Hofstra Magazine

Tales from the South Pacific

Greg Oswald’s Faith Led to a Life-Changing Experience


For as long as he can remember, Greg Oswald ’03 knew that he would someday become a missionary. The where, the when and the how were still to be determined.

Oswald

Greg against the blue water of the Pacific.

“I can’t quite remember the exact moment,” he says. “It had been something I would frequently think about. I knew that this type of work would be extremely rewarding, but also extremely demanding. So I knew I would have to bide my time and wait until I was older and more mature.”

When the pieces finally came together after his graduation from Hofstra in December 2003, Greg was neither apprehensive nor sad to leave his family to live and work in the remote South Pacific Solomon Islands for a year. Elated, excited and full of hope would be better descriptors.

“At the beginning of my fall semester, junior year, I had started extensive research into different avenues I could take for missionary work.” After briefly investigating the Peace Corps, Greg says he began to look into Catholic missions and mission organizations. “I quickly realized how many different options there were, things like places to go, types of work and lengths of term. There are a million things to consider when you are getting into it.”

During the course of his research, Greg began communicating with a Jesuit priest in Kenya who operated an orphanage for children with AIDS. Greg was very interested in working with him, but plans fell through when ethnic strife in Kenya caused very dangerous conditions for foreigners. Disappointed but not discouraged, Greg came into contact with Bishop Chris Cardone, who heads a Catholic mission in the Solomon Islands. His diocese consists of more than 100 islands covering 800 square miles of water.

The two men met when the bishop was on Long Island visiting family. “Over the next couple of months I developed a dialogue with Bishop Chris through e-mail,” says Greg. “By mid-summer [2003] I made a verbal commitment to the bishop to dedicate a year to work in the Solomon Islands in any capacity he needed me.”

Plans were in motion for Greg to enter a world very different from his life on Long Island and at Hofstra. He met the future with a great sense of optimism and no hesitation. “Because my decision to work in a mission was made up in my mind for years, it wasn’t a question of whether I would go, but when and where. I was euphoric when my plans were finalized about going to the Solomon Islands.

“People don’t believe me when I tell them, but I had no worries at all. I wasn’t scared or nervous, but excited and eager. I was completely at peace with myself at that time. I had prepared myself mentally, physically and – most importantly – spiritually for this mission. So graduation came and went, and then in February I was on a plane to the South Pacific.”

A scattered archipelago of about 1,000 mountainous islands and low-lying coral atolls, the Solomon Islands lie east of Papua New Guinea and northeast of Australia in the South Pacific. If the prospect of leaving home, family and job prospects behind in New York wouldn’t be scary enough for most people, Greg also had to contend with the fact that he had no formal training for the work he was about to undertake. “But that was what made the experience even more exciting for me,” he says. “Most people usually go through an extensive preparation period where they are introduced to the people and culture, language and political aspects of the country. I, on the other hand, went in an unorthodox way to the missions. All I knew was a date to come and that I would be working in one of three places: Moli, Mono or Nila. Nila was where I wound up.”

The official language of the Solomon Islands is English, used commonly in business and politics. More widely used is Solomon Islands pidgin. A number of the islands also have their own indigenous language and for many residents, that is all they speak and understand.

Greg’s journey to the islands was his first adventure of many over the following year. A Raiders of the Lost Ark-style map would pinpoint stops in London, Singapore and Brisbane, Australia, before he reached Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on Guadalcanal Island. Greg next flew on a leaky, 16-seat prop plane to Gizo, the capital of the western province and the home of the bishop. “Arriving at Gizo Airport,” Greg says, “Bishop Chris was there to greet me with a custom shell necklace and a quick boat ride to the island where the Dominicans lived. I stayed there for two days and learned about my final destination and my work. I was to be a teacher at a secondary boarding school in Nila on Shortland Island, one of the most remote regions of the country,” Greg says. More boat rides and hiking through the jungle led Greg to the place where he would spend the next year of his life: Tuha Secondary School, a 10-minute paddleboat ride from the Nila Parish.

Plane

A leaky prop plane brought Greg Oswald (right) to his destination at the Solomon Islands, where he worked as a missionary and teacher for a year.

“I can’t quite remember the exact moment,” he says. “It had been something I would frequently think about. I knew that this type of work would be extremely rewarding, but also extremely demanding. So I knew I would have to bide my time and wait until I was older and more mature.”

Greg’s arrival was cause for a large celebration. “A feast was prepared in my honor where the ‘Big Men’ – chiefs of various tribes in the parish – came and welcomed me to their home, giving me gifts such as food, shell necklaces, tobacco, rolls of linen, custom baskets and mats. There were speeches, songs and dance.

“Ninety percent of the people in the Shortland Islands are Roman Catholic because the Catholics were the only ones to set up a mission in such a remote area. I was loved instantaneously, not only because I was there to help the community, but purely for the fact that I was American.”

Greg soon learned that the Solomon Islands had endured a brutal occupation by the Japanese and had seen some of the most ferocious battles of World War II, most famously the battle of Guadalcanal. “With the American liberation of the islands,” Greg says, “and the way the American soldiers treated the natives – like equals – they were not quick to forget. So my being an American gave me instant fame.”

Greg lived in a house adjacent to Tuha Secondary School, “overlooking an inlet,” he says, “a million dollar view.” There were 150 students at the school, and their level of schooling was equivalent to the seventh, eighth and ninth grades. Classes were taught in English, but Greg learned pidgin in order to better communicate with the students. There were four other teachers, all natives, at the school. Only two of them were educated on the university level and were fluent in English.

“I had my hands full,” he says. “I taught English, science, social science, religions and some mathematics, and I was the soccer coach. I was also the school agriculturist, which made me responsible for the school farms [a food source for the children].

