History and Hope in Alaska

Changing Mission on the Last Frontier

History and Hope in Alaska
Linda Koenig fetches wood to carry into her isolated house outside of Willow, Alaska.

Sitting at the end of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, surrounded by mountains and water, the city of Homer thrives on fishing and tourism. It's at the end of the road, a long way from the political tensions that captivate much of the nation's 24-hour news cycle.

But in the dead of winter, the nights are long in Homer, and seasonal affective disorder mixes with cabin fever to produce contention. "Every February there is some issue that blows up to divide the town. It's just the right time and place and season of the year for people to need something to keep their minds occupied as we wait for spring to come," said the Rev. Lisa Talbott, pastor of the Homer United Methodist Church.

In the past the residents of Homer have feuded about a variety of issues, from a particularly suggestive mural on the side of a bar to whether an elderly woman had the right to keep feeding eagles on the edge of Kachemak Bay. Yet by summer people are too busy to fight about those things, and they're quickly forgotten. Until last year, that is, when the annual winter quarrel erupted around whether Homer would declare itself an inclusive community that welcomed immigrants. It was a largely academic discussion, as Homer has hardly any immigrants. But in the histrionic weeks that followed the U.S. presidential election, it was big news.

Shortly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a group of citizens proposed a resolution to the city council that Homer "rejects expressions of fear and hate wherever they may exist" and "embraces all peoples regardless of skin color, country of birth, faith, sex, gender, marital status, political ideology, or abilities." The resolution called on the city to "declare itself a safety net for the most vulnerable members of and visitors to our community."

Opposition to the resolution quickly formed, and dozens of residents flocked to a February council meeting to claim the resolution would effectively declare Homer a "sanctuary city" and frighten away tourists. The resolution was careful to state that Homer would cooperate in detaining undocumented immigrants "when court-issued federal warrants are delivered," but the details gave way to emotion. The resolution was defeated. Opponents weren't satisfied, however, and launched a recall campaign against the three council members who sponsored the resolution. That recall failed in a June vote.

According to Michael Armstrong, editor of a weekly newspaper in Homer, earlier spats pale by comparison to the fight over inclusiveness.

"This stuff happens every year, but it's usually something like 'I can't believe you said blah, blah, blah.' And the other people say, 'What are we arguing about? Let's go have a beer.' Yet this got to the point that people started disowning each other and forgot they were neighbors," he said.

The conflict made clear that despite the relative isolation of Alaskan towns like Homer, the polarizing tribalism of national politics is "seeping like an oil spill into all aspects of community life," said Ginny Espenshade, who coordinates a needle exchange program designed to combat opioid abuse in Homer. She said there was widespread support for her program until the fight over the resolution and subsequent recall encouraged more divisive behavior.

"All of a sudden we started getting social media comments saying that addicts and the people who help them aren't welcome here," she said.

An episode of National Public Radio's This American Life focused on how the Homer conflict exposed the information echo chambers that today plague public discourse, where algorithms on Facebook and elsewhere select news sources that already conform to one's worldview. The program profiled one Homer man who became convinced that the proposed resolution put the city at risk from violence by Muslims and other immigrants. Yet as the program walked him through his sources, all conservative Internet sites, he realized he'd been duped.

Talbott said the community debate about inclusion revealed deep veins of distrust. "It was eye opening for me as a faith leader in the community to see the level of fear on both sides of the issue," she said. "There was a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy, a lack of desire to listen to people of other beliefs."

In an effort to spur healing, Talbott and other faith leaders in the community sponsored a panel discussion about compassion, which included a local yoga instructor leading meditation and a devotee of Celtic Christianity guiding a labyrinth walk. And seeking what Talbott calls "compassion in action," the United Methodist congregation hosted a work party where volunteers repackaged hundreds of pounds of rice and oatmeal for the town's hungry.

Geographic cure

There's something about Alaska that attracts people who want a geographic cure for whatever ails them. Bill Kunkler ran a flying service in the 1980s, when the book One Man's Wilderness was popular. It was the story of a man who homesteaded in the Alaskan backcountry. "Every year someone would come in with that book tucked under their arm who wanted to go live in the wilderness. None of them lasted long, yet there was nothing you could do to dissuade them. They all suffered from the end of the road syndrome," said Kunkler, a member of the Homer United Methodist Church.

Reality television programs, from Bering Sea Gold to Alaska: The Last Frontier, have idealized Alaskan life, according to Doug Dodd, who interviews people coming for help to the Homer Community Food Pantry, which is located in the United Methodist Church.

"They've been here for a few weeks and they don't have a job or a place to live, and I ask them why they came. And they tell me about a TV show they saw about life in Alaska. People come without a lick of sense and soon discover here that the good jobs are all gone and living expenses are really high. They can't afford rent. And they don't know how to leave," he said.

