Singing Over the Icy Waves
The Russian Far East Task Force: The Power of a Vision
by Tim Tanton, UMNS
You won't find any United Methodist churches in Russia's impoverished Chukotka region, but the connection is doing some of its most vital work there, helping people for whom survival has become a daily struggle.
The spirit of that work lives in the small frame of Della Waghiyi, a Yupik native woman and United Methodist who is regarded with something close to amazement by those who know her. Her realization in 1998 that people across the Bering Strait were starving sparked a growing outreach effort.
A visit with exchange students from Chukotka opened Waghiyi's eyes. As the students' stay in Alaska drew to a close, many of them didn't want to return home. One girl told of Chukotka children fainting in school from lack of nourishment. Conditions had become so desperate that people were eating their dogs. Waghiyi was moved.
"My heart goes for them, especially the children," Waghiyi said. "I made a plate for myself and couldn't eat. I just think about those children. And I prayed and wept for those children."
She contacted the Rev. James Campbell, a United Methodist pastor, who was planning a humanitarian relief effort through the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry in Anchorage. Since the early 1990s, the organization – supported through the United Methodist Church's Advance program and by other denominations -- had been sponsoring missionary visits and providing aid in the form of outboard motors, medicine and other resources. Campbell saw the need for a larger humanitarian relief effort taking shape, like a gathering storm.
"In March, when Della called, that was like the lightning strike," said Campbell. The humanitarian relief effort took off, and it gained momentum the following year with the formation of the Russian Far East Task Force of the United Methodist and Moravian Churches.
A group of Russian relief leaders who work with the task force recently journeyed across the Bering Strait to thank the United Methodists and Moravians and to tell their stories. Their visit became a focal point of the May 25-27 meeting of the United Methodist Church's Alaska Missionary Conference.
The story of how United Methodists and Moravians, native Yupik people and non-native alike, joined hands in outreach efforts illustrates the power of being connected - not only through the Wesleyan connection but through families, tribes and faith.
Crisis sets in
Chukotka lies in Russia's Far East, or Siberia, separated from Alaska by only the Bering Strait. It is closer to Alaska than any U.S. annual conference, and many of the people share family ties through the native Yupik communities that live on both sides of the strait.
The Soviet Union's collapse in the early 1990s left Chukotka's economy in shambles, forcing thousands of people to move elsewhere and leaving the remainder to scrape out a living in harsh conditions. The jobs that had been created largely by the government were gone, and many basic necessities - food, clothes, fuel - became unaffordable or scarce.
For thousands of years, the Yupik people of Alaska and Siberia had been traveling back and forth, joined by a common language, culture, trade and ancestry. That exchange became frozen by the Cold War.
With the end of the Soviet era, Waghiyi's late husband, the Rev. John Waghiyi Sr., and other Yupik missionaries from Alaska's St. Lawrence Islands began traveling to Chukotka, renewing centuries-old bonds and sharing the Gospel. The region was still relatively stable. The work of John Waghiyi, who died in 1993, and the other St. Lawrence Island Yupiks opened the way for the relief efforts that eventually followed.
When the humanitarian crisis was apparent, Della Waghiyi became a powerful voice for the people of Chukotka, raising money and rallying support around the United States for the outreach work. "She's the spirit of it," Campbell said. "People are drawn to the wonder of this woman. When she speaks, it is with such depth and earnestness and understanding of the situation. ... She is the embodiment of the spirit of the work we are doing."
Waghiyi, a commissioned missionary who has been to Chukotka five times, said living conditions there reminded her of the difficult times of the 1930s and '40s. The circumstances of the people had gone from bad to worse, as they lost heat and electricity.
Speaking through interpreters, the Russian visitors to the Alaska Missionary Conference described the plight of the region. Galena Polvolski, from the Chukotka town of Provideniya, said electricity goes off and on during the day, and apartment buildings don't retain their heat. "They're always cold." The past winter was rough, and fuel rationing became necessary, she said.
Along with joblessness, alcoholism is a problem throughout the area, the Russians said. One of the task force's projects centers on treatment.
"The people are very, very capable, educated (and) acculturated," said Della Waghiyi's son, John Waghiyi Jr. However, their difficulties are beyond their control, he said. For example, supply shortages are chronic. The people depend on marine food - fish, walrus, whales, seals, birds - yet they lack the fuel to run their outboard motors, he said.
