What a week.
I have been at the House of Bishops fall meeting which was held, this year, in the Diocese of Alaska among many faithful Episcopalians living in Fairbanks and small, remote villages. (The Diocese of Alaska covers the whole state of Alaska- we were located in the Interior for this trip.)
The trip was transformational as I learned about a people new to me, the Athabascan (many of whom speak Gwich’in,) and about life in the Interior. Talk of the travels in the Diocese of Alaska made me re-think how I conceive of “long distance diocesan travel.” Simply put, the Bishop of Alaska regularly travels to his parishes by plane.
The first part of our visit focused on getting oriented, and we received several guests to our Body, learning about the people’s dependence on the land, their humble and proud subsistence lifestyle, their honoring of the land, the importance of native traditions, and the challenges that they face- among them poverty, substance abuse, environmental degradation, racism and unemployment.
The second part of our visit sent us out to learn, first-hand about the things that we had been taught. Our visits to villages in the Interior were powerful. We were met at gravel airstrips and taken into the homes of these folks, hearing about their lives in communities of 50-100 people, how they accessed food, fuel and water, how they lived off of the land and about the importance of the rivers, about fishing and hunting and school-life with just 10 other classmates, and the effect of climate change on the land. The testimony was powerful. We made friends. And we worshipped God at the edge of the river.
Some have sent messages wondering how is it that we, largely White, Male Bishops (as a Body) felt about entering indigenous villages to “bless” the land and waters. Let me say two things: 1) the people of these mostly Episcopal villages were thrilled to have us there with the symbol of our office, caring to know them, to connect, and to hear about their lives. The power of witness and the power of listening is something. 2) It was clear to all of us that the blessing that was going on was between us (the Athabascans and the Bishops) and God. We joined together at the edge of the water to praise God for God’s creation and to ask for God’s continued blessing on our land and to join together as stewards of the land to acknowledge our responsibilities.
It was a mighty powerful week.
We were guests at a Potlach, a ceremonial gathering that consists of dancing, singing, the exchange of gifts and eating (of course). We were each called by name and given gifts. We danced. We sang in Gwich’in and we ate: moose meat, moose head soup, poached salmon, dried salmon, berries and… cupcakes. It was a meal to remember and sacramental in its offering.
And now, I’m back in the saddle (with some jet lag.)
Looking forward to confirmations this weekend in the Altoona Convocation, a visit to Phillipsburg on Sunday, a visit to the John Herr Assisted Living Facility in Columbia on Monday night to lead a bible study, and then back to a full gallop on Tuesday.