The Alaskan Mission
By Fr. Michael Oleksa
Two hundred years ago this September, the first overseas mission of the Russian Orthodox Church arrived at Kodiak Alaska, founding what would become in 1970, the Orthodox Church in America. Just as this movement began in the west and moved eastward, in exactly the opposite direction as the rest of North American history, the Alaskan experience, in fact, contradicts many stereotypes of Christian missions and missionaries.
Although the monastic clergy in 1794 were sent to minister to several hundred employees of the fur trading company in the region, their primary goal was the conversion of the indigenous peoples of the Aleutian and Kodiak Archipelagos. When they discovered that the former were exploiting and oppressing the latter, they sided with the Natives, whom they called “the Americans,” protesting the abuses of their Siberian compatriots to the civil authorities in Irkutsk and St. Petersburg. Under house arrest for nearly a year, most of the monks either returned to Russia to report directly to the governor and Tsar, or moved out of harm’s way by relocating elsewhere. By 1812, Father Herman, one of the elders of the original delegation, had moved to Elovoi or Spruce Island and established a hermitage, a chapel, and later an orphanage there, three miles from the Kodiak settlement. Thanks to the linguistic talents of the Tsar’s personal representative, Priest-monk Gideon, the Kodiak parish operated the first bilingual school in the territory, teaching over a hundred Alutiiq children to pray, sing, read and write in their own language. Within a decade, ten thousand converts had been received into the Church.
Modern historians often ask why, if the Siberian frontiersmen in this early period so brutalized the Aleuts, they have remained so devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Part of the reason lies in the sympathetic and supportive stance of the original missionaries, their heroic defense of the Aleuts despite the hostility of the company administration and its employees. Another reason for the continued Aleut dedication to Orthodoxy is the identification of the mission with the indigenous culture and language, its willingness to use the aboriginal languages liturgically and to train local leadership for the church. But the most fundamental reasons are deeper, more theological, more spiritual.
Nine months after their arrival at Kodiak, Archimandrite Joseph, the head of the mission team, wrote a lengthy report to his igumen (abbot) back in Valaam, on Lake Ladoga from where the eight volunteers had been recruited. He detailed the religious beliefs of the Kodiak people, reporting that they already had many of the Ten Commandments of Moses in their spiritual tradition. They had a story of the Great Flood in the time of Noah. They believed that all people were descended from the same first parents, although they ascribed no names to them. In short, the missionary wrote, there is ample evidence that the Holy Spirit has been active among these people, and this should come as no surprise, since He goes wherever He wishes.
The Cosmic Gospel
This openness to the possibility, indeed the probability, that a so-called “pagan” culture would contain within itself certain fundamental truths which Christianity could and should affirm, echoes the most ancient attitude of the Church toward society. The Apostolic Church entered the Greco-Roman world of the first millennium AD, opposed in many essential ways to the values and worldview of that time, and yet willing to express its message in words and symbols intelligible to the people of that age. There is, in fact, no other choice. To communicate anything, one must employ a common vocabulary. The Church struggled for eight centuries to fill the original Greek words with Christian meanings, to redefine what the words themselves meant. Greek, for example, had such terms as “god,” “time,” “reason,” and “will,” but the Christian experience of these was radically different from what classical culture understood. Entering a culture in which the world was seen as a balance of conflicting forces without any over-all order or purpose, and in which, therefore human beings were left at the mercy of these capricious powers and had to control or manipulate them in order to survive, the Church had a tremendous missionary task. In the first nine centuries of the Christian era, she undertook to articulate her own worldview, in which the cosmos is governed by a supreme, transcendent, omnipotent and all-wise God. Christian saints denied the personal existence of the old pagan deities, but insisted that the “natural” forces they personified were, indeed, sacred realities, worthy not of worship, which is due God alone, but of reverence.
During the centuries called the “Dark Ages” in Western Europe history, the Eastern Christian Church dealt with many issues the Western Church is only now, belatedly, beginning to address. In the seventh century, for example, one of the central theological themes on the which Christian thinkers reflected was the spiritual importance of the created universe. John 3:16, for example, in the original Greek says “For God so loved the cosmos that He sent His Son…” Ephesians 3:9 refers to the mystery which had been hidden “in God who created all things by Jesus Christ,” who, according to Ephesians 1:23 “fills all in all.” Colossians 1:15-20 goes further:
For by him were all things created, that are in heaven and in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created by him and for him: He is before all things and by him all things consist; and he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the first born of the dead; that in all things he might have pre-eminence. For it pleased the Father than in him should all fullness dwell.
