Reflections on Rural Alaska: A Volunteer Diary

Did you miss Day 1? Find it here.


May 30, 2016: A Village Mindset

Today is Memorial Day!

Eileen woke me to go to the graveyards where we met nearly the whole village. Everyone was at their family grave sites in the woods or down river making them look nice and cleaning up.

We were invited to go to Mrs. Nellie’s sister’s family grave site. On our walk, we met a nice man with a shotgun. He explained that he out looking for the grizzly bear that was hungrily roaming the village.

“I hope I find him!” he laughed.

At the graveyard, we met Mrs. Nellie’s sister, Arleen, along with her daughter and son-in-law from a different village and their adorable two-year-old son, Kaiden.

I played with the little boy and kept him entertained while the adults talked and ate. He had the cutest laugh. Little kids really are the best medicine for me! I glanced over at the graveyard next to ours for a moment and saw Claudius' mother standing among a crowd of people. They were silently preparing his grave.

I stared at her, standing alone in the crowd, staring into space, and said a quick prayer for her before Kaiden was pulling on me, showing me the sticks he had gathered.

When we returned to our cabin, a 12-year-old girl named Shaedyn was greeting Rosemary and Eileen.

“You were here last year, yeah?” she asked them. “I remember you, yeah! And I still have the name tags you gave me.” She smiled shyly.

“It’s all about relationships.”

Dave Sternbeck's favorite line began running through my mind. By returning to the villages, year after year, volunteers have been able to form and keep those relationships.

I feel like I NEED to come back again. Or... maybe I could just stay….

Later that evening, we went on a splendid walk. Oh, the landscape was breathtaking! The river was racing. The mountains tuck this village away where no one can find us.

We walked around the village which didn’t take very long. We saw people and kids racing to and fro. We stopped by a house where some women were selling stuff while their kids laughed and played with water balloons. It was entertaining to watch them.

As we continued to walk, I found myself wanting to return to the river. There, I felt the cool water race over my hands and feet and could feast my eyes on the Creator’s grand masterpiece. I had been wondering if the people here had a way to leave or get out, but as I stood there on the water, I realized that if I lived here… why would I want to leave?

I would have no reason; no need to really. All my family would be here, my culture and people, my friends and the beautiful nature and our traditional way of life. I would know that a couple thousand miles beyond these mountains, there lay a busy city called Fairbanks. But all I love and hold dear to me is not out there, but here in this village.

In the summer, my family would go to fish camp. I would learn to hunt caribou at age 5 and to dry the fish I catch from the ocean. We could travel from village to village along the river by boat and see scattered relatives. In the winter, we’d speed around on the snow-go through the dark to distant villages hundreds of miles away and that would be normal.

The extreme survival that people only read about…would be my reality. But it isn't. I will go back to the city at the end of this week. And I'm certain I will leave behind a piece of me here.

Later that week, I stood there in the river with one of the teen girls I had befriended.

“Would you ever want to leave Kiana and go to the cities or any other state?” I asked her. She looked out to the mountains as if wondering what might be just beyond them.

“Why? There’s nothing out there for me,” she replied.

I wanted to say,”Yes there is! God made this great world for us to discover and enjoy! You could always return home.” But I didn’t. I just nodded my head and suggested we skip rocks across the river. If you skipped a rock far enough, it could reach the mountains on the other side. But they never made it that far. They sunk after 5 or 6 skips and were never seen again. I guess that’s maybe how some people are, too.

May 31, 2016: Meeting the Village Children

We walked to the Kiana Trading Post after breakfast. A half carton of milk was $16 dollars. A box a Lucky Charms cereal was $9.

Word spread quickly: the bear had been shot last night and one of the hunters was in the Blankenship General Store down by the water. I raced down the road and burst through the door to see the same guy I had met yesterday with the shotgun.

“Did you get the bear?” I asked.

“Yeah, me and a couple other guys got him last night… or this morning. I couldn’t tell.” he laughed.

Then, he told me a good ole' bear story!

That afternoon, we attended Claudius Leon Qaanaaq Jackson’s funeral. At the door, I saw sweet little Shaedyn. I asked her how she was and where she was going to sit.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“Do you want to sit with me?” I whispered.

“Yeah,” she smiled back at me, and we took our seats near the back.

As the funeral ended, a great wail arose from the mother. Shaedyn looked frightened, so I took her outside. She asked me if I wanted to hang out with her; she was going down to the Baptist church. I quickly agreed, and we took off down the road chatting about life.

