Warmth and hospitality. These two words come to mind when I think of Alaska. Not the warmth that makes you take off a layer, but the warmth you see in a loving smile and feel deep within as you connect with people through a bond of love and being Moravian.
On August 6, 18 travelers from the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania journeyed to Bethel, Alaska to visit with Moravian brothers and sisters there. Later, they would be joined by 16 others to journey into the heart of Alaska, and cruise down the coast. Each leg of the trip was different; each day, the travelers were being prayed for by someone at home.
Bethel, on the Kuskokwim River in southwestern Alaska, is a town in the tundra. It has no roads leading to it, and being there, you begin to realize how important the river is to the people who live there. Much needed goods are shipped in on barges and it’s how you get to other towns and villages, but just as importantly, that is where the fish are.
You begin to imagine the early Moravian missionaries who ventured to this place, and what their life was like before barges, outboards and snowmobiles. But the missionaries did come and we were blessed to have part of that story unfold before us in several ways.
August is a very busy time in Bethel as people catch fish and pick berries for the winter. Even though it was such a busy time, two boats with drivers were made available so that our group could travel down the river to Napaskiak to visit the Moravian church there.
It was a long, cold ride for some, but well worth it to see the village and the church. We beached the boats, climbed out and walked on the wooden road to the church. Houses are on stilts and conventional roads are impossible because of the tundra. Motor traffic is four wheelers, driven by all ages.
On our walk, we encountered the pianist for the Moravian church. As a young man, he was taught piano by Mrs. Gertrude Trodahl and then asked to move to Napaskiak and play at the church there. He has been there ever since. Moravian mission work in Alaska has affected many people.
An important part of the work in Alaska was the Kuskokwim Orphanage and School. The school impacted our trip in many ways. Lyn Trodahl Chynoweth was a child when her parents served at the school. When she heard of our trip, she offered to cook for the group. This meant buying the food in the lower 48 and having it shipped to Bethel. Lyn also brought sister Jean, brother-in-law Bob and niece Kristy to help cook and serve.
As we sat in the seminary building, so much was shared in fellowship and witness. We were joined by many who came to be with us, including a woman named Ruth. She had lived at the orphanage as a child and shared her story and thoughts. Eyes teared as she said, “On behalf of my people, thank you for bringing the gospel to us. I would not be alive if it weren’t for the Moravians.” Her words brought to mind the mission sentiment, “Thanks for those who went, and those who sent.”
On August 7, a service of worship and song and a community supper was held. It was thought that maybe thirty would attend since it was such a busy time and in the middle of the week. Three times that many attended, some traveling by boat for hours. Table after table was added and the spirit grew. Large amounts of food were offered, including many salmon dishes, and blueberry and salmonberry akutaq.
The service followed and Bishop Peter Green led the call to worship, Bishop Hopeton Clennon gave the message and Bishop Jacob Nelson gave the benediction. In between, there was spirited singing in English, and Yup’ik. Our Yup’ik was halting, and the choir director encouraged us by saying not to worry, that in the Yup’ik culture, “It is important to just be there with us.” What a wonderful lesson.
A special Yup’ik choir sang many songs, including “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice” and “Silent Night” in Yup’ik. It was beautiful. Right before the benediction, the congregation sang, “It is Well with My Soul.” And it was.
Our time in Bethel had come to an end, and it was time to join our fellow travelers in Anchorage. While going to eat, we stopped at the Qivuit (Yup’ik for musk ox) knitting shop. Still excited about our Bethel experience we were sharing with the clerk. He told us that his grandfather was in the Moravian orphanage and that the old man talks of how the Moravians helped him.
Joined as one group, we headed to Denali and a whirlwind two days of travel. We did not see the mountain, but saw beautiful countryside, a variety of animals, and got to know each other a little better. Sunday morning, Hopeton gathered us in a corner of the lodge, and we shared in worship.
As we got on the ship for the final part of our trip, I heard someone say, “I’m afraid I might not see anyone for a week.” Indeed, it was hard to keep contact with everyone as we enjoyed the glaciers, visited the towns, and steamed south. But we did come together for a service as we celebrated the August 13 experience of long ago. It was a beautiful service put together by Gwyneth Michel. The sign on the chapel that said Private Event was removed, and we were joined by at least one person. I’m sure many on the ship heard our singing. I pray that their hearts were warmed.
What a blessing to travel so far in distance and culture, and yet to feel so close to the people. Traveling as a Moravian, and visiting those with whom you share such a special bond, makes me think that the August 13th experience is not just long ago, but is with each of us. Blest be the tie that binds.
Hank Naisby is a member of Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem. Photos from this Alaska visit by Myra Jones and Linda Wickmann.
From the October 2013 Moravian Magazine