Yesterday morning, as we began our House of Bishops meeting, we were greeted by two representatives of the native communities on whose ancestral lands we have gathered. The speakers began by telling us that this was the common custom of the native people’s of Alaska – that when people came for a visit, it was proper to be greeted by the people who lived in the place.
One of the speakers was a the leader of consortium of tribes and native communities in the Fairbanks area. He talked at length of the challenges facing his people, how they were trying to balance the resources of the modern world with the wisdom and traditions of their people. He talked specifically about an issue that had arise regarding the foster care for a village child. The state system wanted to take the child out of the village and place the child with state certified foster parents. But the community insisted that the child stay with the village and in their extended family so that the child would know their customs and would learn how to live according to the traditions. The chief who spoke to us said that they had been successful, that the child was now a young man who was doing well and starting a family – and because he had stayed in the community and learned the traditional ways – had not fallen into habits of drinking, etc that are such a challenge for the native communities right now.
It’s a reminder that there is a great deal of wisdom already in communities with which the missionaries engage – and we learn as much as we share when we go to talk with them about the work that God is doing in the person of Jesus.
The second speaker was also a former chief – but it was clear that he was a minister and spoke as a theologian. He spoke in particular about the ways that the native people had encountered God in their lives and had understood God before the missionaries came. He mentioned in particular that while there were stories about multiple spirits, the Great Spirit, who was named “The One on Whom We All Depend”, was singular – and a natural revelation of God. He spoke about the joy with which his people had received the news of the particular expression of God in the person of Jesus, and the particular revelation of the Truth that they had encountered in the Gospel.
He then went on to point out something that I found quite striking – he drew our attention to the encounter of Abram and Melchizedek described in Genesis – the encounter where the two men greet each other as brothers and Abram is blessed by Melchizedek. He pointed out that Melchizedek, a native to the land in which Abram had journeyed had blessed the father of the Chosen people of God – and called him brother.
It’s quite an arresting thought – that rather than Abram supplanting the native people, Abram is blessed by them, and welcomed to live beside them.
(And according to the speaker, it’s the first instance of such an encounter in the biblical narrative.)
It’s something that I’ve been thinking about and upon which I’ll be reflecting for the week that we’re here in Alaska.
Two pictures from later in the day. We were visiting the Alaskan Heritage and Cultural Center. The first is the Antler Arch that welcomes you to the bank of the river in the center of the city.
The second is Bishop Gordon’s plane – sometimes called the “Blue Box” after the UTO fundraisers that allowed the church in Alaska to purchase it for his use. It’s the plane he used to visit the communities he served across the state. (No need for a plane in Rhode Island – but I’m told some of the earlier bishops did have boats that they used instead.)