She pointed out kids to me as we passed them. “That’s Gabe in the orange. He’s the fastest kid in my class!”

We soon arrived at the Baptist church, hidden in the woods near the bluff. I stood on the edge of the bluff and looked down at the rocks and river below. I was in awe, yet again, at the creation around me. I felt like a bird on top of the world!

The church was a very nice building and very child-friendly. There was a trampoline for the kids to jump on outside and other fun games to play. It was like a child paradise! There were kids everywhere playing and laughing. There were woods, a clear space to run, and the scary bluff that kids pretended to fall off of to scare me.

It was here I got to meet nearly all the kids in the village and where I began to build my own relationships. Everyone was so friendly and loved playing tag and jump rope with me. All the boys, even the littlest ones, were the biggest flirts ever. The girls loved to tell me about everything and introduce me to everyone! A couple little girls had saved an injured butterfly and were nursing it back to health. When the kids and teens, who were die-hard Golden State Warrior fans, found out I was from Oklahoma, they asked me so many questions about their big rival team OKC Thunder. One of the little boys was so adorable and kept saying, “I know who your honey is! Kevin Durant!”

At 4:30pm, the Baptist minister, his wife, and their two teenagers served all the kids lunch. The Baptist church started a free lunch program for kids, up to the age of 18, for the summer. The family has been serving here in Kiana for a year now.

After lunch, it was time to go home and many kids followed me back to the Pastor Cabin. I asked the kiddos if they wanted to film a movie, and they excitedly suggested, “Little Red Riding Hood.” We didn’t get to finished the movie before my phone died, but the footage we did finish was hilarious. We had a blast filming! Those kids loved acting and were so good at it, too! I played the Big Bad Wolf, the little girls and boys played Little Red Riding Hood and other made up characters.

When I had to go in for dinner, the kids lingered around the road. After dinner, the mission team and I went to the church to set up for Vacation Bible School which started the next day. While setting up, Shaedyn and her friend stopped by.

Shaedyn asked me: "If I hate the bully at school, am I going to hell?" I told her no and explained to her, maybe for the first time, that God loves her no matter what.

A little while later, two little girls I had met earlier, Brielle and best friend Skyla, stopped by to find out when VBS would start. After they left, I stepped outside the church onto the porch to get some fresh air and saw the little girls down the hill below. They stared at me for a moment then came racing up the hill asking if I would dance with them. I picked them up in my arms, danced with them, and sang the waltz from Sleeping Beauty, “Once Upon a Dream,” over and over. They loved this song and only wanted to dance to this one. Both the girls are 8, but Skyla is only the size of a 4-year-old. The little girls and I hung out all evening playing fun little games and giggling.

“Are you Iñupiat?” Brielle asked me.

“No sadly, I’m not,” I replied.

“Oh… are you white?” she asked.

I laughed. “Yes. Yes, I am,” I replied.

The girls taught me how to say, “Good Morning” and how to sing “Jesus Loves Me” in Iñupiaq. It was beautiful! They have such a beautiful culture and way of life. Language is especially important when it comes to being tied to your culture, and I was just so thrilled and proud of these girls to sing in their own language.

June 1, 2016: Running to Survive

Today was the first day of Vacation Bible School!

We finished preparing the church in the morning, broke for lunch, then I hurried to the store to buy batteries for the television remote. At the store, I ran into Brielle and Skyla, and they helped my find what I needed. Together, the three of us raced off to church for VBS.

At one in the afternoon, the VBS for the younger kids started. Little kids started arriving, and we had them sit at tables to color while others got signed it. Then it was time for music! I called the kids up, and we began to dance and sing the theme songs. Our VBS theme this year was Barnyard Round Up!

After we got all the wiggles out, we had story time which was lead by Eileen. Our story was “Jesus is the Good Shepherd.” Craft followed, then games, then more songs, and a closing prayer. I just fell in love with little Raja and the 5 year old twins Zion and Zyler!

We only had an hour and thirty minutes to get this all done! Then the older kids arrived, and it was the same process but we acted out the story, did a harder craft, and played older kid games. We had two hours for the older kids. It was a rushed way to do VBS since we only had 2 hours max to get everything in. Most Vacation Bible Schools are much longer… but they also have way more helpers, order, and a bigger place to have it. Nonetheless, we made it work with what we had!

After VBS ended, I corralled the kids outside and played all kinds of games with them. I taught them a really fun game which they loved called “Cat and Dog.” It’s like a modified kiddie version of Capture the Flag. There was one little boy, John, and I became so attached and protective of him. He was a skinny, tall, timid little boy about 9 or 10 years old. As I got to know him more, I found out he was the "man" of his house. He loved his alcoholic mother so much and cared and looked out for her. But who looked out for him?