Fish runs were poor last year, Polvolski said. Part of the reason, she believes, is that Korean and possibly Japanese fishers reduced the traditionally large salmon runs that the Chukotka villages have relied upon in the past.
The Rev. R. Bruce Weaver, who leads the United Methodist Church's Russia Initiative, said that with the exception of a few towns elsewhere in the country, "the Chukotka peninsula is under the most severe economic conditions of any place in Russia."
Within months of its formation, the Russian Far East Task Force had begun a soup kitchen in Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, and provided funding to start "Boeg Pomesch," or "God's Helpers," which supplied food, medicine and clothing to those most in need. Other outreach followed, and the task force now has about a dozen projects in Chukotka.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) committed $75,000 annually for three years, ending this year. The Moravians have given more than $100,000 and the United Methodist Church's Native American Comprehensive Plan gave $50,000 last year in support directly for the indigenous people. Combined with other contributions, the task force has drawn about $500,000 in funding so far.
UMCOR's commitment ended this year, but the task force and the denomination's Russia Initiative have developed a plan for raising future support from other sources. The task force will work with churches throughout the denomination's Western Jurisdiction to get funding for its work, while the Russia Initiative will rely on the other four U.S. jurisdictions, Weaver said.
In 2000, the Alaska Missionary Conference adopted the Russian Far East as its mission priority for the following year. The conference members celebrated the outreach work during their annual gathering in May, held with the theme "With Russia In Love." Bishop Edward Paup, who leads the conference, announced that $26,500 had been raised during the year.
Also during the conference, volunteers and members of the Russian group assembled 100 boxes of clothes - one and a half tons -- for shipment to Chukotka. It is one of several shipments made since December.
Change under way
The outreach efforts are having an impact on the towns and villages of Chukotka, members of the Russian delegation said during their visit. The programs serve about 50 villages, ranging in size from 300 to 1,500 people each, in addition to major towns such as Anadyr and Provideniya.
The relief comes in many forms. Funds sent to Chukotka are used to buy medical supplies and medicine for day care centers and food for terminally ill people, and to provide travelers with lodging. Church-supported programs also employ people in the region to knit scarves, hats, mittens, socks and pieces of parkas. The clothes are donated to needy people, the elderly, people with children. The task force has provided heaters, clothes, outboard motors, fishing nets, and school supplies.
Varya Litovka of Anadyr thanked the church workers for the pencils, paints, clothes and other materials that have been sent for the region's children. The supplies have enabled many children to go to school, she said.
Litovka leads several projects, including an educational program that pays children $20 a month for doing work related to ecology and preservation. The children monitor sea life migrations, provide care for the elderly, work in a hospital and perform other jobs. "These children are family providers," she said.
In another program, the children are paid for their writings and drawings, which are used in calendars and post cards, Litovka said. Before receiving the supplies a year ago, many of the children had never drawn or written, she said.
Their pictures were displayed throughout the sanctuary at St. John United Methodist Church, where the missionary conference session was held. The drawings included wildlife scenes, with walruses, whales, birds and bears, as well as village landscapes and pictures of hunters. Letters of gratitude accompanied the artwork.
Many basic necessities are available in Russia, but people in the villages don't have the money to afford them. The task force has addressed that, in part, by sending cash in addition to supplies to trusted project leaders.
Chukotka has limited transportation resources. Supplies must be flown to villages by helicopter or, during the winter, shipped by track mobile at night when the snow is hard.
Shipping goods also takes time. "It takes two months to Anadyr, to get a box in, because there's no direct mail between Alaska to Chukotka," said Nancy Mendenhall, a United Methodist who leads Nome-based Alaskan Friends of Chukotka. Now boxes of clothes and supplies go 27,500 miles the other way around the world to reach people who may be only hundreds of miles away.
A channel also has been opened for bringing Russians from Chukotka to the United States for medical treatment. A girl has already undergone eye surgery, and plans are under way for bringing over a boy who has been severely burned.
Until recently, local Russian officials did not support the relief efforts and denied that a crisis existed. However, that attitude has changed with the arrival of a new governor.
The Russian visitors included a number of Yupik and Chukchi people, natives of the Chukotka region. The language and ancestral ties with Alaskan natives have helped the mission work.
