As aging Americans increasingly grapple with dementia, churches have a growing opportunity to minister to exhausted caregivers and to comfort the forgetful
HUSLIA, KOBUK, and KOTZEBUE, Alaska—The sulfurous odor of striking matches and propane stoves triggers vivid memories for Carole Huntington. Those smells take the 72-year-old Alaska Native woman back to a shy little girl standing by the door of the local church kitchen. She was carrying a huge Pyrex bowl of fresh-picked blackberries, so she couldn’t knock or open the door.
One church lady saw young Carole loitering and snapped, “Don’t just stand there like a dummy!”
Then the pastor’s wife and another church lady—both well-dressed white women—forbade her entry into the kitchen until they inspected her. They patted down her clothes, raked fingers through her hair, even peered into her ears.
Though just a child, Huntington understood their assumption that all Alaska Native children were poor and dirty. Huntington was neither—her father, a Swedish immigrant, worked for gold mining companies and earned enough for her Iñupiat mother to doll up in fox stoles and perm her bob like the white ladies. Still, Huntington felt like a dirty, poor, lowly Eskimo. Someone must have lit a stove at that time, because whenever she smells sulfur and gas, rage and shame surge within her.
Alaska Natives are a “forgotten minority.” They’re well out of sight in a state twice the size of Texas with barely the population of Fort Worth. They face problems that cry out for spiritual answers: alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, suicide. Like Carole Huntington, many have troubled histories with outsiders, including missionaries. In some places the church is little more than a community center. Yet in remote parts of the state, some pastors and missionaries are overcoming challenges to bring the gospel to this traumatized people.
Huntington was born on Aug. 31, 1944, in Nome, Alaska. Nome is an Iñupiat coastal city of 3,500 by the Bering Sea, a once-booming mining town known for its rich gold reserves and harsh, long winters.
Nome has suffered through a history of epidemics: First came smallpox in the mid-1800s. Then in 1900, influenza and measles, which wiped out 60 percent of the indigenous peoples who had no natural immunity against foreign diseases. The 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic obliterated some villages and left others with shellshocked orphans, widespread famine, and human-flesh-eating sled dogs. Nome lost half its population that year. When Huntington was born, tuberculosis was the top enemy, and it ailed her people until the early 1970s.
Tuberculosis ate into her mother’s health, so healthcare workers sent Huntington and her three siblings to a Methodist children’s home in Seward. Huntington, about 3 then, says she still remembers being taped to the potty all night with a boy, for what offense she doesn’t remember. She remembers being tied down to her bed, her nose bleeding so terribly that she now suspects someone must have hit her. Later, Huntington realized her experience at the children’s home was “easy” compared with the childhood of her husband Roger, an Athabaskan who grew up in a Catholic children’s home, where the priests sexually abused him and other boys.
In school, Carole’s third-grade teacher complained constantly about the odor of seal oil and dried fish (both Inuit staples) from native students. Even in winter, where temperatures can dip to negative 50 degrees, she opened the windows wide. While her Eskimo students shivered, the teacher buttoned up in a thick, ankle-length fur coat. None of these nose-pinching teachers lasted very long, and though Huntington met some kind teachers, somehow the bad ones made greater impact.
At home, Huntington had an uncle who sexually abused her. She told no one, but remembers crying alone between the clotheslines, shielded by billowing sheets. Such abuse is common: Alaska has three times the national rate of rape, and almost six times the rate of child sexual assault. At least half of Alaska’s women have suffered sexual or domestic partner violence at some point.
Huntington’s mother waited till her 70s to reveal that she had been raped and impregnated at age 13. Huntington’s younger sister shortly before drinking herself to death told Huntington that a man they both knew had raped her when she was 6. “There are so many scars in so many of our people,” Huntington said. “Yet if some people were to hear me talking about this, they’ll get angry at me, because there is so much denial.” She shook her head, tears welling. “Somewhere, it’s just gotta stop. Oh, our poor kids!”
HAROLD NAPOLEON, a Yupik elder from Hooper Bay, says nallunguarluku (Yupik for “pretending it didn’t happen”) has perpetuated alienation, anger, and self-destruction among his people. He also says drugs, alcohol, and lifelong dependence on government handouts are part of the current dysfunction: “The way many of us live now is abnormal, like caged animals. We are fed, housed, watered, cared for, but we are not free, and it is killing us.”