The kids and I played “Cat and Dog” around the church for hours. John loved this game, and I loved seeing all the kids laugh and smile. Suddenly, a man with two grocery bags appeared walking down the church path towards us.

“Uncle!” John called and ran up to him. “Did you get me anything?”

“No, not today.” the man replied.

Pretty soon I had to go inside for dinner, but I felt so guilty going in to eat and leaving the kids outside in the cold. The kids never seemed to go home for dinner any of the days we were there… then I began to wonder if maybe they don’t get dinner.

I’ve been picking up on their language and the way they talk a bit. I love the way they talk and their accents!

“Anna” is what they call their Grandma.

“Dadda” is what they call their grandfather.

When someone is bothering them, they will shout, “Adee!”  But, I’m not sure what that means. Maybe stop or shut up or something like that.

“Cama nac toe ti” (I don’t know how it’s spelled but that’s how it sounds) is the line “How Great Thou Art”. This is one of their favorite hymns at church!

“Jesus Nugleeda” (again, I don’t know the spelling) is “Jesus Loves Me”.

A lot of times, when something is not true, they reply with, “No, not even!” which I think I'm going to have to start saying when I go home!

After dinner, we had adult Bible study at our house. Mrs. Nellie and Mrs. Arleen were the first to arrive. A couple others, including a young couple, Joseph and Kris, whose kids were at VBS, came as well!

We went over Jesus being our Good Shepherd. As the young couple began to open up, my heart just went out to them, and I tried not to let my emotions get the better of me when the topic of suicide came up.

Poor Joseph has such horrible back and shoulder pain. He’s also struggling with understanding Jesus. The church has told him that if people commit suicide, they go straight to hell. He began to cry, thinking of family and friends he’d lost to suicide. Instead of finding hope and comfort in the church, he found despair and confusion, and it breaks my heart. Many of the people in the village are so confused because all these different churches come in and teach them their ways and then leave. No one is grounded in their faith, but instead, they are left with a million questions. Many are just so confused, so, they simply give up on God.

“I just couldn’t believe the pastor told me that.” he quietly said.

I was upset. A church should help heal those left behind, not make them feel even worse. People already know they’re sinners. Our confession and absolution reminds us that Jesus Christ died to forgive us, not rub it in our faces. More than anything, I just wanted to run around the village, yelling to everyone I saw that Jesus loves them despite their sins, and He already died and rose to save them. So many families are broken, and they need the hear God’s grace.

Statistics show that Native Americans have the highest suicide rates in country, and the highest among those are in Alaska. We need to understand their sensitivities and respect them. We need to stop rubbing salt in their deep wounds. So often, well-meaning people attempt to help and end up making the situation worse. I know that I'm not perfect and will, or probably already have, messed something up on this trip, but I feel confident that Pastor Dave and Rosemary prepared me for this experience. I pray I can do good in this village in my small amount of time here. (Rant ended.)

After Adult Bible Study ended, we had Teen Time. About 10 teens came over for games, snacks, and fun. I believe they all enjoyed themselves; I know I did! I made friends with many of the teens, and we goofed around a lot. Two of the boys even came dressed in their Sunday best! We played Twister, card games, and did a cross scratch art. Gabriel kept telling me he was the "Top Dog Angel, Gabriel, from the Bible," and Adam, whom I called “Merry” for fun, told me that he was Adam from the Bible.

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The girls were more hesitant than the boys, but Ashley loved taking pictures on my phone, and Kristine loved putting makeup on me. Everyone loved to talk about basketball and their nicknames and how they had gotten them.

“I’m Native Curry.” Quentin said.

“You are not Steph Curry!” one of the girl exclaimed.

“Sure I am. I’m the Native version,” he replied.

Around 9:00 PM, we all went outside to play. We decided to play hide and seek. One of the girls offered to count and the rest of us took off down the dirt road until we came to an area where people piled all their broken washing machines, dryers, and refrigerators. It looked like a household appliance graveyard!

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“Let’s hide here!” the kids shouted, and we swarmed the refrigerators and hid in old wash tubs and dryers. Some of the boys climbed the refrigerators and hopped on the roof of the house. Huddling down in a refrigerator that had lost its door, I tried to hide the fact that I was shivering and freezing so bad.

“Are you cold?” Adam asked.

“Nah I’m fine, Merry.” I replied

Adam rolled his eyes and pulled off his sweatshirt and tossed it to me.

