Tag Archives: Russian Orthodox

Keep Up

Over the weekend I felt incredibly homesick. A break in our schedule allowed for down time, and I used mine to think about home. I thought about the new off-campus house I just moved into, and found myself missing my pink duvet covered bed (not that I don’t LOVE sharing a queen size mattress with my friends, Catherine and Erin, here). I thought about my family and friends and starting having 6th grade crush thought like: “are they thinking about me?” “are they thinking about me thinking about them?” “are they thinking about me thinking about them thinking about me?”

Needless to say I felt ridiculous as sad as I coped with this homesick feeling that had been a stranger to me since the summer after my 7th grade year when I went to sleep-away math camp for a week- because what 12-year-old doesn’t want to create their own Caesar cipher? I used some of our precious internet bandwidth the text two of my favorite friends, Anna and Claire, and they helped me to feel connected to home but also re-excite me about the project I am doing here.

I wrestled with why I was missing home so much and decided that it was because home is easy for me. At home I know what I will be doing and when I will be doing it. I love that this trips unfolds itself before me but it is sometimes difficult being surrounded by so much newness. I feel like I am racing behind this culture, trying to keep up as I learn but not being able to see far ahead of me.

On Saturday we had a fairly open day and were able to go to a fish camp for a cook-out. It was so pleasant to be able to spend time with the team and eat some salmon caught minutes before we ate it, and of course s’mores! However, before we even got to the fish camp, the person driving our boat made a detour at his fish camp where we had to hop out and help clear brush with him, a detail our lovely Dr. Z forgot to share with us.

Our group eating at the fish camp around the fire pit. Photo by Tony Homsy
Our group eating at the fish camp around the fire pit. Photo by Tony Homsy

20 minutes later we were deep into the Alaskan woods, stepping through boot-deep mud, and being attacked by huge mosquitos due to the stagnant water near us. I could no longer see our guide ahead of me but could here the far off whir of his chain saw. As I was hacking at the dense brush with my scythe-like tool I had one of the biggest, “what am I doing here?” moments of the trip. I could not keep up.

On Sunday I had the opportunity to attend the Russian Orthodox Devine Liturgy. I donned a head scarf and knee length skirt and went to the church with 4 others. The service took two and a half hours and we stood the entire time. The whole, beatiful service is sung in English, Russian, and Yup’ik and the welcoming deacon gave us a song book so we could participate. However I found myself always pages behind where I was supposed to be in the song book and felt increasingly overwhelmed at this religion I had never participated in before. Once again I could not keep up.

The Russian Orthodox Church that sits at the edge of the tundra
The Russian Orthodox Church that sits at the edge of the tundra

Today Dr. O’Keefe’s daughter and son-in-law spoke to us briefly about their time spent here in Bethel, and Chris seemed to be speaking directly to my anxiety. He said that he really felt a part of the culture here when he became intentional about his living and tried to learn as much from everyone he encountered, but did not dwell on lessons that did not resonate. We only have a few days left here I hope that I am able to see every experience as a learning one, and remind myself that it is easier to keep up when I am unburdened of homesickness and longing. While my feet are in Bethel I’m trying to keep my mind and heart here too!

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.


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.

A Different Practice

Today was a nice change of pace. For a new experience, a small group of us attended the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Right after Sunday morning mass with Brian as our Deacon, we grabbed our cups of coffee and piled up in the car.

This was the first non-catholic mass I’d ever been too. I’ve had a number of friends go on to study different theologies and participate in different services, but I’d never really been presented with an opportunity.

Claudia, Hannah, and I with our head scarves.  Photo courtesy of John O'Keefe.
Claudia, Hannah, and I with our head scarves.
Photo courtesy of John O’Keefe.

For the women, we had to wear long skirts and cover our heads with scarves. The liturgy was very traditional and structured. Though it had similar qualities to that of a catholic mass, it was still a new thing to me. The entire 2 1/2 hour service was sung, and we stood for the majority of the time. The church was adorned with beautiful icons and pictures. But out of all the different aspects of this service, I was surprised to find that my favorite was the set up.

The space was all open; no pews, no excessive space. Then up in the front area, a wall covered with icons and beautiful pieces blocked the entire front room. The persider would go in and out between rooms throughout the liturgy. I was told later that it was a representation of the border between the divine and ordinary.

It was a simple concept, but one I was not used to. I felt that I had always participated in a parish community that valued equality and mixing of the sacred and ordinary. Instead, this community practiced the opposite. Separating the two as a form of respect and setting the boundary of holy truly was a new concept, yet one that I surprisingly liked.

Though in today’s society, in which we constantly encourage each other and institutions to break down walls and have all things open, the Orthodox liturgy proved to me that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes having that wall of respect complements the ideals of mystery and sacred. I was so glad I got to experience it!