There are so many reasons to celebrate!
Spring is just around the corner in Alaska!
As I write this in mid-March, we are slowly inching out of the dark winter. Living in Anchorage, we don’t have days without sun, but on our shortest day in December, we get a paltry 5 ½ hours of sun. Further north, in Barrow, the northern most city in Alaska, the sun set on November 18th and didn’t rise again for 67 days. It’s dismal and cold.
But Hosea 6:3 reminds us, “Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear.” As Alaskans, we survive the winters with grit and hope and the knowledge that spring always comes eventually. Likewise, as Christians, we survive hard times with the reminder that Christ’s love and light are constants in our lives, and that out of the darkness comes light and hope. At Lutheran Indian Ministries, our job is to shine the light of the Gospel into the darkest places.
Recently, I was involved in a week long ministry project at an Alaskan correctional facility for women – a group of people that truly need God’s forgiving light in the darkness of a jail cell. Our team of nine worked closely with 24 women in the facility spreading the Gospel while working through their wounds from the past. While each of the women was different, varying in age and the reason for their incarceration, their backstories were strikingly, and sadly, very similar. All 24 women came either from a broken home or experienced some level of domestic violence. Some grew up with mothers who had been in this very same correctional facility, and one even had grandmother who served time there.
But this isn’t out of the ordinary. In a state where Alaska Natives make up less than 19%* of the total population, they constitute 37% of the incarcerated population. Beyond that, the statistics show that 50% of those Natives are in prison for registerable sexual offenses or personal offenses (which include assault, child abuse and neglect, and murder), all of which are severe charges. These statistics paint us a picture of Alaska Natives living in a seemingly never-ending world of darkness caused by sin and separation from God.
Yet in the midst of all the suffering and hurt, Jesus shines his love. For many of these women, this was their first experience facing their past wounds, and opening up to a stranger was incredibly difficult.
Alaska Natives are a proud, independent people. In a society known for living off the land in a harsh environment, they pride themselves on their strength. Showing any sign of weakness is shameful. In small, Native communities, though everyone knows what happens behind closed doors, people are discouraged from speaking out, because, as the elders say, “that’s just how it is.” The abused hide and suffer in silence until the hurt and depression show up as anger and another generation finds themselves in the same cycle.
Without dealing with the underlying problems - the wounds of the heart and the historical trauma - the circle of abuse, addiction, and suicide cannot end, and a nation of people will continue to live in darkness. Our ultimate goal is to bring people into a relationship with Christ, and by sharing the Gospel, we can begin the healing process.
I found by better understanding the Word of God through thorough study, as I have begun to do in the EIIT program (Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology), I am much better able to speak truth with Christ’s love as it relates to a person’s individual and present needs. With this trip, I was better able to help them replace the lies they learned as a child with the real Truth of who they are in God’s eyes. The truth that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) and that God does not hold their past against them. They are worthy as individuals, and they have a place in God’s story.
Their love for God is growing, and their hate and pain are being released. As they learn to cope with their addictions and past actions, they will better understand their worth and see the love God has for them. It was extremely hard to leave when our week was up, at the beginning of their faith walk, but plans are already in the works to visit them again.
We are not merely working to spread the Gospel. We realize that without addressing the core problems of a society, God’s Word will fall on closed ears and closed hearts.
The Native community needs to begin the process of healing and to end domestic violence, child abuse, and suicide in Alaska with the help of Christian counselors and ministers, in the light of God’s grace. It is our responsibility to do this for the next generation.
The truth is, this job is too big for us, but it’s not too big for God.
Like with anything, it will be a slow process, but the 24 women at the correctional facility embody the hope of Alaska. Their lives are moving out of the darkness of sin and trauma and with each day will experience more of Jesus’ light.
Light and hope always win. Remember those 67 days of darkness in Barrow? In the summer, they will have 82 days of light. Light always overcomes the darkness, and in that we can have eternal hope. That is truly a reason to celebrate!
-Rick McCafferty - Anchorage, Alaska
*2015 Alaska Population. State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. http://live.laborstats.alaska.gov/cen/dp.cfm
**2014 Alaska Offender Profile. Alaska Department of Corrections. http://www.correct.state.ak.us/admin/docs/Final_2014_Profile.pdf