“You’re cold. Put on Adam’s sweatshirt, yeah? Our elders taught us that we’re supposed to look out and care for the women.”  Gabriel said as he jumped from the roof, landed on a wiggly refrigerator and tried to jump to a washing machine. He lost his balance and fell to the ground.

My heroes.

The girl who was counting never came, so we soon quit hiding and began to play tag and "jump from one refrigerator to the next." A little after 11:00, I headed home but the village kids stayed out all night long.

The seemed to never go home. They tested their minds to see how many days they could go without sleep while they played tag in the washing machine graveyard. Each one was running away from the other, just trying to stay on top of things.

The dangerous game reminded me of life.

Something horrible is chasing us, and we’re trying desperately to stay away from it. We’re running on unstable ground, and we don’t know the route. Every step could be fatal if we don’t have a guide. And for many people, they don’t have a guide. They’re just running blindly… just running to survive.

June 2, 2016: Look Through Their Eyes

The next morning, right after we had finished eating breakfast, two boys from Teen Time knocked on the door and invited me out. We walked to the basketball courts and played a couple of games and talked.

“Kent,” I finally said. “Could we please have 5 minutes of you not being dirty and inappropriate?”

“He can’t,” Quentin replied. “He don’t know how.”

As we walked home, Kent still wasn’t shaping up. I reminded him what Gabriel had said last night about what their elders taught them.

“You should listen to your elders,” I said. That shut him up, for a little bit. Then, Quentin grabbed him and smacked him upside the head.

“Our elders are wise,” Quentin nodded. “That’s why I come back from the city…” He didn’t say any more about what he meant, and I didn't feel like it was my place to push it.

I skipped lunch to meet Eileen, Lynne, and Catherine at the store and help with groceries. I ran into Brielle at the store who greeted me with a hug and hung out with me until VBS started at 1:00 in the afternoon. Today, the Bible story was “Jesus Feeds the 5,000”. We handed the kids food during the story.

“We get to eat this for real? For real?” some of the kids cried.

Zyler, another little boy that I just fell in love with, folded his hands and yelled: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” as he was handed a small loaf of banana bread.

“Wait until we get to the table to actually eat your food,” Lynne was saying. But Zyler and the kids were already diving into their food and paid no attention. 

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During craft time I got out the guitar and played “Beautiful Day” by Jamie Grace. The kids really liked the song. Zyler kept coming over and strumming the strings.

Shy little John didn't feel like participating in VBS today, but he hung around the front door and peered in. He would leave the minute someone would address him and invite him in. He never went far and would always return and hang around in the background. I went over and talked with him and gave him some ointment for his bad mosquito bites.

“Do you have any bug dope?” he was asking as I doctored him up.

“Not on me, but I’ll get you some later,” I said as I rubbed the ointment on his torn up skin. “This will take away the itch and should make you feel good as new.”

After VBS, Zyler held up an empty flower vase and asked what it was. I told him and then suggested he go pick flowers. He picked weeds and grass for me for the rest of the day which brought a big smile to my face.

After that, we decided to walk down to the Baptist church and hung out for a little bit with the multitudes of kids down there. I had to get home for dinner, and Dustin walked me home which was wonderful because I would have probably gotten lost.

After dinner, we had Adult Bible Study and Quentin and Adam joined us. After the study and prayers, we got to talking about the new liquor store in town that was destroying the village, and how the school system is failing, and how people leave for college but never come back to help the village.

“The teachers at the school don’t care. They don’t care about these boys.” Mrs. Mary announced, pointing to Adam and Quentin. “They only stay a year then leave. They’re just here for the paycheck or to get school loans cancelled. Kids go to school from 9:00 to 3:30. The first class doesn’t start until 10:00, and their last class ends at 2:30.”

“Then what do the kids do for those other hours?” Lynne asked.

“They color! Go on, tell them what you guys do.” Mrs. Mary said to the boys. The boys smirked shyly and looked sadly at the floor.

Teen Time started after Adult Bible study. We did a craft and played cards. The teens didn’t stay as long tonight as they had the night before. The boys left to go to the open gym session, and the girls followed, pulling me along. We raced down the road, and I beat everyone. That seemed to earn me a little respect, and they accepted me more.

We went down to the school. The older boys went to the gym to practice, and I played the strategic, running around game of “Cat and Dog” with the girls and other little kids that appeared on the street. A few of these littler kids had such dirty mouths and crude humor. I had a little talking with them. I pray that God can give them clean hearts, minds, and words.

