Same Country, but Worlds Away - Reflections on the First Day in Rural Alaska

Below is the personal reflections of a volunteer, 18-year-old Rachel, who recently traveled to the remote village of Kiana, Alaska.

May 29. 2016

Kiana, Alaska

It’s hard to believe today is the same day I woke to. This morning, I went to Zion Lutheran Church in Fairbanks. Tonight, I attended Kiana Friends Church in the Iñupiat Eskimo village of Kiana. I feel like I’ve traveled between two different worlds in just a day. I am part of a mission team of women flying almost 400 miles from our base camp in Fairbanks to do Vacation Bible School with the children in the village, as well as teen and adult Bible studies. The five of us come from Oklahoma, Alaska, North Carolina, and Illinois, and we are as different as can be in age, background, and temperament. But we all want this trip to be successful and to reach rural Alaska Natives with the hope of Jesus Christ.

We fly by plane, since that’s the only way to reach the remote and isolated village, and along the way, the pilot, Mr. Bob, and I chat about my dream of being a teacher in a Native village one day.

“No one bothers to make connections with the teachers because they just stay for a year then leave.” After a little more research, I found that many teachers travel to rural Alaska schools either for an adventure or for monetary gain. Alaska is the 3rd highest paying state for teachers, and because most of rural Alaska falls far below the poverty line, teachers can qualify for student loan forgiveness. However, once they get to their school, most teachers barely last a year due to the difficulties of living in a small, rural town and being the only “outsider” and the overall difficulty of teaching the students in many villages.

Mr. Bob points out violent and dangerous villages that wouldn't be safe, but he also discusses kinder villages, like Galena. “Galena would be a good school to teach at! It’s a boarding school and kids come from all over.”

I hide the feeling of disgust in my heart and smile back at him. After the stories I’ve heard about America’s historic Indian boarding schools, there’s no way I would ever teach at a boarding school. But, God has a funny way of working things out and laughing at our plans.

Kiana, Alaska

We land in Kiana, settled in the hills of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and alongside the Kobuk River. Kiana, It’s a beautiful, rustic town of small, wooden houses and four-wheeler-worn gravel roads. I learn quickly, is a more peaceful, safe, and well-off village than others in the region.

We are greeted by a small group from the village. The women load our luggage and we pile into their truck to drive to the vacant Pastor Cabin of the Kiana Friends Church - our new home for the week. It’s a cute little house and reminds me of the old parsonage that I grew up in.

While Rosemary cooks dinner, I sit outside with a book I can’t focus on and watch four-wheelers and bikes zoom past loaded with adults and children alike.

Kiana, Alaska native children

After dinner, we attend the evening church service which attracts only a few people. There is no pastor in the summer time, as he travels to fundraise to pay his salary and keep his ministry in Kiana alive. They don’t have a pianist either. She died in March.

The singing is so quiet you can barely hear it, which is okay because no one actually knows the words or the tune. I volunteer to play the piano, and the few people there witness the failure of a lifetime, so I sit back down. I didn’t know the songs, and I hadn't practiced in weeks - what on earth was I thinking?

I had been praying prior to this trip that I could be everything these people needed. They needed a pianist, and I couldn’t be that for them. I’m not sad that I made a fool out of myself, but I wish I could have helped during the church service.

The few villagers that are there come up to the front of the church and sing a couple songs to greet us. One, in particular, is in Iñupiaq and beautiful!

Then, Mrs. Nellie, one of the women who picked us up from the airport, leads the service and speaks to us about her walk with God. Her testimony comes from the heart and is unrehearsed. She shares with us the darkness within her family and their struggles with drugs and alcohol abuse. I quietly pray for their release from this bondage and that the Holy Spirit would work in their lives.

Throughout my week in Kiana, I’m struck by the theology being taught in the village by the two churches. The people here have been told that to be a Christian they have to give up sinning in order to be saved. It makes me want to scream! There is no talk of grace or forgiveness. It reminds me of the failed evangelism of the earliest American settlers, who reached out to the Natives with the message that God doesn’t love you as you are. You have to change who you are to be saved. If I was taught that as a teenager, I probably wouldn't want anything to do with God. I can never be perfect, so what’s the point? On top of that, I would be scared and always asking myself, “Am I really even ‘saved’?”

After church is over, we meet with the people. I am ready to go for a walk and explore my new “home” for the week until I meet Mr. Thomas.

“It was nice to meet you,” he says with a charming smile. “Now listen, there is a grizzly bear roaming the village so don’t go out walking.”

Instead of a walk, we returned to Pastor Cabin and learn that our VBS will now start on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, because there will a funeral held at Friends Church on Tuesday. It broke my heart to hear about the funeral for a 28-year-old named Claudius, whose mother and uncle I had just met at the church service.

We stay up late making crafts for VBS. I finally go to bed, praying for love and patience and to do God’s work here in Kiana as best as I could.

-Rachel Smithley

Kiana, Alaska ministry to Alaska natives