The flag of the Marshall Islands.

Photograph by Aboodi Vesakaran via Unsplash. Adapted by The Christian Citizen.

Living with and learning from my Marshallese neighbors

May 2, 2024

The Marshall Islands are the only location in the Pacific (and the world) where the U.S. conducted extensive nuclear testing. Over 60 atom bombs were tested on various atolls across the Marshall Islands, which resulted in tragic levels of exposure to radiation to the Marshallese people.

Even today there are many places in the Marshall Islands where radiation levels are higher than Chernobyl.

As a result, many health outcomes in the Marshallese community are inequitable. We literally contaminated their whole nation and to this day the Marshallese are living with the effects of long-term exposure to radiation. Add to this radiation exposure the outsize impact climate change is having on the disappearance of their atolls, and you come to realize how disastrous our collective actions have been for the Marshallese people.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. Because such a large percentage of the Marshallese now live in Northwest Arkansas, the community will host dozens of events across the region. Inevitably, one part of the story that is told is the story of these impacts.

As a neighbor to the Marshallese, I hope for an official apology. The U.S. has apologized for dropping nuclear bombs on Japan but has never apologized to the Marshallese. Additionally, the Marshallese themselves hope part of that apology includes the full release of classified documents from the era of nuclear testing, because, as Benetick Kabua Maddison, director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative, says, “There is no closure without full disclosure.” You can hear his full recent speech to the UN here.

Mazie K. Hirono, the first Asian American woman senator, said at a conference I attended with my Marshallese neighbors in 2022: “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” This was certainly true of the Marshallese; because they did not have a seat at the U.S. national defense strategy table, they ended up “on the menu” as the location for our nuclear testing.

The situation has been made more complex by the reality that as a result of the Compact of Free Association the Marshall Islands and the U.S. signed decades ago, now tens of thousands of Marshallese live in diaspora in the United States. The compact allows Marshallese to freely travel to the United States, live and work here. But there is not a clear pathway to citizenship and Marshallese who live here under the compact have a reduced set of rights (for example, they cannot vote).

Thankfully, restoring Marshallese Arkansans’ eligibility for SNAP and other safety-net programs is among the legislative fixes contained in a recent funding bill that President Biden signed into law. They have been fighting for this reform for more than 20 years.

Our congregation launched a program at the beginning of the pandemic we call Ozark Atolls. Led and directed by the dynamic community leader Albious Latior, Ozark Atolls serves the Marshallese community in myriad ways, offering legal clinics, drivers’ education classes, assistance with rent and housing, hosting community events, visiting elders, organizing youth, maintaining Marshallese culture, and interpreting it to the surrounding community.

Now a few years into this work, we’ve been learning Marshallese communities across the United States are growing and interested in connecting with area nonprofits, churches, and community resources. Albious and I will travel in late July to visit one such community in Dubuque, Iowa, perhaps the second largest Marshallese community in the Midwest after Northwest Arkansas. We’ll spend time at Wartburg Seminary, a Lutheran seminary in Dubuque, facilitating mutual connections between Lutherans and Marshallese, as well as Marshallese (and other Pacific Islanders) from Iowa.

Tens of thousands of Marshallese live in diaspora in the United States. Our own church has discovered that sharing space with our Marshallese neighbors has helped us grow spiritually while providing safe space for a displaced people.

I’ll be honest. When we first moved to Northwest Arkansas, a fact of the place that thrilled me was the large population of Marshallese who had resettled to the area. I looked forward to learning their story.

However, there is a lot of cultural distance between the Marshallese community and someone like me. Although I can’t and shouldn’t blame cultural distance for the pace of slow engagement I’ve had with the Marshallese community over the past decade – the slowness is as much my own malingering and distraction as anything – it’s also true that cross-cultural overtures are ripe for potential abuse.

I remember back when I served as a missionary in Slovakia, a missionary who had served for decades in Namibia said: “Only missionaries who have been in a country for less than nine months or over 30 years really know the place.” Think about it a bit, and you’ll see the painful dark humor of that statement.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is although I had a real curiosity about my Marshallese neighbors, I felt it was inappropriate to seek out connections with the community simply to meet my own needs. So as a Lutheran pastor hoping to connect with the Marshallese, I had to ask myself, what is the touch point? They don’t need to join my church. They have vital, thriving churches. So why connect?

Here’s what I’ve discovered. What the Marshallese need are allies and friends. That’s one part of the mutual relationship we can build. The other is advocacy. We have not treated our Marshallese neighbors well. We caused immeasurable harm with our nuclear tests, and now with climate change their islands are literally being swallowed up by rising sea levels. In the meantime, negotiations on resources and protections for Marshallese with the U.S. government are ongoing, and they really need and deserve a better deal than the one they have. They will be more likely to get a better deal if their neighbors who vote and have a voice speak up on their behalf and reach out to support them.

The other thing churches can do to be neighborly is simply to share space. Many of the Marshallese churches, as vital and active as they are, are currently tucked into rental facilities in various places across Springdale. They simply haven’t had the opportunity to build the church infrastructure that comes with the financial support of big donors who have built up large estates from which they can make donations. Our own church has discovered that sharing space with our Marshallese neighbors has helped us grow spiritually while providing safe space for a displaced people.

We still have our growing edges. I believe the Marshallese churches in general are still only somewhat ready to have a conversation about LGBTQ inclusion. Meanwhile, our white church isn’t generally very comfortable worshiping in other languages or really creating space that feels like “home” for non-white communities.

In this sense, we are growing together – church not as “I have something to give you that will save you” but “we mutually share with one another in a way similar to the way the members of the Trinity share in each other’s life.”

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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