Napoleon in 1984 went to prison for beating his 4-year-old son to death in a drunken rage. He argues that “the primary cause of alcoholism is not physical but spiritual,” and the cure must arise from the native people themselves. Although missionaries for more than a century have brought to Alaska preaching, schools, and medical care, Napoleon sees the “Christianity” that displaced animism as hollow. Among many Alaska Natives, “missionary” is a dirty word referring to white cultural imperialists who robbed native people of their language, culture, and traditions.
Why did that happen? At first, Natives welcomed missionaries and were hungry for the Good News. Missionaries translated the Bible into native languages and were the rare outsiders who stayed and invested long-term in the community. But Inuit elder Mary Schaeffer, 76, blames missionaries for working in cahoots with the federal government to build and run boarding schools. She still recalls her four years at a Christian boarding school in Sitka, where teachers taped her mouth or made her write “I will not speak Inupiaq” on the blackboard whenever she spoke the language. She was among the thousands of native children who boarded planes to faraway schools, and most returned as strangers to their parents and aliens in their own land.
It’s true that missionaries collaborated with the U.S. government to build an education system that separated native families and banned native languages. But much of the anti-missionary rhetoric comes from the revisionist history of liberal scholars and is grossly skewed. For example, one such scholar calls Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson “the Napoleon of the United States government in all matters cultural and educational in Alaska”—yet Jackson championed native rights and cultural preservation at a time when most outsiders treated Alaska like a lottery land to grab, squeeze, and toss.
In truth, Alaska Natives began losing their culture and tradition before direct contact with missionaries. It started with the epidemics and the dramatic fluctuations of foreigners coming and going: Russian fur traders in the mid-1700s, whalers in the 1800s, and gold miners through the 1900s. World War II drew in tens of thousands of American soldiers. Oil attracted thousands more. These outsiders rooted for natural resources, slept with native women, and left behind half-white children and foreign diseases.
Today, almost every village in Alaska has a church, and villagers consider themselves Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Presbyterian or Episcopalian—but often without having a clue what any of that means. In some villages, church leaders fill the role of shamans to whom villagers once turned for guidance and healing. People turn to the church when they need immediate help, but then quickly return to their previous lifestyles.
James Barefoot faced that reality during his 40 years of ministry with the Evangelical Covenant Church in “Bush Alaska.” (That’s any region of the state disconnected from the North American road network.) For 16 years, Barefoot pastored the Quaker-affiliated church in Noorvik, an Iñupiat village north of the Arctic Circle. Out of more than 600 residents only about 30 attended church services—and not all were Christian. Because the village is so remote, the church became a social center, and some of the loudest worship-singers were nonbelievers.
“They’re basically saying with their lifestyle, ‘I don’t accept Jesus, but I want to get up and sing about Jesus, and I might even talk about Jesus,’” said Barefoot. When he tried to correct this blatant contradiction, people fired him for “messing with tradition.” But Barefoot continued to reside in Noorvik, and the villagers later asked him to pastor them again.
Ministry workers tell me mission work in Bush Alaska is long, painful, and slow-bearing. Alaska Natives are generally distrustful toward outsiders, so missionaries and pastors need to think long-term and lifelong. But living in isolation, grieving over constant tragedies, and seeing little visible fruit is agonizing. “It’s overwhelming and grievous,” one missionary told me. “It makes me angry, but an angry-grief. Because we have the answer, but no one wants it.”
Death is a constant theme in these bush villages. One Athabaskan village I visited lost eight members in one season: three to suicide, one suspected suicide, two by fire, and the other two by cancer. The day I arrived, villagers had dredged up another body from the river, possibly an alcohol-related death. Last year, another Yupik village lost four teenagers to suicide in two weeks.
JOEL OYOUMICK is a third-generation pastor born and raised in Unalakleet, an Iñupiat village known for its bountiful salmon and king crabs. He says the hardest part about bush ministry is the continuous series of unnatural deaths, particularly because he grew up there: “I know everybody, just like you know your brother.” Unlike many other native children, Oyoumick didn’t attend boarding school. Instead, his parents created their own school with the Evangelical Covenant Church, where Oyoumick was one of 14 students in his graduating class.