Kelly Tazuko Marciales is executive director of Valley Interfaith Action in Palmer, which helps congregations better analyze their community's needs and how best to respond. An import from southern California herself, she says many of those who come to Alaska are setting themselves up for failure.

"Some people come here because they have atypical ideas about government and they want to be more independent and live off the grid. They really want to detach themselves from community. Yet I believe each person has a God-given spirit that desires at its core to be with others. So there's a dichotomy between wanting in your mind to be independent and that force inside us that draws us to one another. As a result, what you get is just a bunch of people who are grumpy," said Marciales, who will be commissioned a deaconess at the United Methodist Women Assembly this month.

Fran Lynch, a deaconess who recently retired from work in Willow, says people come to Alaska for all sorts of reasons. "Some are searching; some are escaping from something. Maybe they're an alcoholic or addict and they need to stay sober and are looking for different setting. There's this lure of the last frontier, that you can live in the woods and take care of yourself and not have to interact with people," she said. Yet even in such isolation, Lynch says, people inevitably discover they have to take care of one another. "If you noticed that there's no smoke coming out of the cabin down the road and it's 20 below, you've got to do something. You may not like that person but you're not going to let them freeze to death."

Historic trauma

People have been flocking to Alaska for centuries, and Methodist missionaries were among some of the first to arrive, mostly to serve as chaplains to miners and other outsiders who came to Alaska to exploit its resources. At times they were paid by the U.S. government to "Christianize" Native Alaskans, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Bertha Koweluk learned about those effects as a child, when her father would tell stories of his childhood before his family's forced relocation.

"You could see the light in his eyes when he talked about how they played hide and seek in the bushes and went fishing. But then he gets the part where the government came and told his mom that they had to move," Koweluk said. "If they didn't move for schools the government was going to take away her kids. His face totally changes. And he talks about the ride back to Teller. … His mother cried the whole way. As a mother I could only imagine how she felt thinking that the government was going to take her kids away."

Koweluk, who is training to be a United Methodist lay minister in Nome, says her father spoke Inupiaq but refused to teach it to his children.

"My dad remembers going to school and how the teachers were very abusive. He could speak Inupiaq fluently but he never taught us," she said. "I never understood that. Maybe it was part of the shame I had for my family and I didn't want to understand. But he talks about how whenever they spoke in their language, the teachers would hit them with rulers, put them in the corner with a dunce hat, and make fun of them."

For Koweluk, understanding and articulating the historic trauma that lies behind inappropriate behavior is a key ingredient of healing. She knows that from her own family's experience.

"My family still struggles with alcohol. One of my uncles [died by] suicide. He talked about how he watched his brothers be beat in school. So you can see the pain, and I can't imagine what they carry today if they have never spoken about or let go of that pain," she said.

Koweluk leads workshops for Beauty for Ashes, an initiative that helps address domestic violence, child sexual abuse and child neglect in Native Alaskan communities. That process includes what she calls "decolonization" — freeing her people from control by the dominant culture.

"We believe that the root cause of alcoholism, suicide and abuse-all the things going on with our people — is historic trauma. We stress that our people were fine before Christopher Columbus found us. I always laugh about that, because our people didn't need to be 'found.' We look at what they brought with them, whether it was whaling ships or missionaries, and all the trauma that came with that, on top of boarding schools and outbreaks of tuberculosis and the deaths from influenza. We walk people through those so they can understand how all that has affected our people." she said.

"It's an amazing but painful process. It has helped me to understand where my family walked from, what they have gone through to make it to where we are today. So I look at what my grandfather and my great-grandfather went through. Before I really looked at that stuff I believed that we were 'less than,' and I never said that I was from the village because if you were from the village you were 'less than.' It wasn't until seven years ago I finally said I was from Diomede and Teller, because all you saw were people from there who came and drank in Nome, and you didn't want to be connected to that. But now by understanding history and the pain we walked through, I am finally as an adult embracing where I come from.

"Decolonization has helped me to look at what my father walked through, what his fathers walked through and what his fathers walked through, to put things into place to understand that we were not bad people, that we were taught in the wrong ways because we were abused ourselves. I've been able to put things into place and understand that the people I come from are amazing and had strengths that I never knew of, and that I can embrace them today."

Beyond repentance

Both the Alaska Annual Conference and the General Conference of The United Methodist Church have sponsored acts of repentance for the history of racism in which missionaries and church agencies played a part. Yet the Rev. Charles Brower, pastor of the Community United Methodist Church in Nome, says such public acts can represent cheap grace.