All the girls were trying to set me up with Quentin. I told Rosemary, and she just laughed.

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“Maybe they think if they can get you with somebody here, they can keep you forever,” she said. I laughed then but it wasn’t always so funny. These girls were persistent!

“Come on please! He really likes you too. He’s a good guy. He goes to church. He’d take care of you.” They all kept saying. I finally sat them down and had a heart to heart about womanhood, love, and dating, waiting for marriage and where God fits into all of this. I talked scenarios to help them have a well-rounded, logical, and godly understanding about the world of dating and really the world around them. I discussed Bible verses and how this sometimes embarrassing topic is precious to God and that they need to respect their bodies.

The girls looked dumbfounded and just stared at me. One of them laughed but the others seemed like they were trying to figure out if I was serious or not. It seemed as if they had never heard this viewpoint before. My thoughts were different. Weird, maybe. Unnatural. But maybe I at least gave them something to think about.

The teasing about Quentin never fully went away, especially with all the little kids calling me their mom and him their dad, but it did lessen a little from the older girls. (Just a little bit.)

Sometimes, I really have to think, what do these kids see and hear on a day to day basis.

Are they shown godly examples to live by, shown brotherly love and kindness? Quality time and conversation are harder with the distant teens, yet begged for from the little kids. Maybe the teens give up and close off because they were tired of getting rejected and tossed aside.

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I think deep inside, they enjoy spending quality time together and our conversations… though usually, the conversation is just me talking about events and ideas. If I stop talking, it’s just awkward silence. So I talk about everything. But I think they find it entertaining and slowly they open up. I just need to earn their trust first.

Sometimes, it really hard to understand if we can’t see what they see. My family life and upbringing was nothing like theirs. I wish I could step into their shoes and look through their eyes. What would I see?

June 3, 2016: His Children

Today, I woke up not feeling very well and a little homesick. To make things worse, one of the women on my volunteer team hurt my feelings and made me feel dumb and unwanted at breakfast time. I went back to bed, convinced I was doomed to be a horrible teacher and mother and poured my heart out to God asking him for healing, strength to get through this day, joy, patience, and help to love the unlovable. 

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Later, we walked to the post office and saw the bearskin of the recently shot grizzly bear drying on a boat.

We passed little Trevor’s house, and I talked with him and his grandfather who was telling me of the injustice that was going on with the people in charge of the tribe and money scandals. He was definitely upset about it but remained calm. He had a sad voice.

God gave us all strength and energy for another day of VBS! The Bible stories were “The Prodigal Son” and “The Parable of the Sower”. Right before the older kids started coming, my friend Dustin appeared at the church door out of breath.

“Dustin! Hey!” I exclaimed. He always cheered me up with his funny little ways and happy spirit. Right now, I needed a friendly face.

“I can’t stay. We’re leaving. Taking the boat to Noorvik. I just come to say bye.” he said as he hugged me. Even though I was sad to hear this news, I put on a smile and wished him a good time.

After VBS with the older kids, Brielle, Trevor, Skyla, and I walked Trevor home and then Brielle took me to her house to meet her parents. Her dad had served in the army during 9/11. The family had lived overseas but after he got out of the army, they returned to Kiana to raise their youngest daughter, little Brielle.

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The kids and I then had a rough afternoon. A truck drove past and spotted us and out hopped little Zion to play with us, while 3-year-old Raja cried in the truck because she couldn’t come along. In a very short amount of time, the other kids with me were in tears as well with scraped knees and hurt feelings about “who pushed who” down the hill and “Why won’t you forgive me?” We worked it out... eventually.

After dinner, I met up by the school with the kids, and we played at the school playground. We finished filming "Little Red Riding Hood" which was filled with laughs! At 7:20, I left all the little ones and ran so I could make it to my house on the other side of the village in time for Teen Time.

I met the teens waiting on the porch. There were a couple new faces, too! There was a new girl, Jasmine, who was very kind, as well as a new boy named Terry Jr. We were going to have a full house of teens! We barged into the house just in time for the adult bible study prayer.

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During Teen Time, Terry and I had a good conversation. He told of how he graduated last year and now was leaning more towards work than college. Either way, he knew for sure he wanted to leave the village and maybe go work for Red Dog Mine if he could get in. Right now, he’s the youngest VPO (Village Patrol Officer) in Kiana! How cool!

“I got a pool table,” he was telling me.

So, after Teen Time, we walked over to the Moose Lodge, a one room shed with a dim light and Terry’s 100-year-old pool table. I surprised everyone (including myself) when I did well during the game.

