Jesus in Alaska

My last blog was about the wild. We spent two days getting on boats and going down the Kuskokwim and being amazed by the vastness of the landscape and how connected it is to the people.

Sunday was a different story. Well, not that different. It was just a different kind of landscape that we explored.

As a non-Christian at a Jesuit university I’ve been always open to Christianity, Catholic social teaching, jesuit values and so on. As a freshmen I went to weekly mass and a bible study. This past semester I started to attend candle light mass on Sunday nights. But I am not Catholic, I just really like to be part of a spiritual practice that involves people I know gathering to worship the divine. I also like a lot of the things that the Catholic stand for socially, specially in the spirit of Pope Francis and his approach for the those on the margins of society, the marginalized, those in the periphery.

Being here in Bethel, the actual physical periphery of this continent, and being on a trip that involves a theology class, there is no way to avoid thinking about Jesus, his ministry and the Church in a place like this.

And this Sunday was a day filled with Jesus. Literally. I went to 8:30 mass at the Catholic Church and then attended the Divine Liturgy at the Russian Orthodox Church, my first exposure to the Christian orthodoxy.

While at both of these services, I couldn’t help but turn around and and see who where the people around me. Who are the people that go to church on Sundays?What is their motivation for going? But more importantly, why would people in this remote place of the world attend a religious service that emerged centuries ago somewhere far far from Bethel?

I have no answers for these question, but I think its something to think about. Like I said in my first blog, Bethel and its people are in a constant struggle trying to find their place between two worlds, their native traditions and the imposed western structures. Does having a handful of Christian churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Moravian, Covenant, Lutheran, Evangelical) in this small town liberating or is it part of the western imposed structures that the natives have to grapple with?

On Monday, we went back to the Orthodox Church and were given a great explanation of the place by Fr. Elijah. He told us all about the Orthodox tradition, told us stories about saints and gave explained a lot of the icons in the church.

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Listening to his explanation of his faith and the church was very enlightening at a cultural level, but it sparked even more questions that I’m still thinking about. While we were there he was constantly referring to stories and facts from european history, telling us facts about Hagia Sophia in Istanbul an talking very highly of orthodox priests from Russia.

All the while I was thinking: How does such a rich cultural tradition that flourished hundreds of years ago in Europe manage to still touch the lives of people of another culturally dense community, the Yu’pik? How can people from such a a different culture accept and believe in something that is so foreign to them?

I still have a lot of thinking to do on my own, but from conversations with John and Fr. Elijah, there are two things that are keeping me sane:
1. We have all at some point accepted something alien to ourselves. All religious practices come from somewhere that can be completely different than our own culture, but we still accept them as our own.
2. According to Fr. Elijah, Christianity has a lot of parallels with Yu’pik spirituality. Ellamyo, or the Yu’pik word for God comes from a similar theology as the Christian understanding of God.

Christian values have shaped western life and thought for centuries and as the YK Delta gets increasingly exposed to western civilization it is inevitable to have Jesus in the picture. For now I am assured that Jesus’ message means no harm to the culture of the people here. The opposite is true. In an attempt to bring “good news” to such a desolate place, Christian traditions, theoretically, are bringing life and truth while gracefully navigating cultural differences to achieve higher meaning.

Nico Sandi

About Nico Sandi

I am a Sociology/Anthropology and Journalism major because I am passionate about people, learning about cultures and being able to give a voice to those who need it. I love shooting and editing video, but more than anything, I love meeting new people, learning about their lives and sharing with them.

One thought on “Jesus in Alaska

  1. Your words here really hit home for me. I think about these kinds of questions all the time- how can anyone truly accept religious beliefs when religion is so tied to culture and place and there are so many differing traditions across the world? I really like the way you are thinking about the Yup’ik tradition and culture and its somewhat foreign relationship with Christianity, a Western religion. I also really appreciate that you end this post, noting that despite these “big” questions with no apparent answers, you have seen that the Christian traditions really have done good things for the people of Bethel. Let’s talk when you get home!

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