Ken Norton, who has served in Guam since 2015, tells about typhoon-preparedness, the Guam-Micronesia Mission’s new sailboat, the student missionaries who teach in the islands’ 11 Adventist schools, and why he likes his job so much.
Question: You are president of the Guam-Micronesia Mission, which is a mission of the North American Division. A few weeks ago, the islands of Saipan and Tinian were hit by Typhoon Yutu -- the worst storm ever to hit the Mariana Islands. The category 5 super typhoon caused catastrophic damage on these two islands, and destroyed an Adventist church. How else did this storm impact the church and its work on the islands?
Answer: I returned recently from a visit to both Tinian and Saipan. The devastation is worse than I had expected.
Many of our church members lost their homes and most of their belongings. On Tinian several of the families have moved into the church until their homes are able to be rebuilt. We heard story after story of families hiding in the bathroom or a closet trying to hold the door closed as their roofs were torn off, windows shattered, and in some cases their belongings sucked out of the houses. By God’s grace, no lives of church members were lost.
With the help of generators, the Seventh-day Adventist Dental Clinic and School are back up and running in Saipan. It is going to take time to rebuild one of the churches in Saipan that had major damage, but the church members and workers in our institutions are full of courage and determination to keep moving forward with God’s work even while most of them don’t have electricity, water, and in some cases shelter.
What is the Guam-Micronesia Mission doing to help the people affected by the typhoon?
We have been working with the North American Division Adventist Community Services Disaster Relief department to help communities on both Saipan and Tinian to begin the rebuilding process.
Derrick Lea, Director for NAD Adventist Community Services Disaster Relief has been to Saipan and Tinian over this last week to train church members how to assess homes and provide vouchers for community families to get the items needed in rebuilding.
Max Mays, our local Adventist Community Services director, was involved in getting much-needed supplies to our church members on both islands immediately after the storm took place. As one might imagine, it is much harder to get personnel and supplies to islands right after a major storm when both airports and shipping ports are closed due to major damage.
Are you doing anything to be more prepared for possible future storms?
Yes. We have come up with a plan to have a shipping container filled with emergency supplies on each of the islands that are in “typhoon alley” here in Micronesia. This will allow us to be first responders after a storm and fill the space between when the storm hits and when we are able to get supplies by ship or plane to the affected island.
I understand that the Mission has recently purchased a boat. Can you tell us about that? Why do you need a boat? Did you not have one before?
One of our greatest challenges is how to bring the Adventist message to the outer islands in the Guam-Micronesia Mission territory. In our territory there are 92 inhabited islands with a total population around 400,000. Of those 92 islands, 66 have no Adventist presence. Many of those islands do not have air strips and are only accessible by boat.
With the help of the North American Division and Hope for Humanity we recently purchased a 58-foot sailing vessel that we want to use to reach the unentered islands. We plan to use the boat to transport medical teams, short-term mission teams, teachers, missionaries, and Bible workers to the outer islands. There have been other Adventist supporting ministries such as Canvasback Missions that have operated boats in the islands in the past, but this is the first time Guam-Micronesia Mission has been directly involved with this type of initiative using a sailboat.
How many schools does the Mission operate? Are they mostly staffed by missionaries? How does that work? How do you recruit?
We have 11 schools on nine different islands with another one to open soon on an outer island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. We have over 2,000 students in our Guam-Micronesia educational school system.
Student missionaries and recent graduates from North America make up a large portion of our teaching staff in our island schools. We also have a great team of local teachers as well as Adventist Volunteer Service teachers from many different countries around the world. It is not uncommon to have five or more different nationalities working together as part of a school staff.
We recruit primarily through our website (www.gmmsda.org) and also by working closely with the Chaplain and Student Missionary departments in our Adventist colleges and universities in the North American Division.
What are some other projects the Mission is working on?
Last year, in partnership with Adventist World Radio and the North American Division, we began an initiative to place FM radio stations on all the main islands where we currently have churches and schools. For many years Guam and Saipan have been the only islands where we have a FM radio presence. This year we set up towers and are now broadcasting on Majuro, Kosrae, and Ebeye and are working to have stations on Yap and Pohnpei in the next six months.
