Sunday, December 20, 2009

Like Scrooge, Visited by the Spirit

We'd had a busy semester and I was looking forward to finally being together as a family (minus our two sons who are in college) for a relaxed Christmas day full of family traditions. I'd put off buying much in the way of gifts because I always felt overwhelmed/discouraged when I'd walk into the stores. Then, just like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, I felt like I was led by "the Spirit" to see/experience two events that have completely altered the way I will "do" Christmas this year.

First, we went to the college to pick up our mail. Scattered around the campus, like shattered pieces of glass, sat students unable to get back to their islands. They had requested to stay on-campus and do facility maintenance to earn a few extra bucks which will be spent on their favorite affordable food: Top Ramon, raw fish, and various canned meats (Spam being their first preference). When asked what they would do on Christmas Day, they indicated no plans--just hanging out on the all-but-deserted Pacific Islands University campus. Now, you need to know that personal gift-giving is not part of their routine Christmas celebration. They have little cash, and there aren't really stores, as we know them,
 on most of their islands. However, one thing that is a very important part of their tradition is the gathering of the community for a Christmas celebration with lots of local food taking center stage. Everyone brings their best food to share. It broke my heart to picture these students "stranded" on campus, isolated from their family and homeland, eating dry packages of Top Ramon with Kool-Aid powder added as a special treat.

The second thing that grabbed me was an article in Guam's paper, the PDN. The summary read as follows: "The U.S. Air Force is parachuting about 10 tons of donated items to Pacific islanders throughout Micronesia during the 58th annual Operation Christmas Drop this week. Operation Christmas Drop is the longest running organized air drop in the world and one of the largest charity efforts in the Pacific."

I went to their site: and enjoyed wonderful pictures depicting both the process of getting the boxes to the islanders and also life on these remote islands. (I have copied and pasted below a collage of the more poignant pictures.) Having been to some of these remote islands in Chuuk myself, I could totally visualize the excitement of the military personnel in the plane as they fly over what appears to be an endless ocean, when suddenly, the far-off-shape of a green atoll rimmed in white surrounded by crystal clear turquoise water appears on the horizon. As the plane would hone in on one of these remote islands, the personnel would be desperately scouting for the location the natives have chosen for a drop zone. With no telephones or advanced equipment, finding the drop zone can be like finding Waldo! A drop zone can be as simple as a red sheet draped over a tree near the edge of the sea. Several small fishing boats huddle off-shore, waiting to snag the boxes from the tropical waters.

This year alone, Operation Christmas Drop brought tools, medical supplies, food, and gifts to nearly 50 islands in the Pacific. As I read the names of some of the islands receiving drops: Etol, Satowan, Moch, Oneop, etc., faces of our students hailing from these tiny islands appeared in my mind: beautiful faces, luminous eyes, gold-studded teeth, contagious smiles, musically gifted, having overcome impossible odds, and among some of the poorest people in the world. Having LITERALLY no income, these students have experienced life as subsistence farmers/fishermen. The pictures of the tin roofed shacks, schools nearly devoid of supplies, and the primitive attempts to catch rain for drinking water were striking reminders of the third-world conditions from which most of our students at PIU come. The photographs serve as a reality check to the extreme privilege in which we live. As eviscerated as the US economy seems, our housing, clean drinking water, medical care, excellent educational opportunities, and array of foods, demonstrate that we are more than blessed.

All of a sudden, the idea of a traditional Christmas surrounded by family seemed very hollow. This surprised me because I, like I'm guessing most of my American friends, treasure the precious, nearly sacred time spent with immediate family celebrating the birth of Christ. So, why is it that I am more excited about trying to get as many students into our home on Christmas and trying to figure out good gifts to give them than I have ever been about any Christmas past? (By the way, I'm thinking they would each LOVE a case of Top Ramon.) I think that for me, just like for Scrooge, the "Spirit" has "opened my eyes" to see what I have never really seen before. It is not a sacrifice to try to make our money stretch to include gifts for needy Micronesians. It is not a sacrifice to include these students in our Christmas Day traditions. Do you think Scrooge was bummed that "the spirit" had opened his eyes to the needs of those around him and the part that he could play to make a difference? Absolutely not! What excitement and joy we can experience when we respond to "the Spirit."

These pictures were taken from


Howard Merrell said...

Thanks, Eric, for a great post.
You, your family, and the PIU students who gather with you, have a great day.

Howard Merrell

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Anonymous said...

I recognize one of this picture as a picture of my island.