“I was quite surprised. These people grow up on the land and learn from a very young age how to use the land. I don’t know how to farm, but regardless I was the agriculturist. As it turns out, I was able to produce a successful crop, developing several projects. It might be that my biology background aided me.

“When I arrived, the farms were in bad shape, partly from neglect, partly from wild pigs and dogs. With the help of the students during daily work sessions, we cleared about three acres of jungle and expanded the crop. Using techniques that I had learned in botany, we grew seedlings in a spare bedroom in my house and then transplanted them into the farms. We grew cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, papaya, pineapple, tomatoes, peppers, watermelon and pumpkin. The students had more to eat and more variety in their diet.”

A typical day for Greg started at 5 a.m. “After my morning prayers I would walk to the shore and have a swim. Next was a shower back at my house and breakfast.” Greg’s breakfasts (and lunches) always consisted of a cup of coffee, some large Navy biscuits and a piece of fruit.

“School began at 7 a.m. and ended at 1 p.m. At 1:30 p.m. I would lead those students that wanted to participate in the Rosary. Every third week I was assigned ‘duty teacher’ responsibilities, which basically consisted of assigning the students various jobs around the campus, such as gardening, collecting wood for the school fires, clearing jungle and cutting grass.”

Oswald with Child

Greg with a young friend. Children as young as 4 years old learn how to work the land, fish and climb coconut trees for the sweet, unripe fruit.

“If I did not have duty teacher responsibilities, I would usually use that period of the day for work in my garden. There were no supermarkets where I was. There were local canteens, which were small shops consisting of basic things like canned goods, rice, batteries, soap, spices and tobacco. I would always have a good supply of rice on hand, but, otherwise, if I wanted to eat something I either had to grow or catch it. I did both,” Greg says.

“I became a good spear fisherman and skin diver. The boys at the school helped teach me. Three months into my year there, I was able to catch a nice fish within 20 minutes. It came to the point where I was able to choose what I wanted to eat on any given night. I could easily find fish, shrimp, lobster, octopus, eel, clams, crabs and snails. I wasn’t always successful – especially in the beginning – but that meant no food.

“Despite my success learning how to fish, I was always hungry. Fish and rice every day gets kind of boring. I lost 20 pounds that year, and I’m a skinny guy to begin with. I look back at some of the pictures and laugh at how I looked.

“By 7 p.m. each evening the sun would be down. I would light my kerosene lanterns and occasionally would have electricity if diesel was available to run our generator. During the night I would do some class work or read or write. It was very peaceful. To be left with nothing but your thoughts got lonely sometimes, but for the most part I was very happy.”

Fighting a near-fatal case of malaria, resuscitating a child who was foaming at the mouth from illness, and boating in an intense lightning storm with no land in sight (in an aluminum boat, no less) were among the most challenging days of Greg’s time in the Solomon Islands. But those experiences, in the end, left him feeling victorious and at peace with life and his decision to work in the mission. One story that brings back the happiest days of the year involved a coconut tree.

“The children of the Solomon Islands learn to climb the coconut trees at a very young age, usually around 4 years old. Some of the trees rise 150 feet or more. They do this to get the green, unripe coconuts, which are great. They possess a milk that tastes like tonic water, and the flesh is very sweet and soft to eat. The only way to get them is to climb the tree.

“I wanted to climb so I commissioned a couple of my students to teach me. It’s not complicated, but it takes strength and muscles I had never used before. It took me about two months to finally climb to the top of one. The view from the top was breathtaking. I think at that moment when I finally got to the top of the tree, the students respected me more, and my relationship with them deepened.”

While at school, Greg was completely disconnected from the outside world, with almost no contact with his family on Long Island. “Because of the isolated conditions of the islands in the west, there was no telephone, e-mail or post office. There wasn’t even electricity available for those things. The nearest telephone or computer was in Papua New Guinea. Even if I wanted to use a phone, I couldn’t afford it. I was receiving a stipend of approximately 14 Solomon dollars a day, which works out to be $2 a day. A five-minute phone call to the United States would cost about 100 Solomon dollars. I think I only called home once or twice in the year I was gone. Mail would take about two to three months to send or receive, so it was a little frustrating.”

Now back in New York and considering a career in medicine, Greg knows his year in the Solomon Islands was a precious, life-affirming experience. “Living and working in the Solomon Islands gave me a greater appreciation for my life at home. We are very blessed to live in a place where we have everything at our fingertips and have opportunities that you cannot find in a majority of places in the world.

“The funny thing, though, is that it was easier for me to adjust to life in the Solomon Islands than it was coming back home. It is amazing how much things change in one year and how much more complicated it is to live in our society, where you are pulled in a thousand different directions at once. My simpler life in the Solomon Islands made me realize that life is not about many of the things our society tells us. It is about family, hard work and faith. These are the things you come to realize when you are left with your thoughts and countless hours to reflect and contemplate life.

“I have seen a people so different from the world that we know. And though they have problems of their own, happiness and love seem to flourish in every corner of the Solomon Islands.”

“People don’t believe me when I tell them, but I had no worries at all. I wasn’t scared or nervous, but excited and eager. I was completely at peace with myself at that time. I had prepared myself mentally, physically and – most importantly – spiritually – for this mission.”

“My simpler life in the Solomon Islands made me realize that life is not about many of the things our society tells us. It is about family, hard work and faith.”

About the author

Hofstra Magazine

Hofstra Magazine is published once each year by Hofstra University. Our goal is to provide the Hofstra community with exciting and informative news about Hofstra University and its alumni, students, faculty and staff.

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