A letter from the House of Bishops meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

On the heels of the Exodus Convocation, I write to you from Fairbanks, Alaska, where the House of Bishops is holding its fall meeting. “Fall” may be a misnomer. When Margaret and I got here, the surrounding hills were bright yellow with birch leaves; now they have all fallen and all is left is the severe dark green of the ubiquitous spindly black pine. As I write, rain is falling and the locals are preparing for snow. I can sense the days shortening at a rapid rate.

Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska with a population of 40,000. The homes and commercial buildings are modest; the traffic is light but on the fast side; the people —  a mix of Anglo and Native — friendly and welcoming. Our hotel is full of Taiwanese tours taking advantage of the shoulder season to see Denali (Mt. McKinley) just to the south of us.  The Chena River flows through town just below our room, on its way to join the massive Yukon River, which empties into the Bering Sea.

Why are we here? Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wanted us bishops to get a first-hand look at a diocese that has been shaped by the challenges and blessings of racial and ethnic reconciliation. The Diocese of Alaska comprises the entire state — a vast area which is largely, though sparsely, populated by indigenous peoples who have lived off its land for thousands of years. Many of them are Episcopalian, owing to the early work of missionaries like Bishop Gordon, the famous “flying bishop,” who from the Forties to the Seventies piloted his plane to remote villages all over Alaska, providing food, medicine, access to medical care, advocacy and, above all, recognition and respect for the rich cultural heritage of the native communities. The hope was that our immersion in the history and present struggles of this diocese would help us reflect together on the challenges and blessings of diversity back home.

That hope has not been disappointed. A number of my colleagues traveled by small planes to native communities north of the Arctic Circle, being hosted by villagers and formally blessing the Alaskan homeland. Those of us who remained in Fairbanks processed from St. Matthew’s Church upriver to the pedestrian bridge and joined in pronouncing the same blessing. This was a big deal in all the villages that were visited. It was also a big deal in Fairbanks, where cars stopped and waved, bystanders asked to be blessed, and people ran ahead of us to take pictures. Who knew Episcopal bishops would make the news?

On Sunday, after church, we were bussed to Nenana, a native community about an hour west of Fairbanks, where a potlach was to be held in our honor. A potlach is a huge meal in which an entire community expresses extravagant generosity and hospitality to its guests. These are rare events, which tax the resources of the community. But the people of Nenana, many of whom are Episcopalian, insisted on marking the presence of the House of Bishops in this way. So off we went into the wilderness. There was nothing between us and our destination but boreal forest and mountain ridges. (One of the pilots from the day before had said that flying over in the winter night it would be absolutely dark below — not a single light.) When our bus reached the top of a ridge we could see vast plains and huge rivers to the south and to the north. (Coming back I had the rare gift of seeing Denali rising to the south.) Then, all of a sudden, we crossed a river and were in Nenana.

Nenana is a village of about 375 people. There are log cabins and wood-framed houses, a school, several little churches, and a tribal center that is a long building with a large meeting room that can handle 300 or so people. When our busses arrived, we were greeted by excited children (and dogs), and ushered into the center by elders. The entire village was in the building, and already there were tables stretching down the length of the room, laden with food. The moment we entered, the drumbeat and chanting began. I was taken by surprise — not by the chanting, but by the sheer festivity of it. I had heard Native American chanting in church before — for instance, at our cathedral — but that had always had a serious and formal air about it. But this was definitely a party, with people calling out one traditional song after another, vigorous dancing, lots of joking and laughter in-between songs, and bishops and their spouses being invited to join in.

Meanwhile, chairs were being rapidly set up in long rows facing each other, parallel to the tables  covered with food. We would soon be seated in those rows, with lengths of white butcher paper placed between us on the floor to serve as place mats.  Then came the time for the ceremonial entry of the moose head soup, carried in by teenagers from outside through the front entrance in huge vats. As soon as they crossed the threshold they were greeted by drumming and chanting and dancing, the whole village joining in. (I asked the woman singing next to me what one of the songs was about. She said it was the raven song, but there was not time to learn more then that just then.) The official drummer and chanters led the soup up to the front of the hall. We were all formally greeted by the chief, who said a beautiful prayer, and then we sat down.

What ensued was a remarkable feast: moose head soup, moose venison, smoked moose ribs, king salmon, a seemingly unending array of salads and fruit drinks — all served by the young folk, and all of it freshly killed or caught or harvested. There were many speeches, much humor, many exchanges of gifts. The only rule was that we could not say “No, thank you.” Whatever we could not eat was to be placed on the butcher paper, to be collected and taken home by the villagers.

There are several important things here to be noted. First, we could not refuse food because the point of the potlatch is to be limitlessly generous. So to refuse food is to reject the generosity and dishonor the host. Second, no food should be wasted. For one thing, the moose and the salmon have given their lives to feed us, so to discard any part of them would be to dishonor them. For another, of course, the people themselves depend entirely on the bounty of the land for their subsistence. Everything must be used. Which brings me to the third point. On the brink of winter, Nenana gave us their best without stint.

We were all blown away by this. In speech after speech, were thanked for coming to Alaska and coming to Nenana, and told what an honor it was for us to be there. But of course it was just the opposite. We were being honored by a people of immense dignity, courtesy and grace. I can hardly express the blessing and moral inspiration I received by being among them.

So what am I taking from this? Much to give thanks for personally, but also much to worry about. There are a number of tiny native communities scattered across the interior and arctic region of Alaska, some accessible by road, most only plane. All of the them live entirely off the land, depending chiefly on salmon in the interior and caribou and whale in the farthest north. What we heard from everyone is that climate change, coupled with oil drilling, is shrinking the rivers, depleting the fish runs, threatening the caribou, destroying the whales.

This is not simply environmental challenge. It is a religious challenge. As people of faith we must embrace our obligation to be good stewards of God’s creation and trustworthy companions of our fellow Christians in Alaska and elsewhere. They so deeply value their connection to us. I pray for myself that I won’t ever take for granted my connection to them. I ask you to join me in that prayer.

This brings me to two other items that will conclude this over-long message. Experiencing our connection with people far away from us drives home our connection with those who are close but may be distant from us in other ways. Right now I have in mind, first, the so-called “dreamers,” whose permission to remain in this country is being called into question, and, second, our fellow citizens  whose access to expanded Medicaid is under threat. Religious leaders across the board, liberal to conservative, have expressed their opposition to both these initiatives, and you should know that I am one of them. These should not be matters that divide liberals and conservatives, particularly if they are people of faith. Mercy must always be our touchstone. So I am a signatory to two letters: (1) In the New York Times last Thursday, objecting to the undoing of DACA; and (2) in concert with the Episcopal bishops in the five states likely to be most adversely impacted by the current bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Ohio being one of them), writing to our respective senators urging them to vote no.

I thank you for your prayers and assure you of mine, as we navigate these difficult waters, and as we deal with anxieties about the world as a whole. Our time in Nenana reminded me powerfully that grace, generosity and kindly humor are the heart of human life and transcend all differences without erasing them.We can surely hold on to that.


+Tom Breidenthal