A word about the history of Christianity in Alaska is in order. The gospel was first brought to this part of the world by Russian Orthodox missionaries in the eighteenth century. But they tended to concentrate on the coastal areas and not pay much attention to the interior. It was other mainline churches--generally Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Anglican--that were hugely successful in evangelizing the native peoples of the interior in the nineteenth century. But since, in that era, churches were expected to take responsibility for hospitals and schools, the churches prudently decided not to compete with one another, and divvied up the territory. The sprawling plain known as the Yukon Flats became an Episcopalian enclave.
So visiting one of these villages is akin to visiting an English village 75 or 100 years ago. Separation of church and state is not one of their core values. We were greeted at the airstrip by the mayor, the village chief, and the parish priest. They bussed us directly to the village church, St Stephen's, which
Because this village shares a priest with another, they can't celebrate the Eucharist as often as they'd like, so it wasn't too difficult for them to prevail on Bishop Lattime and Presiding Bishop Curry to lead a somewhat impromptu celebration--again with the fiddles and guitars and a venerable reed organ leading the way. Bishop Curry did what Bishop Curry does by way of a sermon, which means that there were no dull moments.
We then, literally, went down to the river to pray On the bank of the Yukon, we offered a brief liturgy-of-the-word with the theme of stewardship of creation and blessing of the land. Many commented that they have never seen the water level so low, which only heightens their anxiety. (At that moment it felt to me like we were visiting December in September--it was about 40F, breezy, and overcast. Fortunately, we had been warned to layer up.)
On our way back to the airstrip, we stopped twice: once to visit and offer prayers at the grave of Archdeacon Stuck, and then to bless a newly-constructed morgue building. This may seem a little odd, but burying a body in the midst of a long and frigid Yukon winter is no mean feat. The morgue, which is next to the church, is the place where the casket is constructed, and the body prepared for burial, and preserved (a natural cold storage) while the grave is dug, which is a lengthy and laborious process.
We were back on our single engine overwing aircraft around 4:00, and safely at our hotel 90 minutes later. It was rather an amazing day. Within this calendar year, I have visited Anglican Christian communities in Peru, Tanzania, and now the Arctic interior of Alaska. While there are huge differences between the three places, I find myself tracking a thread of commonalities among these "developing world" contexts. There is much to ponder.