And, of course, the Paschal Gospel reading, John 1:1-17, proclaims a cosmic dimension to the coming of the Word made Flesh. In the eastern Christian tradition, the coming of Christ is not necessarily understood as the direct result of the Fall, of sin and evil. Adam and Eve were created to grow toward spiritual perfection and maturity, to develop in cooperation with God, and to nurture the earth according to His will and plan. Instead, they used their god-given and god-like freedom to develop in the opposite direction, with disastrous consequences for the whole creation. Even if they had not rejected their original purpose and goal, however, they could not have attained full spiritual maturity without God’s direct, Personal assistance. Christianity believes that while human cooperation and devotion is essential, it will never in itself be sufficient to fulfill all that God demands. His standards are higher than humanity can reach exclusively by their own perseverance or effort. Sin threw the whole process off track, but the incarnation, at least in the opinion of several ancient Greek saints, was part of the original divine plan all along.
Having refused to submit to God’s plan, however, human beings received the earth as His gift but exercised their dominion over it without reference to His will. Christ not only fulfills the Will of the Father, but reveals the “mystery hidden from all eternity,” namely that He is the unifying and vivifying Personal Principle from which everything and everyone derives their origin, life, and ultimate purpose. He is the logos, the Word, the Reason, the Plan and Purpose of “all things.”
Do the lilies of the field communicate a spiritual reality? Do the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament His handiwork? Does “nature” have a spiritual importance? Yes, said the Eastern Church fourteen centuries ago. The Word of God is “embodied,” St. Maximus explained, first in the entire visible universe, then in the Holy Scriptures, and finally and most perfectly in Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. But it is the same Logos, the same Word, the same Reason and Plan “embodied” each time. In the first “embodiment,” it is, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, as if the message were written in letters to large for us (in our fallen condition) to read. In the Old Testament law and prophets, the message becomes more intelligible and focused. And finally, in Christ, the “mystery hidden” is revealed.
This vision, this understanding of the created universe required Eastern Christian missionaries to approach “pagan” spirituality with a good deal of openness and discernment. No, there is no god Zeus or goddess Athena, but the reverential attitude toward the sun, the sky, the earth, which these mythic deities were meant to promote can also be affirmed by the Church, once they are given their true name: Christ. He is the “Sun of the Righteous,” as the Christmas Troparion (theme hymn) proclaims. Those who worshipped the stars were taught, as the hymn continues, “by a star to adore thee…” On Epiphany, twelve days later, the faithful process to a nearby stream or seashore to perform the “Great Blessings of Water,” during which all the uses to which God has put Water in the Old Testament, and some of the prophesies about how He will continue to use it are read. These include the first creation of the world, (Genesis), the deliverance of the child Moses in the Nile, and later the Hebrew nation from Egyptian slavery by passing through the Red Sea (Exodus), Gideon’s fleece (Judges) and Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal (I Kings) and Naaman’s cure (II Kings) as well as wonderful passages from Isaiah 12.
Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation. And in that day shall ye say, Praise the Lord, call upon His Name, declare His doings among the people… Sing unto the Lord; for He has done excellent things: this is known in all the earth.
The readings culminate with the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism, where, once again, the Spirit of God is on the face of the waters, this time to bless, renew and sanctify them, restoring them to what the whole creation was in Eden: a sign of God’s presence, power and love.
Eastern Christians believe in sacred materialism. God uses physical objects and visible elements to communicate with His People. The created universe is the means by which we enter into communion with Him. He chose food as the most perfect way by which to enter our lives. And what is the bread? Flour, yeast and water, baked to a certain temperature? No, it is much more, for to create bread, one needs the whole world. The earth must turn, the rain must fall, the soil must be fertile, the sun must shine, night must come, the wind blow. If all this is in harmony, and humans interact with it appropriately, tending the garden as God originally planned, bread can be baked, communion with God restored.
The pagans deified the fertility principle, named it Dionysius or Bacchus or a thousand other names. The wine harvest was their celebration of this life-affirming cosmic mystery. They were not entirely wrong. But they were mistaken about the identity of the Life-force they worshipped. It is all Christ. He chose to make water into wine as his first miracle, but He is always doing that, in every vineyard since time began. Some say this is merely physics and chemistry, the “laws of nature,” natural processes which operate without reference to any spiritual principle. Others say it is the work of fertility gods or goddesses who must be placated, appeased, worshipped or manipulated to assure future harvests. But for the Christian, it is all Christ, who only does the work He sees His Father do. The Word made Flesh only does in His Incarnate Form what the Word, embodied in the whole creation, has always done.
Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, but they are pan-en-theists. The universe, taken as a whole, is not God, but He is “everywhere present and fills all things.” It is His will, His presence, His power that creates and sustains everything and everyone at any given time. Creation is not only an event in the distant past but the reality of each passing moment. “Grace” is not a supernatural substance, “amazing” or otherwise, transmitted to the otherwise graceless world by certain religious actions or under certain liturgical circumstances, but the very energies, the action of God in the world. All is Grace.