"Our connection is in Chukotka. Our blood, our brothers and sisters are over there," said John Waghiyi Jr.
Bishop Ruediger Minor, who leads the Russia Annual Conference, said the native population needs encouragement and support. "It's a very important and healthy thing that it's their own kin that's helping them."
The ecumenical ties are also important, Minor said. "It's important to show that it's possible to work together."
Churches often have difficulty working together in Russia, but he is noticing a change. "I have witnessed over the last few years a growing longing for more cooperation."
Western proselytizing has been a source of tension in Russia, particularly for the well-established Orthodox church. While Chukotka is seeing a growing number of conversions, the United Methodists have not rushed into setting up a bricks-and-mortar church.
"Generally speaking, we do not see humanitarian aid primarily as a means of church planting," Minor said.
The late Rev. Waghiyi envisioned a new, nondenominational Christian church, and Lyuba Tayan, a teacher from Anadyr, said that would be the most appropriate way to go.
Polvolski praised the United Methodists and Moravians for not discriminating in the distribution of aid, as some church-based relief services do. "I want to acknowledge you for that and what you do for people on our side."
Celebration - and more work
The Russians' visit to Alaska represented the first time that all of the key leaders for the Chukotka relief efforts - with one exception – were together.
"These are not just guests," Campbell told the Alaska Missionary Conference. "These are the hands, hearts and eyes of everything we are about."
Their visit made the Alaska Missionary Conference's annual session anything but typical. The United Methodists prayed and sang side by side with the Moravians, a denomination that nurtured John Wesley's spirit in the earliest days of Methodism. Visitors heard three languages spoken - English, Russian and Yupik -- during the event. Though small, the conference had no fewer than four bishops - three United Methodists and one Moravian.
During a May 25 celebration at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, two of the Russians, young people from the Chukchi tribe, performed traditional dances. Some 300 people packed the center to watch the dancers and the presentations that followed. The Russian delegation expressed thanks to the Alaskans and received several gifts, including a 300-square-foot fishing net.
The net was a gift from the Moravians. "That'll tide a lot of people over," said the Rev. Walter Larson, Moravian pastor in Aleknagik, Alaska. "This is not just food for now. This is food for seasons to come." The net is large enough for three or four villages to use, he said.
Looking ahead, a Nome Summit is planned for June 13, which will bring together U.S. and Russian relief workers as well as Alaska and Chukotka government officials.
Campbell sees the possibility of a turnaround in Chukotka, perhaps within a few years, if the economy can be stimulated. "That's a big 'if,' " he said.
"If they can get to the point where they can reclaim subsistence living and reclaim their own initiative ... they can at least reach a point where they can become hopeful about their future."
Knowing Who You Are
by Ray Buckley
Some history-altering events happen quietly. Like Seuss-esque descriptions of Christmas in Whoville, we stand amazed that something has happened without much noise, without trappings. We are almost embarrassed. It doesn't fit the model. And then we hear the singing.
The story is simple. Yupik native people on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, separated from their Yupik relations in Siberia during the Cold War, began to make the trip across the Bering Strait in boats. As the exchanges increased, so did the intentional sharing of personal lives and personal faith.
Yupik People, or "Real People," still exist as hunting and gathering societies. They continue subsistence living on the land, islands, and sea of north-northwest Alaska and eastern Siberia. Their lives continue to revolve around the fish, caribou, polar bear, seal, walrus and whale.
In the past, St. Lawrence Islanders had traded seal oil and walrus for caribou products with their Siberian cousins in the Chukotka region. In a society that promoted sharing as a cultural foundation, it was normal that the Gospel would be shared as naturally as a meal or the rewards of a hunt. But there was also a determination. There was risk and danger. There was suspicion on the part of the Chukotka government, and neglect by many agencies and state organizations in the United States.
There were pressing needs. As economic conditions in Russia became severe, life in Siberian Yupik villages became difficult. Food was scarce, and many families were forced to eat their dogs.
In Anchorage, Alaska, Della Waghiyi, a beautiful, United Methodist Yupik elder, heard the reports from Chukotka. Della (whose husband, John, had been one of the first St. Lawrence Islanders to cross to Siberia by boat, after the Cold War) wept when she heard the news. Unable to eat, she contacted the Rev. Jim Campbell, a non-Native United Methodist pastor, and together with members of the Moravian Church, the ministry to Chukotka expanded. From the heart of one woman, to a small congregation, to a small missionary conference, God brought about a series of events that caught the attention of the world.