The radio ministry of Joy FM in Guam has resulted in many baptisms over the years and we are praying for the same results on all the other islands.
What do you find takes up most of your time in your job?
There is quite a bit of air travel associated with this position since that is the only way to get to the island areas where our schools and churches are. Most people don’t realize that Guam-Micronesia Mission is roughly the same geographic size as the United States. It is a shorter distance between New York and Los Angeles than it is between Palau and Majuro, the two farthest islands that bookend the Mission’s territory.
Outside of traveling, my time is filled with the usual administrative responsibilities of answering emails, committee meetings, preaching appointments, and working alongside a great team here in the Guam-Micronesia Mission headquarters.
How is the Guam-Micronesia Mission different than working in other missions or unions in other areas of the world? How many church members do you have?
Guam-Micronesia Mission currently has a membership of 5,783.
Having worked for several years in Thailand I sometimes find myself comparing the similarities and differences of working in the islands compared to working in Southeast Asia. The islands are similar to Thailand in that people are so gracious, welcoming, and hospitable. Unlike Thailand, most people speak English which makes it much easier to get to know people and participate in local community events.
One very positive aspect in the islands that is also a great challenge for mission work is the closeness of the family unit and the high importance placed on keeping the family together. Individuals that want to become Seventh-day Adventists often face the difficult reality of being ostracized from their family if they choose a way different from their family religious upbringing. On the other hand, we have been blessed to have entire families become part of the Adventist family here in the islands, which makes for a much stronger local church.
As in any mission field context, there are challenges that impede the spread of the gospel, but we are thankful for the workers in our field who have dedicated themselves to this work so that islanders may see the clear picture of a loving God and learn new truths that will bring joy and peace to their homes and communities.
How long have you served in the Guam-Micronesia Mission? Where was your previous role? How long do you expect to stay?
We have just begun our third year this time in Micronesia. Our family was on the island of Palau from 2004-2007 during which time I pastored the Koror Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Before moving to Guam we were at Southern Adventist University where I served as Pastor for Outreach and Evangelism at the Collegedale Church and my wife served as Student Missions Coordinator for Southern Adventist University.
We plan to serve in Guam-Micronesia Mission until God makes it clear that we are to serve somewhere else.
What do you most like about your job now? What do you find the most difficult?
I love working alongside such an amazing team of Guam-Micronesia Mission employees and volunteers who are so dedicated and passionate about what they do. It is a very rewarding part of my job to figure out ways to help support our different frontline teams as they serve in our churches, schools, clinics, and radio stations.
The greatest difficulty at the present time is having enough resources — both people and financial — to reach all the islands that have no Adventist presence. Much of our resources are tied up with sustaining our already established institutions, which makes it difficult to establish new work in new places. But we are committed to overcoming this challenge and finding ways to bring the gospel message and truths of Adventism to all the islands in Guam-Micronesia Mission territory.
Where are you from originally?
Do you miss it?
We very much miss being close to family and friends, but as far as the weather goes, we much prefer the tropics to gloomy Tennessee winters. :)
Is that where you went to school?
I graduated with a B.A. in Theology from Southern Adventist University and a Masters in Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Andrews University.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family? Do they like living on Guam?
My wife’s name is Julie and we have two children, Ken and Michelle. Ken is a Sophomore at Southern Adventist University and Michelle is a senior here at Guam Adventist Academy. Michelle loves it here and has enjoyed the experience of island life as a teenager.
What do you wish more people of the North American Division knew or understood about the Guam-Micronesia Mission?
We want people to know there are lots of opportunities for them to get involved in frontline mission work right here in their mission field, Guam-Micronesia Mission. There are lots of opportunities, whether you are a college student or retiree, to serve for one or two years as a missionary on one of the islands. A list of our current missionary openings can be found on our website www.gmmsda.org. We also have a list of projects that need financial support on our website as well.
If coming as a missionary is not an option or your current situation doesn’t allow you to financially contribute, then we ask for your support in prayer. Please join us in praying that God will continue to expand His kingdom in the islands and give His workers here wisdom and boldness as they share the love of Jesus to the beautiful, gracious islanders in the territory of Guam-Micronesia Mission.
Photo courtesy of Ken Norton.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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