Mission Come Full Circle

Or

The Chukotka Native Christian Ministry

by the Rev. Neil Munro

When Sheldon Jackson went to the Russian Far East to purchase reindeer, he may have had strong urges to extend the mission of the Presbyterian Church to the Native peoples of the region. However, he had the discretion to return to Alaska with the reindeer as intended, to relieve the food shortage for the starving Yup’iks of Western Alaska (domestic Alaskan reindeer herding continues there today stemming from Jackson’s vision and start). His New York foes, the mission administrators, had to have breathed a sigh of relief. Sheldon Jackson had extended their good graces to the snapping point, as they would receive his reports listing a new church or a preaching point he expected them to fund, all of course after all their budgets had been completely expended. Never-theless, what he saw on the other side of the Bering Straits had to have been mighty tempting as a mission challenge to which he would have to turn his back. Nearly a century later, that challenge would present itself in a most unexpected way.

Sheldon Jackson would have been thrilled beyond his highest expectations. The very people to whom he drew the Presbyterian Church into the mission of presenting the Gospel on the Alaska side of the Bering Straits, were now, in turn, the missionaries going out to their ancient homeland and ancestral heritage with the Gospel: Mission Come Full Circle. These are, primarily the Siberian Yup’ik Presbyterians reaching out to their relatives and friends on the Russian Chukotka Peninsula and region.

Had Stalin not brought down the Iron Curtain on the western borders of the Soviet Union, the “Ice Curtain” would not have fallen at the same time and this mission endeavor might very well have occurred earlier. But this vicious dictator’s cruel and brutal isolationism cut off all contact between the Siberian Yup’iks of St. Lawrence Island and their relatives on the Chukotka Peninsula. It was a brutal isolation that lasted more than forty years. Families were cut off from each other. Accustomed to meeting their Russian brothers at sea for whale and walrus hunts, the more adventuresome St. Lawrence Islanders soon found it unnerving to have the Russian military turn them back. The Russian Yup’iks who lived on the outer islands and along the coast, seafaring people, dependent upon the sea for their subsistence, were removed from their homes and forced inland to become land-locked people. All two-way communication was cut off, completely separating brothers and sisters on both sides of the Straits.

Accepting the reality of the Ice Curtain, the Alaskan Yup’iks began to devise ways of communicating, though for the greater part of the isolation it was all one-way. They would record their worship services in Gambell and Savoonga and then broadcast them from Nome, beaming their message across the Bering Straits, along with news programs and talk shows all in the Siberian Yup’ik language. This was a fabulous exercise of faith, since there was no indication that the broadcasts were even being heard.

Glasnost descended upon the Arctic along with the East and West, loosening many Russian restrictions. In 1987, Alaska Airlines opened the doors with its memorable “Friendship Flight” from Nome to Providenia. Aboard the ice-breaking flight were several Presbyterian elders, Tim Gologergen being one. I believe it was Tim who related what has become a well-known story from that trip. As the Yup’iks from both sides of the Straits gathered for a reunion and feast, part of the host’s welcoming ceremony was the singing in Siberian Yup’ik of “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” It was the first tangible evidence that the radio broadcasts, faithfully presented week after week for more than thirty years, had actually been heard. Their mission, jumping over the ice curtain, had paid off.

Thought the door was opened and communication was re-established, the “fullness of time” had not yet fully come. Much more in the realm of geopolitics had to take place before what we now know as the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry could occur. It became a time when old men again dreamed dreams and the young had visions. The new mission thrust was incubating. John Waghiyi had a dream to be fulfilled, as did Howard Slwooko. And the younger Willa Roghair, put in the right place at the right time, had a mission vision of Native to Native ministry being launched.

I. The Origin

John Waghiyi was born and raised on St. Lawrence Island under the ministry of the Presbyterian mission. As an adult he married and moved to Nome. There, with no Presbyterian Church at the time, he became a Methodist. Eventually he moved to the Interior and became a postmaster. Upon retirement from the Postal Service, he went to the Moravian Seminary at Bethel. With graduation, the Moravians ordained him. He did some interim pastoral work for us at Gambell while we were in search for a pastor. John had a deep desire to reach out with the Gospel to his relatives on the other side, a dream that began to materialize with the “Friendship Flight”.

Howard Slwooko was a retired Mission Covenant pastor. He too had been raised on St. Lawrence Island within the Presbyterian mission. As an adult, coming out of the Army after World War II, he married a lady from the Mission Covenant Church and became one of their pastors, retiring after a long ministry on Nunivak Island. Howard also had a deep desire to go to the Chukotka Peninsula with the Gospel, primarily to Sireniki. Howard was an exuberant man, marked by the joy of the Lord, though not always by practicality. Howard and John were poles apart in personalities and in their perception of mission to the land of their forebears. Yet they were the men God chose in opening the doors to a people bereft of the Gospel, apart from the radio, for over a generation.