"They don't know enough of the history of the boarding schools. They don't have enough of the history of the cultural genocide of becoming Christians," said Brower, the only Native Alaskan pastor currently serving a church in Alaska. "It's difficult to say you're sorry for something you don't know anything about. … If they don't do the research to try to understand what we have gone through, then it just tends to be on the surface, nothing really deep, and we on the Native American side wonder if they really mean it."

The Rev. Carlo Rapanut, a Filipino native who serves as district superintendent in Alaska, agrees. "The acts of repentance are mainly words and litanies," he said, and often don't represent a real break with the past. "How do we move beyond repentance?"

Rapanut compares the church in Alaska to that of the Philippines. "In the area I served, one of our big pushes was to bring Christianity to the cordillera, where we were essentially trying to Christianize the indigenous. And it was the American gospel we were bringing, because that's what we knew, rather than coming alongside people to help them celebrate their native spirituality alongside Christianity."

Brower was sent off to boarding school at age 10, thus missing a big chunk of growing up in his own Inupiaq culture.

"I never really got a chance to know the culture that I was born into. But today I'm proud to say that I have gone whaling. I am accepted as a hunting partner. I am accepted in the community as an elder," he said. "Many Native Americans across the country don't know their own culture, but I am one of those who's lucky enough to have integrated back in."

As a pastor, Brower spends time on the streets of Nome, where he says public intoxication among Native Alaskans is one symptom of the failure to grapple with historic trauma.

"When you don't live in the culture and are deprived of being part of the culture you were born into, you are lost out there," he said. "And you find peace in a bottle, or in inappropriate behavior, and this continues for generation after generation. Drugs and alcohol can numb you to non-acceptance by both your culture and the dominant culture. You are somewhere in the middle. You really have no place that you can call a comfort zone. But people don't know why, and they don't know how we can start to heal."

Brower suggests that it's not too late to reverse some of the war on culture waged by the missionaries, who taught that Native dancing and traditional healers were pagan practices to be eradicated.

"There's hope. The church is coming around to understand that there is more than just the way it used to be," he said. "What we call the white man's way doesn't always work. We spend millions of dollars trying to take care of people who have addictions to alcohol or drugs. Without the leadership of people with spiritual backgrounds this is very difficult. We keep throwing dollars after dollars, but it's not working. Now some are starting to think we should bring some spiritual people into the picture."

She came in ringing a bell

Some of the institutions that emerged from the early missionary era have been radically transformed over the years. The Jesse Lee Home, a Methodist orphanage and boarding school founded in Unalaska at the end of the 19th century, has morphed over the years into a cutting edge provider of therapeutic care for children with behavioral problems. Now called AK Child and Family, it offers tele-behavioral health services to remote villages.

"This idea that you take kids out of their homes and fix them is foreign to us, and it goes against the needs of the child," said Denis McCarville, the agency's chief executive officer. Instead, the Anchorage-based agency, a national mission institution supported by United Methodist Women, focuses on keeping troubled kids in their villages, using technology to provide clinical treatment and supervision and to train therapeutic foster parents and teachers. It's more cost-effective and less traumatizing than removing kids, McCarville says.

Yet there are times when kids need to leave their home environment. Sophia Hinkle was 13 when she began to be bullied online. Fighting depression, she eventually started harming herself and contemplated suicide. Her mom slept on Sophia's bedroom floor to make sure her daughter made it through the night.

In and out of the hospital and therapy for months, Hinkle's doctors and family finally decided she needed residential treatment. There was no space in the Maplewood residential program for girls run by AK Child and Family, so she went elsewhere.

"We had barely any therapy. We just sat around crocheting and playing cards and listening to music and reading. I got worse in there. My mom told me that when a bed opened in Maplewood, she'd come in with bells ringing. Then one day she came in ringing a bell. I was so happy I cried," Hinkle said. "I don't know if I'd be alive today were it not for AK Child and Family and the treatment I got there."

Hinkle, now 17, lives with therapeutic foster parents as she completes her high school education. Her mother, Tamara Hinkle, praises those who helped her.

"AK Child and Family gave us a safe place where Sophia could go and work on herself and gain self-confidence. They gave my kid a way to grow in a safe environment, and they're giving me a respite, so I can work on myself. We came out of a toxic environment, and we're now working on making our home a healthy place for her. AK Child and Family is giving us the opportunity to heal completely," she said.

Hinkle has also become an advocate for mental health services. During the speech competition of a national youth pageant, she talked about her own experience. "I tell people I'm in foster care and that I went to treatment. If I can change one person's mind about the stigma of mental health and how it's like having the stomach flu, that I'm just a normal person with one more thing on my plate, then I'll be happy."

State of emergency

Opioid abuse is a national problem, and in Alaska it has taken on tragic proportions. In 2017, the state's governor declared a state of emergency over the escalating use of prescription pain killers and heroin — which is often laced with fentanyl. Yet how that shakes down to the grassroots depends on what local communities are willing to do about it.