“We should get stoned.” Terry said.

“Nah, I’m good.” I replied.

“I’ve never seen white girl stoned before.”

“Where have you been?” I laughed.

“Uh, here.” he replied. 

Just then a loud commotion from outside drew our attention to the window. A group of adults were gathered outside shouting. Some of the younger boys went outside and asked for money and came back with cigarettes. Terry got mad when they tried to come back in the shed and told them to go back outside and smoke. Terry had to close down the Moose Lodge at 10:00 to leave for his night shift. Outside, I spotted Dustin nearby and went to say hello.

“I thought you said you were leaving and taking the boat to Noorvik!”

“We did. Now we come back,” he said as if I should have known. I didn’t care though. I was just thankful to see him again.

My friend, Bella, and I spent the evening walking around the village and talking about life, faith in God, and raising up the little ones in the faith. At 10:30, she dropped me off at my house. I spotted little John all snuggled up in his jacket down the road with Michael.

Hi, John!” I called.

Hi Rachel! Do you want to play “Cat and Dog?" he asked.

How could I resist? Just one round.

“Hey, Rachel,” Michael called as I went to prepare the game.

“You know Rachel?” I hear John ask.

“Yeah.” Michael replied. “From Baptist church.” 

We played a fun round, and I was glad to see John smile and laugh and to know that he was safe.

I worry sometimes because I won’t always be around. I can’t always be here for them. I want to, but I know I can’t be. I love that they love me… but I don’t want them to become dependent on me. I want their parents to take care of them and be their protectors. I have to trust that God has them in His arms. They’re His children anyway, not mine.

I’m thankful that God is using me as a door for His love to walk through.

June 4, 2016: Story Telling

 Today was the last day of VBS.

Spirits were still high, and the word of Jesus was being proclaimed.

Our Bible story today was Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. The kids sang songs with me as I prepared them for the VBS presentation tomorrow. Little Zion wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t seem to smile. Catherine asked her if she wanted to play games but she just pushed her lips out. Later, Catherine told me that was Eskimo sign language for “No”.

I sat out with Zion, and we took silly pictures on my phone which finally made her giggle a little. Quentin and Gabe came and helped us play games with the kids. We played Alaskan Baseball and had everybody screaming with excitement. I really liked seeing the older boys play with the little kids. I wished this would happen more often. Kids, especially the little boys, would love a godly man or big brother figure in their lives. There are those teen boys that take care of their siblings and play with them, but I love it when they play and are kind to kids that aren't even related to them.

Bella arrived in time to help act out the Bible stories! She took a lot of pictures for me with my polaroid camera so I could give pictures to the kids. She was a great camera woman! She only cut off my head in two pictures…

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After VBS, Bella and I hopped on her Honda four-wheeler, and she treated me to snacks at the store. Then, we sped off to the other side of the village and hung out for a bit at her house. At 7:30 that evening, it was time to head over for Teen Time.

None of the boys came tonight. It was just us girls and we had a wonderful (and peaceful) time and actually got to converse and talk seriously about some things, just like civilized people! Without the boys to distract them, the girls were much calmer. Rosemary taught the girls a cool drawing craft and had a lot of good conversation with them. I know she really enjoyed getting to know them.

“So, girls, tell me. How important is it for your future husband to be a skilled hunter and provider for your family?” one of the ladies asked.

“Very!” they all replied.

Before the night got too late, we all went over to the church and put everything back in its place for church tomorrow. Katie and I had a good talk as we worked side by side putting chairs back.

After Teen Time ended, the girls and I grabbed our coats and stepped outside into the chilly air. I suggested we work on our story telling skills. I went first and told a silly story about me and a bear. The girls thought it was good, but that they had a better one. The girls told a story of how I married Quentin and Terry Jr. and that we had all the kids in the village. They thought it was hilarious; I just shook my head but couldn't help but laugh.

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We walked a little further and arrived at a house. The girls knocked on the door and asked for Quentin. Many boys came out of the house, stood on the porch, and listened as, to my horror, the girls told Quentin that we were married and had 1,000 kids.

“Yes! Finally! Hallelujah!” Dustin cheered.

Kids from out of nowhere appeared and cheered! Everyone congratulated us and had a toast. The kids grabbed us and pulled us into a big “family group hug” and called us “mom” and “dad.” The story telling had gotten out of hand. I finally pulled myself away and headed down the street, leaving the rest of the kids teasing a vicious chained dog at the edge of the yard.

I met little John and Michael in the street with John’s bike that he loved so much.

