Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Family Ties

I started to write yesterday, but had trouble finding the time to finish. I guess it was just not to be. Today is Tuesday, mostly cloudy, and the sea is losing most of its ice.

Friday I wrote about family coming through for each other. I learned early on how true that is.

Things are different here in Barrow than outside of the North Slope. In my first ten days in Barrow, I had presided over seven funerals. One may think that because it is in the frozen north that they were waiting for the spring thaw or in this case a minister to come. That is true in other places that we have lived and served. Smaller northern communities, the funeral homes will keep or hold the bodies until spring to be buried. A friend of mine in Anchorage had to wait four months to bury her husband, opening the old wounds of loss and sorrow.

In Barrow, funerals happen regardless of the time of year, season or weather. The first two funerals were in zero degree weather along with a strong wind chill factor driving the temperature well below 20 degrees below zero f. It was not until the fourth funeral that it dawned on me what the major difference at the grave sight, there was no funeral home people directing the burial. It was the families themselves that were burying their dead relatives. The families would gather after the death and before the funeral to dig the hole. This was done regardless of the time of year, season or weather. The people would borrow augers and drill out the land, then dig out the frozen soil with picks and shovels. Then following the funeral service, the family would lower the casket in the hole, then the casket cover and then fill the hole back up. At first when it really dawned on me what was happening, I thought it was strange that they would first put snow in the grave before the dirt. But at the ground is frozen year around, so the snow would not melt. It was then that I truely realized that it was the families that were doing the work. It was not hired hands of those who worked for the funeral homes or grave sights, but the families.

My first thought about this was how it must be healing for some to be that connected with the funeral process. That there is more closure for the family. I am not so sure though. Following up with family members after the funerals, they greive just as much as those who have somebody else do all the dirty work. Another thought came to me as I am typing this, who wants to be in sub-zero weather greiving for a lost family member by digging a grave? But it happens, and it get done.

I am not sure where I am going with this right now, but I did want to pass on this observation and realization, one that was very slow in coming to me. Hopefully, I will be more aware, and have a little quicker learning time in the future.

Peace and blessings.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cloudy Friday

Since the last time I finished writing to now, it has been overcast for the Summer Solstice. So much for the longest day, not that it is much of an issue here above the Arctic Circle.

Yesterday, as I was walking to get our mail at the post office, I realized what writers must go through in order to write everyday. Here I am just trying to post a blog every so often, but yet if I really wanted to write, I would have to write everyday. Hopefully with the words meaning something as well, not just words after words. A new respect for the dedication others bring to their respective crafts.

This afternoon, I presided over my first wedding here in Barrow. The bride and groom did not really have any idea what they wanted for their wedding, so I was going to be relaxed in the preparation for it. The couple had been living together for 12 years now and already had three children. So their pre-marital counseling was fairly short. How much more could I help them? They came last night to the rehearsal not sure what they were doing. I gave them some of my own thoughts on the matter and left it to them. That is when their families came together. It is the family that keeps this community going. If left up to the couple, the service probably would have been very plain. Instead it was filled with music, (from a previously recorded CD), and the sanctuary was decorated with beautiful streamers and white bells, paper flowers and lights. The reception room was filled with decorations as well. I think that the bride and groom will remember more of the wedding because of family. Isn't that the way it is suppose to be anyway?

Speaking of family, Friday's are Family Night. I am going to go check on the reception one more time, and head home, to spend more quality time with my own family. As these days get shorter, bringing about the ever continuing circle and cycle of life, let us not forget to take any and all opportunities to let our families know how much they mean to us, and specifically to me.

Peace and blessings.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


The time is 1:40 p.m. on a beautiful sunny day. Right now it is about45 degrees with a slight wind blowing. But the clouds are moving in from the sea. Today is the second of four celebrations this spring year for the successful whale catches. The celebrations are known as "Nalukataq". The crews that caught a whale invite the whole village for a grand celebration. Throughout the day, food is given out, meat from the whale to smoked fish to fruits. Then sometime between 5 and 6 they will serve a traditional dinner followed by the famous blanket toss and traditional Eskimo dancing. There were twelve different crews that caught whales this spring, so they will be dividing the celebrations up over the next couple of days.

