Κάθε καλοκαίρι, δεκάδες Ορθόδοξοι της Αμερικής, από όλες τις δικαιοδοσίες, διακονούν την ορθόδοξη ιεραποστολή. Παρακάτω θα δείτε εικόνες από την ιεραποστολική τους δράση στην Αλάσκα και την Γουατεμάλα. Αυτός ο θεσμός δεν έχει καθιερωθεί, δυστυχώς, ως τώρα, επίσημα από την Εκκλησία της Ελλάδας και της Κύπρου, πλην εξαιρέσεων ορισμένων Μητροπόλεων, ενοριών και ιεραποστολικών συλλόγων. Στην Αμερική οι ενορίες καλύπτουν ένα μέρος από τα έξοδα των ανθρώπων αυτών, ώστε να διακονήσουν την Ιεραποστολή.
The Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) had a great need for mission team members for the youth camp in Pilot Station, Alaska; I heard a calling to participate in this capacity for my second-ever mission trip.
We were part of a youth teaching trip in July 2015, serving the youth of Pilot Station and Marshall, in the southwestern Alaska wilderness. We camped under the stars along the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, on the Atchuelinguk River (Ecuilnguq in the Yup’ik language, which means «clear water»). The river is a tributary of the Yukon River. God gave us good weather, in the upper 60s during the day and the 40s at night, and no rain!
Our mission team of four assisted with the Ss. Yakov and Vladimir Summer Camp, which is always held the week of July 26 (St. Yakov’s feast day on the Julian calendar used by churches under the Orthodox Church in America within the Diocese of Alaska).
There were 55 youth and 14 adults, including four of us mission team members, on the youth teaching wilderness camping trip. We incorporated lessons about the Church, the Faith, living as an Orthodox Christian, arts and crafts, and music. The children, ages four through college age, learned about bullying, which could lead to depression and suicide, about rules for living, and developed their own «Yu’pik Maximums for Living», based on the late Fr. Thomas Hopko’s «55 Maxims for Life as an Orthodox Christian».
After receiving an orientation on life in Alaska and on missions, we attended a two-year Trisagion (Memorial) service for a woman in the village. Afterwards, lunch was served, consisting of Alaskan ice cream- salmon berries (which look like giant raspberries, only orange), blueberries and salmon in Crisco- as well as moose and moose nose soup and beluga whale, in addition to rice, dried salmon (a staple in some Alaskan villages), and freshly-picked blueberries.
Not all children attend church, so we emphasized church attendance in our lessons. We developed different arts and crafts to go along with lessons. For a lesson on icons, a team member drew a six-panel Transfiguration icon. Each child had the opportunity to color different sections of the icon, which was then put together, and is now mounted in the vestibule of the church.
Another team member told the story of Zacchaeus, and introduced the song «Zacchaeus was a wee man». The Zacchaeus story of Christ always forgiving our sins was especially touching to many of the older children and the mothers who accompanied their small children for the session. Next, a timeline presentation of the Church was developed, laying out major events in history, e.g. Pentecost and 988 AD Baptism of Russia. Another lesson was finding verses in the Bible. After a brief overview, we felt confident the students could succeed in finding the verses. They were given several to look up, and the first group to find the verse and read it aloud was offered a Rice Krispy Treat.
We taught about Orthodox saints, mounted icons, made stained glass crosses from construction paper, crayon shavings, and wax paper, we created bead and icon pins, and fashioned beaded icon bracelets and necklaces, which were a big hit in the village. Our team members led a parade, singing, «When the Saints Go Marching In» while the children gleefully marched with their icons.
Our tour of the local parish in Pilot Station, Transfiguration of Our Lord, took us to the church cemetery, where we viewed the location and cupola of the old church from the early 1900’s. Orthodox Church history credits St. Yakov (Jacob) Netsvetov for sailing up and down the Yukon River, communing Orthodox Christian faithful along the way.
We heard about the many customs and traditions of the Yu’pik people when walking outside. Fr Stephen called our attention to loons (birds) calling in the late evening air, meaning that cold weather was soon coming. There was a Yu’pik Dance on Saturday evening which also served as a practice for the Potlash festival (a dance competition between Yu’pik Eskimo villages). The festival is held every February. Young people dance in honor of those after whom they are named.
After the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, we readied our packs for the wilderness camping experience with the youth of the village. An afternoon push-off was planned, but finally at 6:00 pm, the skiffs (motor boat large enough for about 12) set sail for the Saints Yakov and Vladimir Wilderness Camp. Children as young as four and five years old waved good-bye to their mothers, which seemed alright for them to camp alone because, as the Matushka put it, «everyone knows each other and their children.»
After a scenic 45-minute boat ride, passing coastal marshland, charcoal ash-colored cliffs, and coastline of aging birch and fir trees, we arrived at the camp atop a grassy clearance dotted by more birch and fir trees and weathered cabins.
After reaching camp and with lots of daylight left (sunset was 11:25 pm, with twilight well after the next morning), water was fetched from an underground spring and driftwood logs hauled from their sandy riverside graveyards and repurposed for firewood. Our mission team counted off groups of children and untangled a «human chain» icebreaker game. We next divided the children into younger and older groups (ten and below; 11 and up) discussing the Church (ecclesiastical), «the people as the bride of Christ», read books on saints who led exemplary lives, discussed confession, described the Orthodox church building, and had the children design and draw their own church building.
