In February of this year, Gene and Theresa Smith left Oregon to begin a period as Interim Pastors serving in Alaska Yearly Meeting. After spending approximately a month visiting Kotzebue and the Villages of Kiana, Ambler, and Shungnak Alaska. They spent the following four months in the Village of Kobuk Alaska. It was a Wonderful experience for them and they hope and pray that it was also positive for the church in Kobuk as well as the village. They learned more than they were able to teach and they probably received more spiritual development than they were able to impart. They were saddened to have to leave earlier than planned due to unexpected medical issues diagnosed with Gene.
We began praying and planning after Gene read an email from Retha McCutchen, NWYM Interim Superintendent, telling of a need for some (maybe retired) pastors to provide short-term service in three villages that had no pastors in Alaska Yearly Meeting (AYM). Robert and AYM board members had been praying about making this request. (We had lived previously in Alaska and felt we were mature enough to be reasonable and practical about dealing with the climate and subsistence lifestyle). The email occurred about Thanksgiving 2017. We did internet searches for information on AYM churches and their villages. Much on the internet was out of date, but it was still helpful. We contacted Retha letting her know we could be available to go to Alaska. We continued praying and arranging things, both to sort out suitable warm clothes and to find ways to handle stuff while we would be gone, and we intentionally let go of many details of our ordinary life to focus on doing and being the best workers for Jesus that we could be.
Retha contacted Robert Sheldon and we heard back after Christmas and made contact with Robert. We found support from both our pastor, Ken Comfort, and Retha as well as our church family*. After some email contact and a couple of phone calls, we arranged for tickets to fly to Kotzebue. In Kotzebue, Robert Sheldon shared with us that they had published an Inupaiq hymnbook, and had just gotten the New Testament translated and published in Inupaiq, as well as introducing us to Inupaiq culture. We were waiting for the pastors in Kiana to return from medical treatment: They had been the last pastors at Kobuk. The three upper Kobuk villages work together, so Ambler and Shungnak were obvious connections for us. While visiting, we gave our testimonies and Gene prepared bible messages every time he was asked. Our travel was delayed by flight cancellation weather conditions and there was a final delay as the Kobuk pastor cabin’s oil stove (monitor) surprised them by suddenly not working, so had to be replaced before turning on water service.
We were surprised at our arrival in Kobuk: It seemed much of the village showed up that afternoon to see these new folks. The parade from the airport to the Friends pastor cabin included Kobuk’s small friendly dog and children. What a great introduction! Agnes Bernhardt showed us where we would be staying and helped us get settled. Firewood and food were already in the Pastor’s Cabin as well as bedding and kitchen utensils. She also explained what the congregation was capable of in running the church and what we should expect to need to do as we began our ministry in Kobuk.
Within a few days of our arrival, one of the Kobuk village elders passed away in Kotzebue. We had felt it would not be good to leave so soon after arriving, even to attend the AYM mid-year conference in another village, so we consulted with Robert Shelton and all three of us agreed we needed to stay put. This allowed us to be present with the family and village. The funeral took place the following week conducted by Teresa Outwater, the pastor from Ambler. One of the interesting things to us was that the celebration service involved a great deal of hymn singing. (The triple village Easter, also with many hymns, touched my heart.)
As we began to minister, it soon became clear that what the folks wanted and needed was to know more about Jesus and the Bible. It wasn’t that they didn’t know Jesus, but they didn’t know much about Him and God’s interaction with the Israelite people. Gene focused the morning Sunday School message on God’s call to the Judges and Prophets so that when God calls, people could better recognize that call. Sunday evening messages were focused on moving through the Gospel of John, while the Wednesday Bible study was focused on the Gospel of Mark, after a bible study introduction with Philemon. Gene’s hope was to leave the Kobuk church with the two basic views of Jesus’ ministry described in those Gospels. Gene also presented Jesus as our present teacher. One of the nicest compliments was when one of the ladies described us as providing a (church) service for adults.
Much of the material available for Bible study is very culturally oriented to mainstream US life & agriculture, not to the subsistence culture that the extreme climate forces upon the North Arctic. We began to get questions like “why did Jesus say that?” and “why is He talking about soil and seeds or sheep?” It allowed us to chase rabbit trails into the Old Testament to get the answers and to explore the meaning of the parables and attempt to make them relevant.
I had more interaction with the community as a reading volunteer at the school Tuesdays and Thursdays and that made me less threatening to the youngest children. Gene was especially tickled when one of the little ones came to the door to ask if “Theresa” could come out to play. Gene was able to interact and hopefully to be helpful to several folks with drinking problems. Since he can respond from his own experience, we hope Gene’s advice carried some weight.
We tried to participate in the village activities of Kobuk and think we were accepted by the village. People were kind and patient and generous with us throughout our time in Alaska. We also got massive encouragement from both prayers and things people sent to us in Kobuk.
This time is one of the highlights of our Christian walk as a pastoral couple. While we have been used by the Lord in each of the churches we have served in (both as pastors and as congregants), we felt most needed and useful in Kobuk. If the opportunity presents itself to return and if our health issues can be resolved, we would be really excited to do that. We loved the people and loved being useful to the Lord. We also would be delighted to share ideas and encouragement with others who might be able to go. Everyone there speaks American English, but part of the population also knows Inupaiq. The native culture is to be appreciated but is quite different from anything we have known.
We see a real opportunity for ministry in the villages, while there is a shortage of pastors. It is challenging, as any cross-cultural ministry is, but it can also be very rewarding. Gene found keeping his examples relevant was one of the greatest challenges** he faced in his preaching. This is a ministry opportunity that can bring benefits to both the Inupiat community and the Friends Church at large. There may be a feeling in the AYM community that they are alone and not connected to the rest of the Friends Movement. This cross-cultural ministry provides the rest of the Friends Movement and AYM the opportunity to experience our interconnections. We recommend that this ministry continue as it benefits all concerned.
**Gene did have to work at not using examples like being cut off in traffic or grass growing up in the cracks in the sidewalks.