Because he stayed close with family, he grew up learning how to catch, cut, and can fish; pick wild berries; and hunt caribou and seals. His upbringing is evident in how he speaks—in a circular narrative rich in allegories drawn from his experiences as an Iñupiat hunter and fisher. Trying to hear God’s voice is like hunting a moose in the woods, he says: Experience and trusted advice teach how to detect a moose’s unique sounds.
From childhood Oyoumick watched his parents live out Iñupiat core values: generosity, cooperation, hard work, humility, responsibility, respect for elders and nature. His father didn’t speak much, but when he did, people listened. Every evening he poured soup into a scrubbed-out coffee can for the poor neighbors. He emphasized two things to his children: Love God our Creator, respect His creation. One of the biggest whippings Oyoumick ever received from his father was when he wasted good fish by playing with it—a hard lesson to learn, but Oyoumick wonders how many children today even hear about these cultural values.
Part of ministry among Alaska Natives is discerning which cultural values to challenge and which to redeem. Wanda Wilson, who with her husband Bill has lived with the Yupik Eskimos and Tanaina Athabaskans for 20 years, said she sees many redeemable qualities in the people. The Wilsons pastor a church and run a coffee stand in Aniak, a village of 500, where they also hunt, fish, and trap. The Wilsons with their white skin and light hair are clearly outsiders, but recently the City Council unanimously voted Bill Wilson mayor for the second consecutive time.
Wanda Wilson enjoys sipping tea in her kitchen with the village ladies as they bead, sew, and chat for hours about faith, children, and husbands. Too frequently they sew boots, hats, vests, and mittens for the dead. One woman told Wilson that she felt a special connection with Jesus because she too was born into a nomadic tribe oppressed by outsiders. Wilson says Natives “have an incredible potential for the kingdom of God, and Satan doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want these people to be an effective witness for Christ.” As she looks at the various diseases eating into the community and all the outside solutions that have failed to cure them, Wilson concludes: “It starts with the Lord. There is not going to be change without the Lord. Just not gonna happen.”
THIS SUMMER CAROLE HUNTINGTON canned 18 pints of fresh-caught king salmon, chopped and froze 20 pounds of rhubarb from her garden, and minced 70 pounds of moose. Her husband Roger, a pilot, flew to towns and villages picking up truck parts, Costco supplies, and about 200 young bright-faced campers from surrounding villages.
The Huntingtons live in a log cabin in the secluded Kokrine Hills Bible Camp (KHBC) on the Yukon River, 350 miles north of Anchorage. Every summer, the 11-cabin camp explodes with wildflowers and kids swimming, slinging mud, singing worship songs, and studying the Bible. Several campers choose to be baptized at the river. Many more seek counseling about issues such as suicide, abuse, and depression. From the very beginning, the Huntingtons made KHBC a place where Alaska Native youth would learn the gospel because, as Huntington says, “In my opinion, you can’t heal without God.”
Carole and Roger Huntington met and married as individuals bitter and broken from their past experiences of neglect, abuse, and discrimination. Huntington left the church as soon as she left home. She had formed an image of God based on her negative interactions with missionaries and her devout, distant mother. Only decades later, when her mother asked her forgiveness, did Huntington begin reshaping her understanding of God as an ever-loving, ever-present Father.
A year after Huntington started attending church, her husband joined her after reading a biography of John Newton and surviving a 1988 plane crash that marred 60 percent of his face and body with third-degree burns. The couple went through a long healing process together, and have since discipled many other struggling couples and victims of abuse.
One night, a woman called Huntington at 2 a.m. while sitting in her car with a shotgun, desperate to talk to one last person before she shot herself. Huntington talked to her for five hours. At 7 a.m. the woman put the gun away and drove home to prepare her children for school. Huntington realized how God had equipped her: “If I had been a person living a life with no painful events, I wouldn’t have had anything to share.”
Huntington still wonders about past sadness but now has peace not knowing everything: “When I see God, it’s not going to matter anymore.” She and her husband plan to be buried at the hill overlooking KHBC. When they look at children singing hymns in the camp, sometimes in their native language, they glance at each other and smile: “How fortunate can we be? God is so good.”