Vibrant Marshallese Community Arises in Oklahoma

July 18, 2021
Vibrant Marshallese Community Arises in Oklahoma

 By  Layli Miron  

In the early 2000s Enid, Oklahoma, had no Baha’i activities. Today, many of its more than 50 Baha’is are involved alongside friends in children’s classes, junior youth groups, study circles and devotional gatherings. 

What’s changed? The story starts with two Baha’i couples who each discovered the Faith on their own, along with the extended family of one of the couples.

The first to join the Faith—in 1968—was Nathan Palmer. Nathan has Cherokee and Powhatan ancestry and was raised in the Navajo Nation within New Mexico. Ever since he was a teen he has been serving the Faith, relocating dozens of times to help strengthen Baha’i communities. As he says, “I learned a long time ago that if I’m moving for the Faith, everything works out perfectly!”

Later, Jodi Palmer became a Baha’i in 1975. She grew up on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in a Creole-speaking family. And like Nathan, she has moved time and again, often to support Baha’i activities. Also like Nathan, she has Indigenous ancestry, tracing to Choctaw and Cherokee descent.

Baha’is and friends in Enid, Oklahoma, assemble for a devotional gathering in a picture taken before the pandemic.

Next to accept the Faith was Millhen Karben, who grew up in the Marshall Islands, a country near the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Millhen was a child when the United States was conducting nuclear testing there in the 1950s; he recalls something that “glowed pretty bright, especially at night—we didn’t know what it was.” Millhen’s family avoided the grievous radiation-related illnesses that afflicted other Marshallese, as they lived on the Ailuk Atoll, which escaped the worst fallout.

Around 1985, he was living on the Mili Atoll with his wife, Tomiko, and their children. One day when Millhen was taking a walk, “a Baha’i friend called me inside to share the Word of Baha’u’llah,” he recounts. Within a few years, he and his growing family became Baha’is.

Fast forward to 2006. Two years into their marriage, Nathan and Jodi Palmer wanted to relocate to serve the Faith. They chose Enid as their destination, both because of its need for Baha’i activities and because of a family connection.

After a few years the Palmers had made little headway in starting activities and were considering serving elsewhere. Then one day in 2009, they got a call from the Karbens’ daughter-in-law, Joelynn Clinton-Karben. She was asking about Baha’i activities.

The previous year her in-laws, Millhen and Tomiko, had moved to Enid to join two of their children, who were attending college there. They had initially struggled to find fellow Baha’is in the area — but then Joelynn discovered an ad Nathan and Jodi had placed in the local paper.

From there, the community burgeoned as more and more of Millhen and Tomiko’s children joined them in Enid. Today, all 10 children live there, raising — so far — more than 30 grandchildren. As the Karben children have married, some of their spouses have also joined the Faith.

With so many young people, children’s classes and junior youth groups form a keystone of community life, along with devotionals and study circles, some of which are held in English, some in Marshallese, some in both. The community is “gradually becoming stronger and stronger,” says Millhen. One community member, Roxene Karben-Vagauta, began serving as a volunteer at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel.

The Palmers feel moved by their Marshallese friends’ passion for the Faith. “I’ve taught children’s classes and been involved with junior youth-aged kids for probably 50 years, and I’ve never seen a group of people who are so hungry for this,” comments Jodi. “Whether it’s learning about the lives of the Central Figures [of the Baha’i Faith], children’s classes, or junior youth groups — they want it!”

The Palmers’ Native heritage has, they say, deepened their connection with the Marshallese Baha’is. “Being raised on the reservation, with that village mentality, I was amazed that I got that same spirit with the Marshallese,” Nathan reflects. 

Tomiko Karben passed away in summer 2020. She had adopted Jodi Palmer as a sister roughly nine years earlier. “I think if I didn’t come from a Native background, I wouldn’t have understood its full meaning,” says Jodi.

More can be read about Jodi and Nathan Palmer in American Indians and the Baha’i Faith: Personal Stories, compiled by Littlebrave Beaston and available through the Baha’i Distribution Service.

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