Monthly Archives: December 2012

“It’s about who you know.”

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Life in a small, isolated community is relational.

First, it’s relational in the literal sense; most villagers are related by family connections. A typical village is populated by the members of a few, several or perhaps a dozen prominent families, the last names of which are found in the phone book. These families are further inter-connected as cousins, uncles and aunts, etc. If a genealogist were to look back very far it would become apparent nearly everyone in a remote community is related, one way or another.

Beyond the family tree connections, rural villagers are relational due to their circumstance. Life in a remote setting forces residents to know each other, help each other, even rely upon each other. Two locals may meet at the Post Office and discuss current fishing conditions. A man could need help moving logs when building a new cabin. A woman’s husband may have passed away and the entire community “pitches in” to share her grief and help with the burial. This community spirit is standard in any northern village.

Then there is the cultural dynamic. Indigenous northern cultures are very relational, especially when compared to non-native counterparts. Native people care more about people than they do concepts, principles or abstract ideas. Who you are is vastly more important than what you say or believe. And this has big ministry ramifications.

An “outsider” coming to a village to impact local residents with the Gospel must spend time building these all-important relationships. Without them, he or she will be viewed unfavorably when attempting to preach, teach or share on a personal level; the missionary is answering questions which haven’t been asked, and the answers are coming from an untrusted source. Relationship is everything for village ministry; any activity that builds relationship has ministry value.

Take ice cream, for example. Eleven year-old Josiah has become an entrepreneur. With his parent’s help, he makes the village equivalent of “Ben & Jerry’s.” Ingredients are flown in from the nearest Safeway store and combined in flavor batches of 1 gallon each.

Josiah’s product, known as “Sitkalidak Sweets,” is becoming hugely successful. A recent day of production yielded 14 batches of pint-sized varieties, “White chocolate raspberry,” “Coffee-toffee crunch” and “Cookies and cream” among them. He reportedly has over 100 pints in the freezer, and his father feels it’s time for Josiah to purchase his own freezer. Not bad for an 11 year-old village kid.

The real benefit of this confectionary venture, ministry-wise, is the relational impact. As villagers come by the house to get their daily treat, Josiah (and his family) are in contact with people, building relationships from which further ministry can happen, and “Sikalidak Sweets” draws an entirely different group of villagers than those who might come for a Bible study.

So whether it’s ice cream, lattés or whatever, ministry is the goal.  Relationship makes ministry possible.

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Let it snow

Villages all across the north anticipate the coming of winter because it brings an entirely new means of travel, the “snow machine.”

The snow machine, a.k.a. “snowmobile” or “Snow-go” depending upon the locale, is the essential vehicle for much of Alaska and northern Canada.  Few roads and a lack of highway connection often limit an automobile’s usefulness to the community where it resides. If the car or truck could not be driven to the village, which is usually the case, it follows then that the vehicle can only be used within the local community.  Without road connection to other towns, and the world at large, village residents can only drive their car within the confines of their community’s limited road system.

But the snow machine is a whole ‘nother animal. Snow machines give villagers the equivalent of Aladdin’s magic carpet; they can go nearly anywhere. As long as the surrounding countryside is frozen and covered with snow, the world awaits the village snowmachiner. Rivers may be crossed, forests explored and mountains climbed. Tundra, swamps and lakes, impassable during the summer months, now become “highways” for the remote traveler. All you need is adequate cold, which is seldom in short supply in the north, and snow.

And there is the problem. This year, freeze-up has proceeded as normal, in fact, as I write this the temps are 30-40 below across much of the Alaskan interior, but snow is lacking. Without enough snow to operate the snow machines, Koyukon Athabaskans can’t get out to check bear holes, dog mushers can’t run their teams, trappers can’t trap and villagers can’t set fish nets under the ice on lakes and rivers. Snow is needed; it’s essential for remote village life, and right there isn’t any.

So, as the Christmas caroler has often said, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

And when it comes, get out of the way; a lot of “cooped-up” villagers will be heading out into the country at a high rate of speed.