In Alaska the Valaam monks reported that the Aleuts believed that the life force which animated the sea mammals they hunted was a sacred reality which had to be treated reverentially. Their Eskimo and Indian neighbors to the north and east shared this belief. The Church could affirm rather than condemn this humble, respectful attitude toward life, for Christ is the life of all things, not just all people. The Church blesses by putting His Name, proclaiming His sovereignty, not just over human life, but over the entire cosmos. It is at this deeper, essentially spiritual level, that the Christian Gospel, proclaimed and celebrated liturgically and sacramentally within Eastern Orthodoxy, converged with the pre-Christian spiritual tradition of ancient Alaska. Christ comes not to condemn but to save the world, and this salvation is a cosmic process inaugurated on Pentecost, continuing to the end of the age, and fulfilled only in the Second Coming, when He comes not to annihilate but to renew, purify, sanctify the world He so loves.
This is the Good News the Russian monks brought to Alaska two hundred years ago. Their message affirmed all that was “true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report” (Phillipians 4) and sought to introduce Christianity as the fulfillment rather than the destruction of what the people had always believed. When, thirty two years later, Father John Veniaminov and Aleut Chief Ivan Pan’kov translated the Gospel of Matthew into Aleut, literacy became a popular sensation. Literate, educated Aleuts assumed responsibility for and leadership positions in the Church decades before the sale of the Alaskan territory to the United States in 1867. Rather than casting off the supposedly “imposed” religion of their former oppressors, the Aleuts joyfully took the initiative of evangelizing Eskimo and Indian tribes on the mainland. The Alaskan Church grew from less than a dozen chapels at the time of the transfer to nearly a hundred today, thanks primarily to Aleut missionary outreach. An indigenous Alaskan Orthodox Church was born.
Identifying with, suffering with and for their flock, respecting their languages, cultural norms and ancient spirituality, educating them in the ways of the Gospel, preparing them to take responsibility for their Church all contributed to the success of the Alaskan Orthodox mission. Perhaps most importantly, however, was the theological vision and liturgical celebration of a positive experience of the created universe as fundamental to Christian spirituality. In an age where many are seeking a religious tradition that will integrate their reawakened ecological sensitivity into a comprehensive spiritual vision, Eastern Orthodoxy alone offers a Christian alternative to the various gnostic/”new age” movements which attract them in large numbers. The mission of the Church includes but also extends beyond the conversion of human persons to a liturgical/doctrinal/ethical system or code. It extends beyond the building of church structures, temples, schools, seminaries or the publishing of theological books and spiritually-oriented periodicals. It extends beyond the celebration of services, the valid administration of sacraments, beyond preaching, teaching, converting and forgiving. The mission of the Church extends to the whole created universe, to the sanctification of the cosmos in the Name of its originator, sustainer and goal, Jesus Christ who comes to “make all things new” not just at the end of time but now, here, today. That process began at the Jordan and continues in the Church after Pentecost, in all the years Anno Domini, “of the Lord.” The so-called “onion” domes on Slavic Orthodox churches have nothing to do with vegetables: they are the tongues of fire, the presence of the Holy Spirit and His Gifts in this world, renewing, blessing and transfiguring it. The mission of Orthodoxy in America and everywhere constitutes the continuation in time and space of that dynamic Sacred Presence.
To accomplish this whole, this complete, this “catholic” missionary task, our theologians must articulate the cosmic understanding, the faith and practice of the ancient undivided church in terms intelligible to people from all nations, backgrounds and all religious, non-religious and even anti-religious traditions. Our parish clergy and people must celebrate this vision with a common understanding of what their leitourgia, their work-on-behalf-of-the-world, really is: “on behalf of everyone and for every thing.” It is only with this cosmic vision, this full comprehension of what the Church is actually doing, the purpose and goal for which she exists, that all the various other educational, sacramental, liturgical, and charitable activities become worthwhile, meaningful, worthy of allegiance, dedication and sacrifice.
It was in that spirit that the first Orthodox missionaries came to Alaska two centuries ago. It is in that spirit that we, individually sinful and unworthy, must collectively, as the Holy Church, continue their work into the next millennium. There is, indeed, a plan, a purpose, a goal to the created universe, and it is all Christ. We can conform our lives to Him and thus live in harmony with that all-embracing Plan, the pre-eternal Logos or not. We will be judged accordingly. And we can include within that vision, by blessing and sanctifying it, all that was made in Him and through Him and for Him, or we can exploit, destroy, pollute and desecrate the cosmos which He so loves. And we will be judged for that as well.
The Very Rev. Dr. Michael J. Oleksa, Th.D., currently pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, and outreach coordinator for Sealaksa Heritage Foundation, has served as missionary priest, bilingual school teacher, university history professor and seminary instructor in rural Alaskan communities over the last twenty two years. A graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (1973) and the Orthodox Theological Faculty of Prague (1988), he is editor of Alaskan Mission Spirituality (Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1987) and Orthodox Alaska (SVS Press, Crestwood, NY, 1992), for which his Yup’ik Eskimo wife, Xenia, a watercolorist, created the cover. The family, which includes two daughters and two sons, resides in Juneau, Alaska.