October 15, 2008

By Greg Grisolano
Joplin Globe

GOODMAN, Mo. - An event on Saturday August 10 was a memorial for those who died tragically and a celebration of young life born in the aftermath of their deaths.

A steady drizzle didn't stop hundreds of Micronesians from gathering at the home of Lovihna and the late Kernel Rehobson for a memorial service commemorating the one-year anniversary of a deadly shooting at the First Congregational Church of Neosho.

"If the weather was sunny today, I bet you it would be triple the size," said Inderson Rehobson, Kernel Rehobson's uncle.

The event also was a birthday party celebration for Kernel and Lovihna Rehobson's granddaughter, Resel-Gene, who was born shortly after the shooting.

"It was 17 days after he passed away that she was born," Lovihna Rehobson said. "He was looking forward to that granddaughter."

A public memorial service for the victims has been scheduled for noon Tuesday at the First Congregational Church, 115 N. Wood St. in downtown Neosho. Inderson Rehobson said a portion of the ceremony will be conducted in the native language of the Micronesians.

The close-knit community of Pacific Islanders was rocked when Rehobson and two other deacons were killed by a lone gunman during church services on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007.

Kernel Rehobson, 43, of Goodman, served as a pastor at the church. Also killed were his uncle, Intenson S. Rehobson, 44, and Kuhpes Jesse Ikosia, 53, also of Goodman. Four other people were wounded.

The Micronesian community has struggled with the loss of men who were looked to as local leaders, but some say the tragedy has united them with the Americans among whom they now make their homes.

Inderson Rehobson said several people are trying to fill the void left by Kernel Rehobson's death. Kernel Rehobson served as a spiritual leader, economic adviser, and at times a de facto ambassador for his people to local business and community leaders.

"To be very honest, it hasn't been filled yet," Inderson Rehobson said. "Kernel was so good, and we all are trying our best to be like him."

But the shooting unified the Micronesian and non-Micronesian people of the Neosho area, and induced the city to offer "the hand of friendship" in the wake of the slayings, according to Neosho Mayor Howard Birdsong.

"We saw only friends and neighbors who were hurting and grieving the loss of their loved ones," Birdsong said when the city made a "sister city" pact with the island community of Pohnpei at a meeting on July 8. Pohnpei is one of four states that constitute the Federated States of Micronesia

Although religion is an important part of the Micronesians' lives, Inderson Rehobson said many of the people struggled initially with returning to the First Congregational Church.

"There's a barrier in between," said Inderson Rehobson, who has assumed the duties of senior pastor for his people's congregation. "Some people are still scared or they don't want to see that place because it reminds them of the incident."

The pastor of the First Congregational Church said he believes the tragedy has brought his congregation closer to the Micronesians, who attend regular services on Sunday mornings and also hold separate services in their native language on Sunday afternoons.

"We were in a merger kind of a thing around the time the tragedy took place," said pastor Thomas Thorne. "It was the hope of Kernel that we could get together more and merge into one congregation officially."

Thorne said it was a "gradual process" for the Micronesians to continue attending church services. Now, many of the Pacific Islanders attend regular morning services on Sundays.

"They meet with us now twice a month," he said. "Then they have their services on the other Sundays. We're now meeting together on a very regular basis."

Thorne said he believes the sister-city pact has strengthened the bonds between the islanders and the local community.

"Without the tragedy that we've had, that probably never would have happened," he said.

It is estimated that 1,000 Micronesians live in the Southwest Missouri area. Many came to work at the Tyson poultry plant in Noel and have since been bringing their families over. Micronesia was among a group of Pacific islands administered by the United States from the end of World War II until 1979. The two countries now have a Compact of Free Association, allowing Micronesia's inhabitants to enter the United States without visas and to establish residences here for work or schooling without having to meet the requirements for other non-U.S. citizens, according to the city of Neosho.

Lovihna Rehobson said she believes her husband would be pleased with the progress made between the Micronesians and the local community, particularly the sister-city relationship.

"He always tried to get to know people and to help people," she said. "He would be so, so glad that this thing happened."