Into the Bush Country (Alaska part 3)

July 7, 2011

Bethel, Alaska, in the Diocese of Fairbanks, is the largest of all 600 Bush villages.  Bethel is a “hub” for planes in and out of the region, serving 56 villages.  It’s a hub because the only way to get in and out of Bethel and the rest of the Bush country is by boat or plane.  Half of the village of Bethel just got indoor plumbing; no cell phone service is available in the entire area.  As opposed to the gorgeous mountains, cascading waterfalls and pristine coast of Valdez, the Bush country is tundra – flat and treeless, with millions of lakes, marshes and mosquitoes- what they call the State Bird of Alaska.

The expansive Bush country in Alaska.

Everyday life is tough and challenging in the Bush country, but these Native Alaskans are a happy and faith-filled people.  They are Yu-pic Americans; Yu-pic meaning “the real people.”  We grew up calling them “Eskimos.”

Many of the people revel in the challenges and take joy and pride in their way of life.  Justin, who is finishing up two years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp., said he “wanted to come to the Bush Country of Alaska ever since he was a little kid.”  He is discerning the priesthood, and has been leading the youth group for 8th-12th graders.

“Bethel comes alive in the winter,” Justin explained, noting that “snow machining,” ice fishing, dog mushing, cross country skiing, para-skiing and other outdoor activities keep the village going, even in days that reach negative 70 degrees.  “Negative 25 (-25 degrees Fahrenheit) is like summer,” he laughed.  The first snow hit last year on September 29.  It’s so cold in Bethel in winter that pipes are raised above ground – those placed in the ground freeze and crack.

Justin leads a youth group for 8th-12th graders.

Justin is even optimistic when discussing living in the freezing cold in four hours of sunlight, on average each day, in winter.  “I get to see the sunrise and sunset every day,” he noted.  “And the stars, they are ‘planetarium’ clear.  In the summer, it’s so light until so late that you don’t get to see the stars.”

Bethel, like other communities in Alaska, is dealing with serious social issues – high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, Justin explained.  “We do a lot of counseling,” he said, noting it took six months for the kids to open up to him.  Fr. Chuck Peterson and Susan Murphy, parish administrator of Immaculate Conception Parish, here, are so well-known and respected in the community that much of their time is spent providing counseling.

Immaculate Conception, which was built by Catholic Extension donors, is a hub of activity in the area and it does everything it possibly can to sustain itself.  As we arrive, we view an entire building – one of its former church buildings – filled with tables of paperback and hardcover books, meticulously sorted by type and in alphabetical order.  The book sale took days of sorting to set up, Susan explained.  It looks to me that it would have taken months.  In the next building an entire “rummage” sale is set up, providing more income for the church and clothing and supplies needed by the people.

Fr. Chuck Peterson in Immaculate Conception, a church built by Catholic Extension donors.

Under Fr. Chuck’s direction, Immaculate Conception is a very inclusive parish community, celebrating the cultural heritage of the people with the richness of the faith.  Ten languages are spoken in the parish and for Pentecost Fr. Chuck had parishioners create banners with the “Our Father” in their native tongue.  Thirty line the walls.

Fr. Chuck and the diocese are intent on training the Yu-pic people to take leadership positions in the church and they have successfully embraced a diaconate training program that “blends Roman Catholicism with the gifts of the Native culture.”

Catholicism is strong and vibrant in Bethel, nurtured by caring people who have a great respect for the people they serve.  It is a privilege to witness the church in its many forms, but true to its adoration of the Word and the Eucharist.

— Kathy Handelman, Director of Marketing Communications

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