Our mission team taught lessons and answered questions from the 3×5 cards on anything the children wanted to know about; one especially poignant question related to the «difference between God and the devil». Other lessons were on how to stay committed to Christ, the value of confession, regular church attendance, and one team member’s personal story of how the church members helped her after the loss of her husband.
Following morning prayers on our last day at camp, a team member gave a homily on bullying at school, which seemed to resonate with several children. As clean up progressed, another team member strummed on the guitar around the slowly dying embers of the campfire. Our wilderness adventure in honor of Saints Yakov and Vladimir was ending; through their prayers, our camping experience was safe and full of joyful excitement.
During Vespers in the village parish at Kasigluk, a young girl named Heather came into church, looking for our mission team. She ran up to me and began to hang off the pockets of my cassock. Now, in Holy Trinity, as with many parishes in Alaska, the faithful are separated with men on the right side of the church and women on the left side. So here I was, trying to focus on Vespers with a child hanging off of me, and worse yet, she was on the «wrong» side of the church! What if she got in trouble? What if I got in trouble? Order was broken, and in my mind the sky was falling. So I did what any order-loving Orthodox would do, and I pointed her to the proper side of the church. That was where all the young women were standing, right near the door. Unfortunately, Heather got the wrong message and thought I was showing her the door. She left immediately.
In the Orthodox Church we have rubrics and rules for almost everything. Unfortunately, sometimes these rules shift from an outward display of piety into making sure all Christians are «good soldiers» who «play by the rules». Stand up here, sit down there, kneel here, eat this but not that. There is a reason for this order in maintaining holy tradition, but there’s no “magic formula” that makes a service a service. In the lower 48, we can obsess about these things to the point at which they become a superstition, and correction for breaking a rubric can often be more concerned with the fact that the rule was broken than with the fact that there is an underlying spiritual reason for the rules. It’s almost as if having water before receiving Holy Communion is a greater transgression than forgetting you are about to receive the Body and Blood of the Jesus Christ later in the morning. In Alaska, I was immediately struck by the fact that they do not obsess over rules like we often do. I was served moose on nearly every fasting day I was there. If you are practicing subsistence living, you have to eat what you catch. At the same time, they exhibited a care for one another and a humility unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Kasigluk is a small subsistence village along a spot where two rivers meet. Kasigluk literally means “the meeting place” in Yup’ik, their native language. They live off fish, berries, and moose, which have to be hunted during the summer. Very few things are purchased like the rest of the United States. But they understand what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. As Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” If you don’t forage, you don’t eat. Worse yet, if you don’t forage, those around you suffer as well. Fr. Larsen, the village priest, constantly preached against laziness, because if it doesn’t get done now, he would say, it won’t get done later. The villagers of Kasigluk rely on one another to survive, and if one part suffers, the whole village suffers. There is a single village police officer, but other than that, they are all responsible for one another’s safety and survival. Their lives are in one another’s hands.
Back to where we began, with accidentally asking a child to leave the church building. I thought about how a lot of correction in the Church happens this way. We think we’re showing people the right way, but we’re actually showing them to the door. We forget that our lives are in one another’s hands and that we are all in God’s hands. In the Gospel of Mark, Christ tells us if we drive someone out of the Church for not being like us, we’d be better off having a millstone hung around our neck and being thrown into the sea. When we forget that we lack compassion and say “Your way is wrong, you’re not one of us, we don’t need you unless you can learn to be like us,” that’s essentially what the Pharisees said to Christ, and whatever we do unto the least of us we do unto Christ.
Maybe when I corrected Heather, it would have been more appropriate to use the tone Saint Paul used with his problem parish in Corinth when he said, “Let me show you a more excellent way.” Your way isn’t wrong, but I have a more excellent one, and then maybe we can incorporate it into your already excellent way together. There is no other way to approach instruction in the Church when we realize that correcting someone during worship is taking their salvation, their life, in our hands.
I kept an eye out for Heather for the rest of our stay in Kasigluk. She always enjoyed when our team did arts and crafts with her, so I made sure to give her some leftover crafting supplies I had found as we cleaned up. I tossed them into a bag and set them aside in case I ran into her. I only saw her briefly before leaving, just enough time to hand her the bag of yarn and styrofoam shapes. Unfortunately we were off to somewhere else, and I didn’t get to speak to her about my mistake. On my way to catch up with the team, I looked back and saw Heather running around the playground hugging the gift bag close to her chest. Hopefully she’ll remember the Christian missionaries that helped her make Spongebob characters, and not me telling her what to do during worship.
In hindsight, I realize that when people are aware we are Christians, the majority know who we are, what we’re about, and what we think is right and wrong. We don’t really have to worry about people or things that they have certainly already heard. If they know who we are, then all we need to do is be a good and loving ambassador for Christ. Christ is as good an argument as there ever was, and He will teach and speak for Himself in His own time.
Orthodox mission team in Guatemala
Our mission team is hard at work in Nueva Concepcion! We welcomed this OCMC team on Tuesday, we worshipped together in the chapel, and then they started renovating a building that we hope to use as a second clinic in Guatemala. They’re a wonderful team!
Reaching children in Guatemala:
The OCMC mission team is spending time with lots of children here, both in the Orthodox parishes and also in a special school run by the Orthodox clergy. In order to help people overcome the poverty and violence on the Pacific Coast, the Orthodox priests teach at the Centro Pedagógico Guatemala Lideres en Educación. The mission team presented to hundreds of students in this excellent school! The kids loved it!