They asked me to play “Cat and Dog” but I was feeling tired so I told them maybe tomorrow. Just then, two older teen boys approached us on the street. John seemed to know them and began talking with them.

“I’ll trade you my bike for a cigarette. For my mom,” John said to the boys. They just laughed at him.

“Kid, come on. This is the last one I got,” the tall one said as he pointed to the cigarette behind his ear.

John kept asking but the boys just kept leading him on only to crush his dream. John's grip on his bike loosened, and he let it drop to the ground.

“Ok, I got some snuff,” he said as he pitched his fingers and held his hand up to the boy's nose. Then, he opened his hand to reveal it was empty and laughed at his joke.

“I joke! I joke!” he laughed.

I encouraged him to grab his bike and let’s get going. Again, here was another example of John looking out for and trying to take care of his mom. He loved that bike, but he was willing to trade it for a cigarette for his mom. He jumped on his bike, Michael hopped on the back, and they road at my walking pace.

“Rachel, wait!” I heard someone call.

I turned around to see Quentin walking after me with all the kids following behind him. “Goodnight, honey,” he said as he hugged me.

I looked over at the teen girls and glared at them. They just giggled. Then I laughed, too. “The power of story telling,” I thought to myself. We were never telling stories again.

The teen girls and I ambled around aimlessly and mindlessly for a while. My mind was too tired to think of anything intelligent to say. The girls made small talk. We walked in the numbing cold from empty shacks, to street corners where other kids sat around, to the lonely, windblown streets.

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These kids were bored, consumed with emptiness, a hunger for parental support, a wanting to belong. They were just yearning for something to do. Something to give their lives purpose and meaning. They kept walking because they were still searching for meaning in places were it couldn't be found. The purpose they seek can't be found in worldly things, but in God.

Why is He so unappealing to them? Why is He sometimes the last place we look? Why do the churches have to make Him so confusing?

So we kept walking down the lonely street and searching for things that couldn’t be found. Maybe reality seemed bleak. Maybe story telling is all we have…

June 5, 2016: It’s out of my hands and into God’s

 Sunday morning, sisters and best friends, Mrs. Nellie and Mrs. Arleen, came over and made breakfast for us! Sourdough hot cakes! They were delicious.

Mrs. Nellie and Mrs. Arleen told us stories of growing up. They laughed over the stories and made each other laugh even harder as they joked and teased each other, as sisters do. They told stories of working the Lodge upriver, confronting bears, changing perfectly good light bulbs, and all kinds of great stories as they looked back on the years. I liked to see them laugh together. I loved to see them happy.

“What I want is for our kids to go out and leave the village and see the world. I want them to see that there’s more out there than just little Kiana. Then, they can return and appreciate this life here and come back with a trade or skill to contribute to home.”

I thought back to skipping rocks across the river, thinking they would always sink before they got to the mountains. Then I thought, about God. He could give them wings to fly over and beyond and to be all that they can be. With God, they could make their village and people thrive.

Church was lightly attended that morning. We sang some songs, slightly off tune and skipped over words here and there. Nellie gave a talk about anchoring our hope in Jesus, not in things of the world. It was a message totally from God, and I definitely needed to hear it! It seems so many times, I place my joy and hope in people (or the little kids around me or worldly things or even myself). I know I shouldn’t.

People will always let us down. But with Jesus, we will never be disappointed. He is the only firm foundation on which our hope is to be built.

So with a happy heart and joyful spirit, I left church to get ready for the day’s adventures!

Mrs. Nellie, Mrs. Arleen, their daughter, son-in-law, and their two kids, took us on their boats up river to the Lodge!

The boat ride was awesome! We cut through the water at a flying pace. Cold water splashed my face, and the wind drowned out our voices. I looked over at Arleen and saw that she was singing a song I couldn't hear. I smiled and began to sing, too.

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what life was like for the people hundreds of years ago. The Lodge that belonged to Mrs. Nellie family was a nice little place where tourists could come and stay.

This year, Mrs. Nellie was retiring, and the Lodge was closing down. I played hide and seek with Lane and Paige and pushed them around in a wheel barrel outside while the adults talked inside the Lodge.

When we retuned to shore, I took Lane and Paige home with me, and we ate chips and caught a butterfly. The butterfly was wounded by the catch so we built a little hospital for him. I found a cross built out of two logs laying under my porch and pulled it out into the daylight. Lane, Paige, and I then reenacted Jesus on the cross. They loved being Jesus and getting nailed to the cross and carried to the tomb. When their parents came to pick them up, I headed down to the Baptist church to see the other kids. They greeted me with hugs and begged me to play tag. I chased them around until I was ready to drop.

