Tag Archives: immaculate Conception Catholic Church

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.

For the First Time

The last couple of days have marked many of my “firsts.” The first time sleeping in an airport. The first time sitting next to an obnoxious stranger on a plane. The first time realizing the beauty of Alaska that I’ve heard so much about. The first time seeing Bethel, a town I’ve been thinking about for numerous months. The first time I was the interviewer for a “real,” filmed interview.

On our flights to Alaska, our travel agent assigned us seats alphabetically, and since I’m the end (lucky me) I usually sat by one of my classmates also at the end of the alphabet or by strangers. On our five hour flight into Anchorage, I was in a row with one middle-aged guy. I had the aisle seat, and he had the middle seat, but since no one was assigned the window seat, he decided to sit there.

Our flight left the Minneapolis airport at 10 p.m. and arrived in Anchorage 3 a.m. Central time, or midnight Alaska time. So naturally, most people slept on the plane. This stranger decided to take up both seats while sleeping (so I was just as squished as I would have been if both seats were assigned to people) and completely hogged the window during our descent into Anchorage. I heard it was a really awesome sight, so check out my peer’s blogs for pictures of that.

After getting maybe 2 hours of sleep in the Anchorage airport, I woke up, looked out the window and noticed the mountains first. Holy man, they are some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! I’ve seen the Western mountains only once before, but these seemed even better. You could even see snow on the top of some of them if you looked close enough.

I couldn't get around the parking structure, but those mountains in the background were breathtaking.
I couldn’t get around the parking structure, but those mountains in the background were breathtaking.

On the flight to Bethel, I was assigned a window seat. As we were taking off, I was able to look out the window and watch the mountains disappear in a cloak of clouds. It was one of those moments when you wonder how anyone could deny the existence of God. Who else could create something so breathtakingly beautiful?

When we arrived at the “airport” in Bethel (it’s not even an airport, it’s a baggage check area, a baggage claim area and one gate squeezed into one space), two people from the city that knew our faculty advisors came to pick us up. We packed our luggage into the back of their pick-up trucks and drove to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the one and only Catholic Church in Bethel and the place we’ll be staying for the next two weeks.

Along the way, we had numerous buildings pointed out to us. I remember the post office and the high school being 10 -20 times bigger than the average house. The population of Bethel is around 6,000, but the city seems bigger. There are numerous sub divisions that are separated by large areas of tundra. They call the tundra “the sponge.” When you walk on it, it’s like walking on a mattress. Looking at the sub divisions from afar is pretty awesome; many of the houses are very colorful.

The real experience started Tuesday, when we started gathering material for the documentary. We listened and taped three interviews; each of them lasted around an hour. I was able to interview our second interviewee. His name was Pat Tam and he works in the Diocese of Fairbanks. He flew all the way to Bethel just to talk to us.

His plan was to talk to the group as a whole for 15, 20 minutes. However, about 5 to 10 minutes into his talk, one of our faculty advisors told us to get set up for an interview immediately. The stories he was telling about the Yup’ik culture were too good not to get on tape. As if I wasn’t nervous enough about interviewing him already, I knew this interview would be crucial for the film. I had to ask all the right questions well.

The team getting set up for the second interview while I nervously await.
The team getting set up for the second interview while I nervously await.

Here are some things I learned from my first “official” interview:

  • Listening to someone while making eye contact for an hour is hard. The fact that my attention span isn’t long probably doesn’t help.
  • Because we are filming the interview, the interviewer has to be quiet for editing purposes. There were so many times I wanted to say “uh huh” or interject but couldn’t.
  • If a person is not the interviewer and is not controlling the video cameras, he or she listens to the interview anyway and takes notes. Taking notes means writing down quotes or ideas that are interesting or were striking. I kind of wished I was able to take notes during that interview. A lot of what Pat said was insightful, but went in one ear, stayed there for a few minutes and went out the other.
  • I didn’t feel 100% focused on what Pat was saying, and I could of been way more focused. I let my fear of my less-than-adequate interviewing technique cloud my thoughts instead of blocking that out and focusing completely on Pat’s stories and insights.

You live and you learn. Sometimes you have to experience things for the first time order to do so.