Today I'm writing inside a comfortable little cabin at Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island near Siberia. Outside a storm is up. Wind is blowing snow through cracks in the door. It is sifting like flour over things in the porch. The chimney is shaking, pulling on the guy wires that anchor it to the roof. Hardly anyone is going out The date is May 18 and the weather is about normal.
This article is about our ministry in the remote North. We live at Gambell, Alaska, a small Eskimo village forty-five miles east of Siberia. My wife and I are the minority. Our culture is different and we are the wrong color. Still, we have found that we can work for God here.
The physical living conditions are a striking contrast with life as we used to know it. Our house is like most other houses in the village. It is of frame construction and probably was shipped on board one of the famous Yankee whalers around 1900. The inside dimensions are twelve feet wide and twenty feet long. In the front is a storm shed that serves as bath room as well as storage for dog equipment, a refrigerator, a coat rack, and a place to brush off snow. The ceiling is six feet high, just high enough for me to stand erect except in the center where a hook is placed for the Coleman lantern. In one corner is a hole with a ladder leading to the attic, where a year's supply of food is stored. The house is adequate for the two of us and in keeping with the surrounding dwellings.
The chapel where meetings and Bible classes are held is attached to our house and is also twelve by twenty feet: Heat from a small oil stove keeps the place cozy most of the year. There is seating for thirty adults. In the front we have a piano and in the rear a small library for the village people.
When we first came to bush Alaska we wondered how anything would ever get done without all the handy things such as running water and drains. The adjustment to permanent camping was slow. Techniques for hauling water changed several times. At first we tried carrying the water in five-gallon plastic jugs. Later we tied one dog to a piece of tin with the jugs attached to it. Now that the well has gone salty we drive eight dogs six miles and bring back twenty-five gallons at a time.
Once on a visit to metropolitan Anchorage a friend asked, "What do you do all day now that the newness has worn off?" I answered, "We take an active part in village life and put in a 'good word' for the Lord at each opportunity." Much of the time is spent just living—shoveling snow, hauling water or ice, emptying the chemical toilet, filling the gas lantern, or feeding the dogs. Village life includes, for me, hunting with the men for sea mammals. We get mostly walrus and seals, but during May, the bowhead whale. Trapping foxes during the coldest months often gives the best opportunity to talk with men about spiritual things. Jeannette, my wife, does things with the women and children such as sewing and preparing fox and seal skins.
Baptizing Through the Ice
The organized church activities include the regular schedule of meetings used throughout North America. One striking difference is the winter attendance at prayer meeting. It is usually higher than on Sabbath. The reason lies in the economy of the people. They hunt for a living and light is needed to shoot. So, the route to full church membership often comes through the evangelistic nature of the mid week meeting.
Last June one of the men and I went for a walk along the shore of the nearby lake. We were looking for a place where the ice was thin enough to make a hole for a baptism. The next Sabbath six were baptized.
MISSION 72 meetings were held by Pastor J. C. Hansen, president of the Alaska Mission. At the end of the series, in addition to a baptismal service, the group of believers was officially organized into a church. Responsibilities were gladly accepted and today the church, though small, carries its own program with a missionary outlook.
In many reports from the far north you can read about cabin fever—the dread result of boredom and isolation. It is true that we are isolated. Recently the village went without mail and communication for six weeks because of bad weather. But there is no boredom! There are just too many things to do. We believe that thorough instruction and examination should precede baptism. Because of the mixture of spiritism and modern Protestant religion that lingers in this area, we are especially careful. At times a translator is used for individual Bible studies and nearly always in church. If I talk for ten minutes the translation takes 30. Besides the prolonged way of doing daily activities, I supervise the student missionary program. So you see, for me there is no boredom!
Student Missionary Program
In Alaska the church is working in all the population centers. But the real mission work is out in the villages of the bush. Student missionaries have expanded the work to six outposts. They range from Shungnak, about at the Arctic Circle, to Togiak, six hundred miles to the south. It takes about four months of traveling each year to set up and organize this work.
We like it here in Alaska. The outdoor life is exhilarating. The wind is fresh. There's no smog or air pollution. We're always busy, but seldom rushed. It is fortunate that I'm not a car enthusiast, for it has been months since I've even seen one. However, much of the year I keep our private airplane tied behind the house. It is a solid link with the Alaskan mainland two hundred miles to the east. For a time we had a snowmobile for use as local transportation, but found that our brand wasn't re liable. Now, we are back to a dog team. It can be a lot of trouble, but if one likes animals he will appreciate the fact that nowhere else could a minister afford to raise eight working dogs.
More important than these material considerations is that question, Can we work for God here? We believe we can and that more are needed to help. The Eskimo folk are intelligent, adaptable, and currently searching for meaning to life. God is working through human agents such as us to bring these people closer to Him.