In Homer, Talbott has helped push the community into action. She moderated a public forum about the crisis. It was standing room only. "It was obvious that people were struggling with it alone and wrestling with the shame and stigma," said Espenshade.

The tourist town was suffering from people leaving used syringes on beaches and trails or in hotel rooms. The local needle exchange program that Espenshade administers grew out of the meeting, as did training for police and harbor officials in how to use naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of opioids in the event of an overdose.

According to Sarah Spencer, a physician in nearby Ninilchik who has conducted the trainings, Alaska's labor scene is a setup for substance abuse.

"A lot of work in Alaska, such as fishing, is seasonal work. People work just a few months, working really hard to make money for the whole year. Then they have the whole winter to sit around. And they hurt. A lot of the jobs here are physically demanding and people get hurt a lot. So they're sitting inside, they're bored and it's cold and dark. There's nothing to do in winter," she said.

"Many start taking prescription opioids to treat their chronic pain or the back injury they sustained while fishing. If they have preexisting susceptibility or there's addiction in their family, they can quickly slide into addiction."

Talbott and several of her church members in Homer are active in a local coalition working to mitigate the opioid crisis. The congregation has given birth to many important ministries over the years. The food pantry began as a closet underneath the church stairs. The local domestic violence shelter was born out of the congregation, and today United Methodist Women members in Homer make blankets for the women and children who take refuge there.

"When people have to leave their homes because of domestic abuse, they often can't take their belongings with them. They lose their comfort items. They lose their memories. So having a fleece blanket or having a teddy bear that the shelter can give them provides a tangible sign of love from our church, so they know they're not alone, that they have community support, that they have people praying for them," Talbott said.

"Our role in the community has been to stand in the gaps. We have dozens of nonprofits in town and we still have gaps. We don't have a homeless shelter. We don't have a place the kids can go after school for activities. So part of our prayer life as a church is to seek where God is leading us, what gap are we called to stand in next."

Talbott says they congregation prides itself in birthing ministries that are then adopted by the larger community.

"We are midwives. We can help things grow and develop, help them grow to a healthy state, and then let them blossom into their own thing so that we can start looking for the next place to which the Holy Spirit is calling us," she said.

The church lady

As United Methodists in Homer have discovered, mission for the church in Alaska takes a lot of forms these days. In the Matanuska Valley, Marciales, the new deaconess, systematically listens to what congregation members want to change — it can be pushing low-income housing or fighting nursing home closures — and then works with them to do it.

"I am here to empower laypeople to take back the church and to relieve the clergy of this burden we have placed on them to be everything, and when they fail we make their life hell. Laypeople need to take back the church," she said.

In Willow, where Lynch just retired after two decades as a church and community worker, she developed a ministry that often blurred the boundaries between the church and the larger community.

"I was the one who responded to people who needed food or transportation or help paying their electric bill. Or they needed someone to listen to them. Or the school would need somebody to go to somebody's house, because if you call social services, it's so isolated that the troopers are going to show up, if you get a response at all. So they called me, the church lady," she said.

Lynch said mission has been a shared enterprise with Catholics, Baptists, school officials, the post office, Lion's Club, and even the local deli.

"We're not a little church that stands alone, but instead we've become a community church that pulls everyone together to address needs," Lynch said. "We had a minister leave, and a local Roman Catholic woman said to me, 'Who are they going to send us?' She's part of the community and therefore part of our ministry, part of us."

Lynch admits that as a mission worker, she follows in the footsteps of some missionaries who did a lot of damage in Alaska.

"I've read a lot about manifest destiny, this idea that gives us the right to conquer, to eliminate the people or control them by making them Christian," she said. That's helped her to understand the negative feeling that many Native Alaskans have with the word "missionary."

Koweluk, as she completes her training to be a lay minister, wants the church to be more than what she experienced as a child.

"As a young girl I would go to church and hear that if you sin you're going to hell. I never heard the part about grace," she said. "But now that I have walked through a healing process, I have felt God hold me and cry with me."

Koweluk said she used to praise the missionaries who came to remote Alaska. "But in my heart I believe we already served our Creator before, that we had our own similar practices, that we honored the land and honored life and we honored the Creator by raising our kids. So sometimes I have to explain myself, explain why I want to be in church," she said.

"I say I want to show this face of God that we never heard about when we were young. I want people to know that no matter what we do, God is there. If we call for God, God is there to hold us. God is there to cry with us. God has never wanted harm for us. God never wanted missionaries to come and hurt our families. God wanted them to come and teach us in a different way of God's amazing, amazing love for us."

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Posted or updated: 5/4/2018 12:00:00 AM