“… God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5b) Gary and I experienced that verse in a literal way in the last several weeks as we traveled through Alaska, The Land of the Midnight Sun. In Fairbanks the sun set at 12:21 a.m. and rose just 3 hours and 15minutes later, at 3:36 a.m. However, it was never dark: you could fish, play golf, mow your lawn or attend church 24 hours a day!
The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million (1.9 cents an acre) was described as Seward’s Folly. Suffering financially and afraid of losing “Russian America” without compensation in a future conflict, Russian officials began negotiating with U.S. Secretary of State William Seward. Many people, however, felt that Alaska was nothing more than a frozen wilderness, especially Horace Greely, who wrote in the New York Tribune, “Unless gold were found in the country, much time would elapse before it would be blessed with Hoe printing presses, Methodist chapels and a metropolitan police.”
Fortuitously, the Alaskan Gold Rush started in 1897. However, 20 years earlier, in 1877, the first known Methodist missionary work began in Wrangell by Reverend Thomas Crosby, pastor of Fort Simpson Methodist Church in British Columbia. In 1897 Reverend Carl Larson was appointed by Presiding Bishop Charles McCabe to preach to the gold miners in Douglas, Juneau, and Skagwayand set up his gospel tent in Dyea. 2 years later McCabe Methodist College was built in Skagway. Today there are 28 active United Methodist churches in the Alaska United Methodist Conference.
Methodists since the time of John and Charles Wesley have seen the world as their parish. In the spirit of that tradition, I believe that the people, plant and animal life and natural resources of our earth are an ever-changing, interconnected web of relationships that can teach us much about the earth, God and ourselves.
We began our Alaskan adventure with a cruise through theInside Passage along the southeast coast. Because there are few roads in Alaska and many towns are only accessible by boat or plane, a cruise is the best way to experience this part of the state. I am not a “cruiser,” much preferring to travel by land rather than sea. However, I was fascinated by the experience, especially as I talked with the workers, almost all of whom were from foreign countries.
The wait staff was primarily from Indonesia, while the majority of kitchen workers were from the Philippines. Most cruise workers did not see this as a career but as a short term job in order to support their family back home. They had 10 month contracts, during which they rarely had a day off and could only be in phone contact with their loved ones.
The workers were especially fascinated with our 7 month old grandson and were eager to talk about their own children back home. At the same time as they longed for their own families, the workers provided outstanding service, were always smiling, went out of their way to help us, and made it a point to know our names. David from the Philippines has 2 boys: after his contract is up, he wants to move his family to New Zealand, where he has heard there is a need for pastry chefs. Charisma from Indonesia, one of our servers, has 2 small children and hopes to earn enough money so she doesn’t have to return to the cruise ship after her current contract is up. Neru’s eyes were glowing with anticipation because his wife was expecting a baby in the next few weeks.
Near the end of the cruise, the hundreds of workers on the cruise ship were formally honored. I was moved to tears as the cruise director spoke eloquently of the way in which people from 38 different countries can work together so that vacationers can enjoy a relaxing cruise. Then he challenged all of us, “If people of different countries, languages, cultures and religions can get along in such a small space, why can’t the rest of our world live together in harmony? Indeed, our planet is an ever-changing, interconnected web of relationships. What affects one of us affects all of us.
That lesson was reinforced as we visited Denali National Park, home of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in the northern hemisphere. Denali National Park, one of our world’s last true wilderness areas, comprises 6 million acres, making it larger than the state of Massachusetts. Unlike other national parks, buses are the only transportation allowed inDenali, and the roads are only open for the 4 summer months. The reason is that Denali National Park is an intact but fragile ecosystem in itself. Therefore, great care is taken to preserve wildlife habitats by minimizing contact with humans, who are, after all, only visitors. Through the use of binoculars as well as video cameras and TV’s in the buses, we were able to observe wildlife in their natural setting, including grizzly bears, moose, caribou, dall sheep, red fox and snowshoe hares. Unlike our hope for human relationships, survival of the fittest is the law of the wilderness, as we saw a grizzly bear and cub eating a moose calf.
Hiking a wilderness trail one day, I recalled the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “If we listen to the land, we will know what to do.” I also remembered the words of one of our guides, who commented about life in the many isolated towns in Alaska, “You can’t survive in the wilderness without each other.”
I wonder if we humans can truly be open to the wisdom of this beautiful land. From spawning salmon to receding glaciers to the Alaska pipeline, the truth is that our world’s ever-changing, interconnected web of relationships can teach us much about our responsibility as stewards, light-bearers and people who care for all, not just the fittest.
Alaska’s many bald eagles were especially fascinating. It’s no wonder that our 1782 Continental Congress named the bald eagle our national symbol. The soaring freedom and great strength of the bald eagle reminds us of our commitment to an America of justice and equality for all people. What I didn’t know about the bald eagle is that they have extremely keen vision. With eyes designed for long distance focus, clarity and color perception, they can see 3 to 4 times father than humans.
Just as Exodus 19:4 tells us that God bore the Israelites on eagles’ wings and brought them out of bondage in Egypt, so may you and I fulfill our God-given charge to be witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ, stewards of an ever-evolving world and bearers of mutual respect among all life on our planet. If we are willing to see through God’s eyes and listen to each other and to the land, surely we will know what to do.