Last Sunday I was installed as Pastor for the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church. The service is hosted by the congregation but the installing is done by the presbytery, in this case, The Presbytery of Yukon. Usually people would drive to the service from throughout the presbytery to partake. The trouble with Barrow is that you can only fly in or out. (Unless you want to snow mobile or four wheel it depending on the time of year, as well as coming by boat for the six to eight weeks that the sea is open). Right now, there are only two flights a day that connect us with Fairbanks or Anchorage, one in the morning and one in the evening.

My mother and step sister came up for my installation service from Anchorage and decided to stay for the Nalukataq Monday afternoon. Monday's weather was overcast, rainy and cold. Not good for a celebration outdoors. We quickly got the schedule for the celebration, food, dinner, blanket toss, (which is why they stayed) then the dancing. Since their flight was leaving at 6 p.m., they missed everything they stayed for. During the short time I was out, I caught a head cold and my ears plugged up for the next couple of days. Though I wanted to return later that night to watch, my ears hurt too much, so I took some medication and went to bed with the knowledge that there will be more Nalukataqs.

Whales are a major portion of the yearly diet for the people of the Arctic Circle. So successful whale hunts are to be celebrated, because it means that people will be able to eat this year. The Inupiat people also use as much of the whale as possible then returning the waste to the sea with a small ceremony and prayers.

Well, I am going to go check out the celebrations this afternoon before coming back to work for a wedding rehearsal. Hopefully, I will be able to come back from this Nalukataq with something other than a head cold and ear aches.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Starting Off

As most bloggers start off, "I have never done this, but I thought I would try". I have recently been called as Pastor to the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church in Barrow, Alaska. I plan on recording my thoughts, experiences, discoveries and hopefully learning about the different culture and people in Barrow.

First, I want to explain where Barrow, Alaska is in case you are not sure of your geography. If you go the farthest north point in Alaska, and still be on land, you have found Point Barrow. The community of Barrow is just southwest of the "point." I still have much to learn and hopefully to pass on to others if they care to hear of my rambling random thoughts. We are a little more than 500 miles from Fairbanks and not quite 1000 miles north of Anchorage. I once heard that the mileage between Seattle and Barrow is about the same as Seattle to Boston, MA.

Since this is already 17 June 2007, and we have been here for six weeks already, I will probably be weaving my observations in and out of time to try and catch up with my learning curve. Today is bright and sunny, 44 degrees above F. Yesterday was a big local celebration which I will explain later, but of course it was overcast, windy, cold and 35 degrees.

I arrived with my family, (wife and son), 3 May 2007. We had moved from Seattle, WA where we had been living for the last four years. We liked Seattle, but I was working for a national retail company who feels that $7.00 an hour is a living wage in the greater Seattle market. Though employees from this Minnesota firm had it tough, we do not have it as bad as another national retail company from Arkansas.

I am not new to Alaska, for I moved to Anchorage for my senior year in high school. I can still remember sitting in my United States History class my junior year at Whittier High School, (in the LA area, where Richard Nixon was from), and looking at a map of the United States. It was one of the unusual maps where Alaska is suppose to be, not down in Baja California. Three weeks later, my mother came to me saying, "I heard the best joke, somebody is offering Don a job in Alaska." (Don being my step-father). Well that was in January 1974, and by June we are already on our way, driving to Anchorage. I had asked my father if I could move in with him and his new wife, but he gave me the best advice he ever gave me, "Give Alaska six weeks". I went for six weeks and was a resident for thirteen years.

Of those thirteen years, I must admit that four winters were spent at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington and four winters were spent at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, with me coming home each summer. I left Alaska for the last time August 1985, not sure if and when I would ever be able to return. Now, not quite twenty two years later, I am back in Alaska and this will be my story....