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Commentary: Yupiks teach us to get in the boat

6/2/2001 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: This commentary may be used with UMNS story #251. A head-and-shoulders photo of Buckley is available.

A UMNS Commentary By Ray Buckley*

Some history-altering events happen quietly. They occur without fanfare, until suddenly we're aware that something has happened.

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. International law made it possible for American and Russian Yupiks to cross the borders without visas. 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.

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*Buckley is director of the Native American Office of Communications, a unit of United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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