Spokane.

As they mix U.S. and Marshallese cultures, they try to keep two essential values of their culture:  respect and sharing.

Shem, who came in June 2007 from Hawaii with his wife Lise to live near their daughter and grandchildren, described some of the differences:

In Spokane, Marshallese rent housing, but in the Marshall Islands, many own their land and do not have to pay for housing. 

Only four islands have electricity.  People living on outer islands have no electricity, cook food in underground ovens and do not have utility bills.  Many fish and grow food on subsistence farms.  When someone goes fishing, he shares the fish he catches with relatives and neighbors.

Because Marshall Islanders here need to have jobs to pay for rent, utilities and food, they help each other find employment.

Marshallese can migrate freely to the United States under the 1986 Compact of Free Association.  About 20,000 live in Arkansas and 5,000 in Hawaii. 

Because about 55 percent of the 60,000 Marshall Islanders are in the Congregational United Church of Christ (UCCMI) and 26 percent in the Assembly of God Church, Marshallese in Spokane have started churches of those denominations.

The UCCMI church rents space Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings at Trinity United Methodist Church, 1725 E. Bridgeport.  The Assembly of God church meets on occasion at Center Pointe.

Recently, Shem shared his story in the context of the history, culture and church life of Marshall Islanders.

The Marshall Islands include islands in 29 coral atolls and five large islands spread over more than 750,000 square miles of the Pacific north of the equator west of the international dateline.

From 1946 to 1958, U.S. tests of 67 nuclear weapons left the northern atolls of Bikini, Enewetak, Utrik and Rongelap uninhabitable.  People moved to other islands.  Fallout spread over all the islands.  Some people still suffer from tumors, thyroid problems and retardation.

Women still give birth to deformed babies.  Some lack all or part of their skeletons and die shortly after birth.

While atomic tests ended before his birth in 1955 on Ebeye in the Kwajalien Atoll—an atoll is a group of islands surrounding a lagoon—Shem said his parents and grandparents told of red sunrises when bombs exploded and of fishermen who became sick and died after powder fell on them while they were in their boats.

“We pray for those affected,” Shem said.

The United States has provided some compensation for people from the northern islands, but negotiations are still underway, and people continue to be sick, he said.  A bill in the U.S. Senate would increase funding for nuclear waste cleanup, health care, relocated people and those who cleaned contaminated sites.

When Shem was young, his family moved from Kwajalien Atoll, which has a U.S. military base, to the Ailuk Atoll, where he attended elementary school. 

Shem graduated in 1974 from high school in the capitol, Majuro.  After vocational studies in the Palau Islands, he spent two years studying at Filandia University in Hancock, Mich., to be a secondary school teacher.  Returning to Majuro, he finished studies at the College of the Marshall Islands in 1980.  He taught in elementary and secondary schools there from 1983 to 2002.

When he married in 1985, he said, “I took Jesus to be my Lord and decided to be a pastor, too.”

In 1994, he became assistant pastor of the Marshall Islands Congregational United Church of Christ, which he did along with teaching, until he moved to Kona, Hawaii, to teach high school, including English as a second language.  He and Lise have two married children in Hawaii. 

Shem worked last year as a substitute teacher for Spokane public schools and now provides home care for two senior men through Senior Helpers in Spokane Valley, two hours a day.  He helps with meals, transportation and personal needs.

Members visited several churches before deciding to hold services and activities in their own language at Trinity United Methodist.

The church’s women’s program meets Thursdays in the home of the pastor Aimokwe Hisaiah, whom the UCCMI sent last November.  There is a program for children and youth.

“After our worship from 1:30 to 4 p.m., we have activities and share foods,” Shem said.

The church has about 40 members.  On Sundays 60 to 100 attend with about 100 children. 

For birthdays, Constitution Day May 1 and other celebrations, people in the churches and wider community gather for feasts, singing and dancing.

Marshallese men in Spokane work in various factory jobs.  Many are looking for full-time jobs.  The women who work do housekeeping or restaurant jobs, said Shem, who has been in the United States more than five years and seeks to be a citizen.

“The church is an important part of our culture and customs in the Marshall Islands.  When missionaries from the American Board for Foreign Mission came in 1857, they negotiated with the chiefs, and everyone became part of the church.

From the start, the Marshall Islanders did the mission work.

When the United Church of Christ formed in 1957, the Marshallese church took that name. 

The UCCMI has congregations in Los Angeles, Honolulu and Eugene, Ore.  It is affiliated with the Wider Church Ministry of the UCC and the Division of Overseas Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

For information, call 217-9088 or email shemmito@hotmail.com.