Tag Archives: Jesuits

Jesuit Volunteers Make Lasting Impact on Bethel Community

by Hayley Henriksen and Leah Renaud

It’s not hard to believe that a flame quickly spread when Jesuit Volunteers (JVs) first came to Bethel in 1964. Since then, JVs have remained in Bethel, and their roles have progressed from year-long volunteers to unfading members of the community.

Erin O’Keefe and Justin Brandt are two JVs that decided to stay in Bethel after their time as volunteers was over, similar to many other JVs that came to Bethel before them.

“It was love at first sight for me,” Brandt said, who served as a youth minister for the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church for two years.

Having put that particular position as his top choice during the selection process, he was determined to come to Bethel and seek a new adventure. His undying love for the outdoors drew him to one of the last truly wild destinations in the U.S.

O’Keefe first heard about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) from her mother, who was a JV herself and encouraged her children to pursue it.

When O’Keefe learned that she would be a JV in Bethel working at the Kuskokwim Learning Academy, she didn’t think too much about it or the possible impact it would have on her.

“When I think about how I was a JV, I think about the worlds that it opened up for me in Bethel and Alaska,” O’Keefe said.

As stated on the JVC website, a part of their mission is “to be conscious of the poor, attuned to the causes of social injustice, and dedicated to service informed by faith.”

JVs spend a year or more in assigned locations in the U.S. or developing countries. In its beginning, JVC saw a need in Bethel and other parts of rural Alaska.

“One of the purposes of JVC is to expose people to poverty that they may not have experienced themselves and put them in positions where they are questioning their own life choices and to live in greater solidarity with those people,” explained O’Keefe.

Bethel’s 6,000 residents have struggled with various social issues, including homelessness, substance abuse and suicide, in one form or another.

“Bethel has a large number of problems for such a small number of people, and because it’s a small number of people, the problems are much more well known,” Brandt said.

Despite the needs of the community, Bethel is home to an enduring Yup’ik culture and lively people, making it a special location for JVs who serve there. While working with the community, JVs are immersed and embraced by the people of Bethel. They participate in traditional practices alongside the natives and develop to be unforgettable additions to the Bethel community.

“Bethel is a great place for JVs, and certainly Bethel does more for JVs than JVs do for Bethel,” O’Keefe stated.

View our video on this story here.

Learning from and with Others

One of the phrases that accompanies this trip is “blessed to be a witness,” and these last few days has showed me what that truly means.

I’ve felt unbelievably blessed these past few days to experience the things I have, to hear stories, reflect on what I have heard, and hang out with some of Creighton’s coolest.

On Wednesday, we had the privilege to experience a full-day workshop on cultural trauma, which is experienced by many natives in the area. Rose Dominic is in charge of a program that helps natives in the healing process after experiencing trauma, and she hosted us in her home.

She told 20 strangers the story of her life and stories about the trauma her family has experienced: her grandpa being separated from her grandma, her uncles being taken out of their homes to attend boarding school, only to come back not being able to interact with family members or fit in with the culture.

She also told us stories about the trauma experienced in her own life and in her brothers and sisters’ lives. She and her older siblings were taught the Yup’ik language when they were young. Most of her older siblings went to boarding school, but she did not. Although she was not in boarding school, every time she spoke a word of Yup’ik in school she was slapped on the wrist by a nun. She experienced all of this at the age of five.

As she’s telling these stories, you can see her depth of sadness and hurt. She started to talk about sexual abuse experienced by her siblings and the alcohol abuse that has affected many of her family members, because it’s the only way they can pretend the trauma hasn’t touched them.

On Thursday, we talked to a Yup’ik elder named Cecilia, who also attended boarding school and further reinforced the idea that the sense of Yup’ik identity and culture was extremely discouraged in her early years.

This topic of boarding school and the discouragement of showing pride in culture is a topic that has interested me since day one. The Catholic missionaries and Jesuits are often mentioned with these topics, which is probably why I find them interesting. It’s hard for me as a Catholic to imagine someone who shares my faith to do such a horrible thing as separating children from their families, but I have to wonder if at the moment they thought they were doing what was best for the people.

The government is rarely mentioned but is still pertinent in the discussion. The United States at one time had a native population of 40 million. That number has now dropped to 50,000. Read that again: 40 million to 50,000. It could be called a genocide or a holocaust. We don’t like to think of the United States being associated negatively with the words “genocide” or “holocaust,” but in reality, those two topics are and should be associated with each other. But we don’t learn about it, because we’re never the bad guys in our history books. We could never admit that.

A lot of this talk is hard to hear, but the people on this trip are great people to discuss and talk to about the topics we hear all day.

We all have different talents. Some of us shoot video extremely well, others of us do not. I’ve grown fond of the group that struggles shooting video because, well, I can’t shoot great video no matter how much I want to.

On Thursday, a group of us went out to shoot B-roll, and a number of us were those that have had very little video experience. I was paired with Claudia (she’s great and you should check out her blog!) and John, one of our faculty advisors, pretty much had to talk us through our first couple of shots. We later joined up with Erin and Catherine and John assigned us to shoot a gas tank. It’s a stationary object, so it’s not too difficult to shoot. We shot it from several different angles, gaining more confidence on the cameras.

Catherine, Erin, Claudia and I, from left to right, shooting B-roll. See how it's a layered shot with the camera peaking out in front? Tim would be proud.
Catherine, Erin, Claudia and I, from left to right, shooting B-roll. See how it’s a layered shot with the camera peaking out in front? Tim would be proud.
The gas tank of which we took a million shots. We still have to go back and re-shoot it.
The gas tank of which we took a million shots. We still have to go back and re-shoot it.

By this point, it’s pretty much decided who’s on the video team. Yesterday the video team got to go on boats and shoot fish camps while a group of six of us stayed home. We call ourselves the C-team. We got the opportunity to ride kayaks on a pretty stream, which turned into a nightmare on the way back, paddling upstream against the wind. The story is too good not to tell in person, so hit me up when I return.

For now, just picture my physically-inept self struggling to paddle for 40 minutes. That’ll give you a few laughs.