Growing in Truth: Lessons Learned and Given in Alaska

OCMC News - Growing in Truth: Lessons Learned and Given in Alaska

This year’s team to Kasigluk had the opportunity to teach Alaskan youth about the Orthodox Faith and a life in Christ. Team members like Andrew Wythe also came away having grown from the experience as well.

OCMC- August 2015

During Vespers in the village parish at Kasigluk, a young girl named Heather came into church, looking for our mission team. She ran up to me and began to hang off the pockets of my cassock. Now, in Holy Trinity, as with many parishes in Alaska, the faithful are separated with men on the right side of the church and women on the left side. So here I was, trying to focus on Vespers with a child hanging off of me, and worse yet, she was on the “wrong” side of the church! What if she got in trouble? What if I got in trouble? Order was broken, and in my mind the sky was falling. So I did what any order-loving Orthodox would do, and I pointed her to the proper side of the church. That was where all the young women were standing, right near the door. Unfortunately, Heather got the wrong message and thought I was showing her the door. She left immediately.

In the Orthodox Church we have rubrics and rules for almost everything. Unfortunately, sometimes these rules shift from an outward display of piety into making sure all Christians are “good soldiers” who “play by the rules”. Stand up here, sit down there, kneel here, eat this but not that. There is a reason for this order in maintaining holy tradition, but there’s no “magic formula” that makes a service a service. In the lower 48, we can obsess about these things to the point at which they become a superstition, and correction for breaking a rubric can often be more concerned with the fact that the rule was broken than with the fact that there is an underlying spiritual reason for the rules. It’s almost as if having water before receiving Holy Communion is a greater transgression than forgetting you are about to receive the Body and Blood of the Jesus Christ later in the morning. In Alaska, I was immediately struck by the fact that they do not obsess over rules like we often do. I was served moose on nearly every fasting day I was there. If you are practicing subsistence living, you have to eat what you catch. At the same time, they exhibited a care for one another and a humility unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Kasigluk is a small subsistence village along a spot where two rivers meet. Kasigluk literally means “the meeting place” in Yup’ik, their native language. They live off fish, berries, and moose, which have to be hunted during the summer. Very few things are purchased like the rest of the United States. But they understand what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. As Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” If you don’t forage, you don’t eat. Worse yet, if you don’t forage, those around you suffer as well. Fr. Larsen, the village priest, constantly preached against laziness, because if it doesn’t get done now, he would say, it won’t get done later. The villagers of Kasigluk rely on one another to survive, and if one part suffers, the whole village suffers. There is a single village police officer, but other than that, they are all responsible for one another’s safety and survival. Their lives are in one another’s hands.

Back to where we began, with accidentally asking a child to leave the church building. I thought about how a lot of correction in the Church happens this way. We think we’re showing people the right way, but we’re actually showing them to the door. We forget that our lives are in one another’s hands and that we are all in God’s hands. In the Gospel of Mark, Christ tells us if we drive someone out of the Church for not being like us, we’d be better off having a millstone hung around our neck and being thrown into the sea. When we forget that we lack compassion and say “Your way is wrong, you’re not one of us, we don’t need you unless you can learn to be like us,” that’s essentially what the Pharisees said to Christ, and whatever we do unto the least of us we do unto Christ.

Maybe when I corrected Heather, it would have been more appropriate to use the tone Saint Paul used with his problem parish in Corinth when he said, “Let me show you a more excellent way.” Your way isn’t wrong, but I have a more excellent one, and then maybe we can incorporate it into your already excellent way together. There is no other way to approach instruction in the Church when we realize that correcting someone during worship is taking their salvation, their life, in our hands.

I kept an eye out for Heather for the rest of our stay in Kasigluk. She always enjoyed when our team did arts and crafts with her, so I made sure to give her some leftover crafting supplies I had found as we cleaned up. I tossed them into a bag and set them aside in case I ran into her. I only saw her briefly before leaving, just enough time to hand her the bag of yarn and styrofoam shapes. Unfortunately we were off to somewhere else, and I didn’t get to speak to her about my mistake. On my way to catch up with the team, I looked back and saw Heather running around the playground hugging the gift bag close to her chest. Hopefully she’ll remember the Christian missionaries that helped her make Spongebob characters, and not me telling her what to do during worship.

In hindsight, I realize that when people are aware we are Christians, the majority know who we are, what we’re about, and what we think is right and wrong. We don’t really have to worry about people or things that they have certainly already heard. If they know who we are, then all we need to do is be a good and loving ambassador for Christ. Christ is as good an argument as there ever was, and He will teach and speak for Himself in His own time.