The other night when I was invited to lead prayers at a Chuukese wake, I thought I knew what to expect. First of all, the viewing was not for a single person, but for two young men–first cousins, as it happens, who died violent deaths. The two youths, one of them just 18 and the other in his early 20s, died of gunshot wounds to the head, after another young man, who was hit in the face with a slingshot, caught up with them and killed them both. Who started the trouble? The shooter said that one of the Chuukese did. Who knows? Maybe the court will clarify all this in the course of time. But that evening my job was not to determine responsibility for the crime; it was to comfort the families of these two young men.
When I first arrived at Xavier in 1963 to begin teaching, basketball was all but unknown in the islands. Baseball was the sport of that era, dating back to the Japanese administration before the war. By the end of my first year, the Xavier team had uniforms and were playing the Filipino workers around the island. The next year they were playing Truk High School, which also had put together a team. Basketball in Chuuk was on its way to becoming the popular sport it is today.
I’m in Saipan for a few days, nominally to consult with the bishop here on his pastoral planning but also to break out of the confines of Guam for a change of pace. And a great change of pace it is, truth to tell! The bed in the rectory is beyond comfortable, so for the past two days I’ve been huddled in it for hours, day and night. But only until I am restored to full energy, I tell myself, as I sniffle and cough myself to sleep.
In the 1960s everything seemed possible. Want to grow a major tourist industry for a small island nation? No problem.
Continental Airlines had just entered the region, bringing jets and the promise of a strong marketing campaign. “Feel the warmth of Paradise” was the slogan on the posters that were beginning to appear in Asian and American cities. Within a few years, Continental built its own hotels in Palau, Chuuk, and Saipan.
I was still a young priest in 1975 when a young Chuukese friend hanged himself. Then, a few weeks later, another acquaintance took his own life. Before long I found myself paying attention to the stories of others doing the same. It was the beginning of my 40 years of research on suicide–research driven not by theoretical concerns, but by a determination to find out what was responsible for the early deaths of a growing number of islanders.