Learning from a Distance

“Step back from your normal life to get a better perspective of who you are.”

After I graduated from my Adventist academy in 2016, I found myself without direction for the first time in my life. I took a gap year after my first year of college in order to save money for my tuition; planning to attend a public university in my hometown to avoid student loans and large debt. I obtained my first job as a barista not too far from my house.

I quite enjoyed my work and meeting a lot of new people from different walks of life. But soon I realized my desire for travel and to get out of my hometown; to experience what was beyond my horizons. One of my good friends was accepted as a student missionary to the island of Palau and thought it a great opportunity for us to adventure the world together. Unfortunately for me, the process was difficult, money was hard to obtain, and I never even finished the application process.

I gave up on missionary work, and returned to my regular routine. Eventually, I started my first semester of college at Montana State University, declaring a Physics major. After working at the coffee shop for only a year and a half, I was promoted to store manager at nineteen-years-old. I felt like I had a lot to prove. I was young, inexperienced, and suddenly in charge of those who were formerly my superiors. So, while starting my second semester of college with a full course load, I began working an average of 60-hour work weeks.

Unfortunately, this constant cycle of minimal sleep, extreme work hours, classes, and homework all got the best of me in the fall of 2018. I eventually came to the point where I was forced to drop out of my college courses due to a lack of funds in the midst of my third semester. Before this point, I had ignored clear signs of extreme depression and anxiety, and it was then too late to realize how they had taken over. A couple of months later, I found myself in a secluded facility -- for those suspected of attempting suicide-- for a required 72 hours.

Upon release, I was required to meet with my family doctor, as well as, a therapist for treatment. It was at this time I decided to make a change in my life. The regular day-to-day of work and school wasn't cutting it for me, and I wanted to get away. I decided to try applying for another mission, praying that if God wanted me to go, He would send me to a place that really needed me and where I could utilize the talents that I have.

Missionaries from Ken's year on Ebeye

God answered my call when I was accepted to serve as a missionary to the island of Ebeye, where I was to be the Art/Music teacher. It proved to be an extreme growing process which helped me eventually fall in love with teaching, as well as with the people on these islands. While it was great in a lot of ways, it was also a struggle in others. I was fighting off a resurgence of depressive symptoms for a good part of the new year. That, coupled with COVID-19 just looming over the horizon, had me come to the tough decision that it would be best for me to leave the island before the start of the fourth quarter. Luckily, I was able to receive the help I needed when I returned to the United States.

Ken's sketches -- this one of a Guam Kingfisher -- documents his experiences.

It wasn’t long, however, before I started to realize how unsatisfied I was with my performance on Ebeye. It felt as though I had some unfinished business. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. When Guam-Micronesia Mission released on their social media that they were looking for teachers to assist their island schools remotely from the Guam headquarters, a fellow missionary from Ebeye reached out to see if I was ready for another adventure.

Now I'm back in the Pacific for my second school year. Teaching to not one but four different islands across Micronesia. I'm sharing my talents, my love for knowledge and growth, and my story to those who wish to receive it. I'm doing my best to shape the lives of young people into something beautiful, and to give them a desire for something greater.

Ken (right) with the missionaries on Guam teaching other schools virtually.

As I look back, some of the best advice I received was to "take it easy”. In the islands, things are different. People move at a much slower pace, and their priorities are very different from those we have in the United States. I think I wasn't fully ready to accept the culture, and instead of fighting the things that plagued these students in their personal lives, I was too busy fighting the actual culture of the islands. To avoid burnout, it would help if missionaries could embrace the different lifestyle. Being willing to live in the culture as a local will help people bend and not break. 

I used to wonder why I was alive, and sometimes I still do. But here on these little islands way out in the ocean, I think I'm moving closer and closer to finding that answer. It makes me feel like I'm bigger than myself, and that for once in recent years, I'm doing something right. 

We can’t leave our struggles behind, but we can grow in our relationship with God. I'm still human, and don't pretend to be something that I'm not. But if there's one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it's that mission work is nothing like anything I've ever done before. When we leave to go on a mission, we don't just face the obstacles in the world, but also in ourselves. You work to make the environment of the school and island more peaceful, but it's the same battle we face in our own minds and hearts. I had to face a lot of the things I was running from, and wasn't prepared to face that alone. Missionaries need to be ready to face themselves and be prepared to change themselves for the better.

I would ask anyone considering missions to take a step back from your normal life; to get a better perspective of who you are. Serving has been very rewarding. It was where I experienced fulfillment for the first time in my adult life, and it is why I returned to serve.

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