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At 4:00, I left to check in and many kids followed.

“Can I follow?” they ask.

They never say, “Can I come with you?” It’s always, “Can I follow?”

We played “Cat and Dog” by my house. After, they took me to the old playground down a path in the woods, and we hung out there until 5:00.

“All right, kids. Time to go to my house for dinner!” I called.

Tonight, we hosted a hot dog dinner at the Pastor Cabin before going over to church for the VBS end-of-week program. The kids took off down the path to my house and burst into a house full of other village kids already playing cards and eyeing the food.

Food was served, drinks were spilled, the guitar was played, and their little voices filled the room. I couldn’t remember a happier moment as I looked around at them all.

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At 6:00, we all went over to the church and prepared the kids for the program. There was an elder at the church playing the guitar who was the Dadda of many of the kids. He played while we got all the kids prepped and seated just in time for church.

Soon, it was time for our presentation. I got all the kids lined up, and introduced each song.

1. Always and Forever, No Matter What. (Theme Song)

2. I am a C (Favorite song of the kids) 

3. He is Risen! (Skyla’s favorite song)

After songs, we recited our Bible verse: the 23rd Psalm. Finally, I had all the kids gather around me with the guitar, and we sang “Jesus Nugleeda”

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After the service, people talked outside for a bit. It was wonderful.

I played games with the kids, and little Zyler ran around gathering flowers and sticks for me. He was so proud. It made me laugh to see him proudly hold up a bunch of flowers for me then laugh, embarrassed, and cover his face. That’s when 14-year-old Joey came by.

Zyler happily showed him the sticks he was gathering. Joey grabbed them from the little boy, broke them, tossed them aside, and provoked Zyler until he crumpled to the ground in tears. I was furious and yelled at Joey to stop and leave Zyler alone. I had a talk with Zyler about controlling himself and using his words or coming to get me but the little boy couldn't be comforted and ran to hide under the church.

Rosemary and the other ladies met us on the road, and I had the other kids take them down to the Baptist church. I continued to look for Zyler under the church but couldn’t find him. I finally gave up and headed down the road to the Baptist church. That’s when Zyler ran past me laughing and joined the other kids on the road - a happy five-year-old once more.

We arrived at the Baptist church and sat quiet for service. After we sang contemporary Christian songs, sleepy Brielle and Skyla cuddled up next to me as we listened to our guest pastor, Pastor Gerry Locklear of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina. I still liked what he had to say.

I tried to keep the girls awake and encouraged them to listen to his words. After church, we had brownies, popcorn, and juice. The kids rushed outside to jump on the trampoline. Zion and I sat down on the bench by the cliff’s edge and watched the finished production of our movie, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Zion smiled shyly when her scenes came up. Zyler came over to us with his tiny cup of juice.

“No, it’s coffee,” he corrected me with a mischievous smile.

We played around the cliff edge, which later I learned was named Valeria’s Bluff after a missionary from years ago. Zyler would pretend to fall all the way down the cliff to the water below, and I’d cry and cry until he popped back up from the ledge laughing hysterically: “I joke! I joke!”

When it was time to leave, the pastor’s daughter tried to roundup the kids and told them: “Go home with Rachel. Come on, let’s go.”

We cut through the forest and walked along the dusty road. The kids raced to and fro and all around. They’d pretend to be wounded and fall to the ground clutching their leg. I’d play along, race to their side, rub their backs, and cry. They’d tried to hide their smile, but it became too much. They’d jump up squealing thinking it was the greatest joke ever and laugh that they could trick me. It was adorable.

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One by one, the kids were picked up by passing cars or took themselves home to their families. I hugged them goodbye knowing this was my last hug and last look at their tiny faces. As I walked home alone, noticing the chilly air for the first time, I felt as though they were slipping away, out of my reach… and into God’s forever strong arms where they always were and will always stay.


We left the next morning. The village was still asleep when our plane landed and we loaded up our gear. I stood on the edge of the airstrip looking at the mountains and river and quiet houses around me.

I suppose my story is not unique from anyone else’s.

Every missionary has their story of falling in love with the people and the heartbreak of when they must leave.

There are so many things I hope for the Native Americans. I hope that they will revive their cultures. I hope that the freedom of Jesus will set them free from their darkness. I hope that Native pastors and missionaries will rise up to help their own people. I pray for healing for the broken lives and families.

I hope more people get interested and come on mission trips with Lutheran Indian Ministries!