The quiet miracle is that most of the people directly involved in this story are Yupik. The faces crossing the Bering Strait are Yupik faces. They are American Yupik and Siberian Yupik. They would not think of themselves as missionaries as much as family. And family doesn't allow family to go without.
What has emerged quietly and strongly is something we have not yet seen in the history of missions among Native people. It is the emergence of a new church. Native voices, speaking through native culture, becoming the Body of Christ in a native society. In this process, neither the richness of Yupik culture nor the Gospel has been compromised.
There has been wisdom in the history of the Yupik Christians, who have not seen the leaving behind of those things inconsistent with the faith as synonymous with Yupik culture. Rather, they have believed that the work of God in their lives would produce a people of faith, and God has chosen to strengthen them as a people who hunt walrus, seal, and caribou, and at whose singing, the angels fold their wings.
Despite international conflict and forced separation, the Yupik have held tenaciously to their connectedness and their responsibility for each other. And that is shaping the emerging Yupik church.
Yupik culture in Siberia is being preserved both as self-awareness, and as means for economic development. The concept of communal sharing has expanded beyond the Yupik community to all people in need. The traditional values reflected in the relationship of people to creation as a whole, and responsible subsistence living, are impacting environmental policies. The Gospel is being preached, the hungry fed, the naked clothed and justice sought.
The church will be different, but it will be valid. It will be valid, because the provisional work of Christ is also for Yupik. And the provisions of Christ are for those who speak Yupik, choose a subsistence lifestyle and maintain a connected society.
Often, Native ministry emulates the larger church. We develop a bureaucracy, in the belief that ministry must first be regulated and funded. We must have jurisdictional ministries to prove that the church supports us. We wait for the apologies or the election of a Native bishop. We wait, sometimes quietly, sometimes not, for the credibility that comes with the recognition of the church.
The danger is that we don't often believe ourselves, what we are asking the church to believe. We're not quite sure that in this time, in this place, that the voices of Native people have something to refresh the Body of Christ. We are not quite sure, Native or non-Native, that God can do anything with just our obedience.
God is waiting for us to get in the boat.
When Della Waghiyi sings in Yupik, it is like the soft clicking sounds of knitting needles. The sounds are rounded and smooth with glottal inflections. There is a glow on her face. She is a person who seems intimate with her Creator. But there is also another sound. It is the sound of the loaves and fishes, in Yupik baskets, being broken once again, to feed as many as are hungry.
Resources for Native Churches
While I Have My Being, by Della Waghiyi, Northwinds Press, 1999
There are two wonderful stories here. The first is that Nortwinds Publishing exists, and the second is Della Waghiyi's beautiful account of her life.
Northwinds Press has been the brain-child of Rev. James Campbell, who saw a need for a small publishing enterprise that would focus on the stories, poetry, humor, and art of Alaskans. Northwinds Press is also a ministry of Willow United Methodist Church. Initially funded in part by the Native American Comprehensive Plan, Northwinds has concentrated on publishing the works of Native Alaskans. Three notatable works are of interest: Shadow Lights, a collection of poetry by DeeDee Odden (Aleut/Inuit); God Created the Heaven and the Earth, Including Me, by Denny Akeya (Yupik), and While I Have My Being, by Della Waghiyi (Yupik).
While I Have My Being, is simply written, full of memorable moments, and rich in testimony. It is the story of Della Waghiyi's life, and the reader is pulled into her quiet voice. There are moments of profound loss and human drama, but they are told matter-of-factly as Della weaves them into descriptions of traditional Yupik culture and life, and the changes that alter those traditions.
There is great value in this story. In tales of Native people, the human side is often overlooked for sake of the image. These are people of deep faith who are also surviving and adapting to cultural changes, grief, depression, spiritual calling, and simple obedience. Through these short pages, we are reminded that we are not so different after all. That we are sometimes strong, often frail, but always strengthened by God. We are reminded that God works through the events of our lives to create new vessels of exceptional beauty.
The life and story of Della Waghiyi is one that gives us courage. It allows us to speak with confidence regarding our cultures, with certainty regarding our faith, and with amazement, that in all times and seasons of our lives, that God is using us to blow the wind of the Spirit, while we have our being.
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