In John They Trust- page 6 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Villagers on the island of Tanna dance in John Frum's honor each February 15. Clan leaders first saw their Yankee Messiah in the late 1930s. He later appeared to them during WWII, dressed in white like the unidentified navy seaman. (Paul Raffaele)

In John They Trust

South Pacific villagers worship a mysterious American they call John Frum - believing he'll one day shower their remote island with riches

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All morning I watch as vocalists with a string band sing hymns about Prophet Fred while several wild-eyed women stumble around in what appears to be a trance. They faith-heal the sick by clutching the ailing area of the body and praying silently to the heavens, casting out demons. Now and then they pause to clutch with bony fingers at the sky. “They do this every Wednesday, our holy day,” Tarawai explains. “The Holy Spirit has possessed them, and they get their healing powers from him and from the sun.”

Back in Lamakara, John Frum Day dawns warm and sticky. After the flag raising, Chief Isaac and other cult leaders sit on benches shaded by palm fronds as several hundred followers take turns performing traditional dances or modern improvisations. Men and boys clad in stringy bark skirts stride onto the dancing ground clutching replicas of chain saws carved from jungle boughs. As they thump their feet in time to their own singing, they slash at the air with the make-believe chain saws. “We’ve come from America to cut down all the trees,” they sing, “so we can build factories.”

On the day before I leave Tanna, Chief Isaac and I finally climb the slippery ash slopes of Yasur, the ground trembling about every ten minutes with each thunderous explosion from within the volcano’s crater. Every ear-humming bang sends a huge plume of potentially killer gas high into the sky, a mingling of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen chloride.

Darkness brings a spectacular display, as molten lava explodes from the crater’s vents, shooting into the air like giant Roman candles. Two people were killed here by “lava bombs,” or falling chunks of volcanic rock, in 1994. Chief Isaac leads me to a spot on the crumbling rim, away from the drift of the hazardous gas but still within reach of the incandescent bombs the unpredictable volcano bursts into the air.

The chief tells me about his trip to the United States in 1995, and shows faded pictures of himself in Los Angeles, outside the White House and with a drill sergeant at a military base. He says he was astonished by the wealth of the United States, but surprised and saddened by the poverty he saw among white and black Americans alike, and by the prevalence of guns, drugs and pollution. He says he returned happily to Sulphur Bay. “Americans never show smiling faces,” he adds, “and so it seems they always think that death is never far away.”

When I ask what he most wants from America, the simplicity of his request moves me: “A 25-horsepower outboard motor for the village boat. Then we can catch much fish in the sea and sell them in the market so that my people can have a better life.”

As we look down into John Frum’s fiery Tanna home, I remind him that not only does he not have an outboard motor from America, but that all the devotees’ other prayers have been, so far, in vain. “John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” I point out. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?”

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he says, “and you haven’t given up hope.”

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