The next step in launching the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry also came from a secular source, combined with a pastor God had been preparing for many years for this specific purpose. In January of 1990, Alaskan Rotarians headed to Magadan to form a Club in the capital city of the Oblast of the same name as well as the headquarters for Stalin’s gulags in the Far East. They asked Willa Roghair, co-pastor with her husband Jim of the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church of Barrow, to serve as their translator. Willa had studied Russian language in college. And during her college years traveled extensively across the Soviet Union on her own. She was ready, without realizing it at first, for an emerging mission that God was opening.

On that first trip to Magadan, she met Igor Pavlov, Minister of Religion and Culture for the Magadan Oblast. She stayed in the home of Eugene Syuchov, a scientist, teacher and close friend of Igor Pavlov’s. Eugene also spoke English. She was put in contact with the local Pentecostal congregation and given several invaluable contacts for observing the religious situation in the Far East. But it wasn’t until her second trip with Rotary in January 1991, that the doors were opened wide for mission.

On that second trip Willa deliberately made contact with Igor Pavlov. He invited her to his apartment where he and his wife spent a whole afternoon and evening in conversation. Both Igor and his wife were geologists, a subject Willa had minored in while in college. The Pavlovs and Eugene Syuchov had spent many years on Wrangell Island doing research. Those years in the Arctic had developed within them a great concern for the plight of the Chukchi people along with the small number of Yup’iks in that corner of the Russian Arctic.

During the course of their conversation, Pavlov asked Willa why she and her husband were serving at Barrow. She gave him an immediate response with three reasons. First, God had called them to Barrow. This was of great interest to Pavlov, a communist bureaucrat responsible for religion and culture in his Oblast. Second, she and Jim were deeply concerned about the high suicide rates, especially among young males of the Inupiat Arctic. Pavlov could quickly identify with this concern for he too witnessed the problem and held a comparable concern for his Russian Natives as he saw them moving from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a little over a generation. And third, she expressed their deep concern over the rampant problem of alcoholism plaguing the Arctic.

It was upon this statement that Pavlov was deeply touched. Without the slightest hesitation, he said to Willa, “I want you to start a Presbyterian Church in our Arctic!” Willa was prepared. Her response was instant. “If any church was going to be started to serve Natives,” she told him, “it would not be just a Presbyterian Church, but an ecumenical response.” That was the “Macedonian Call” extended. The doors of opportunity were opened wide.

In much the same way that the Apostle Paul’s team heard his vision and set out for Macedonia, so too the Council and Presbytery responded with action to Willa’s vision. When she arrived back in Anchorage, she stayed with Donna (the author’s wife) and me. She was excited beyond belief over the opportunity that had been presented to her. But she had no idea how we were ever going to bring it off. That really mattered little; we had moved into a fast-forward mode. Two weeks later Yukon Presbytery’s Council was scheduled to meet for its winter retreat. There we would explore ways and means for opening up the new mission set before us.

Early in the Council’s discussion, we were brainstorming for ways of operating. Some ideas had potential, some were wild and some impossible, but everyone was thinking. On one concept we were in accord: General Assembly’s Worldwide Ministry Division’s insights into Russia were limited to what was known about the nation west of the Urals; that they would have no more insight about the Russian Far East than they do about Alaska. We envisioned having only problems if the mission were to be administered out of Louisville. Del Burnett, pastor of First Church Fairbanks, comically suggested that rather than leaving it to Louisville to administer, expand the boundaries of Yukon Presbytery to include the Oblast of Magadan (an area about half again as large as Alaska). That brought down the house with a roar of laughter. What an option! It was obviously out of the question since we had enough of a job administering mission within the present bounds of presbytery. So with another great guffaw, we moved on to more “practical” and “realistic” ideas. But with all brains stretched to their limits, we kept coming back to Del’s idea. An overture for General Assembly seeking to expand our borders to include Magadan was drafted. It was presented to the Presbytery and adopted at its spring meeting with great enthusiasm.

In 1991, General Assembly was slated to debate its paper on Human Sexuality. Nearly every publication of the denomination was loaded with the pros and cons on the issue ad infinitum, ad nauseum. To our amazement, in the last few weeks leading up to the Assembly, the cover article in Monday Morning carried our overture word for word. Every Presbyterian minister, plus many many more saw and had access to what we were seeking. There was no conceivable way any one of us could have generated such comprehensive publicity. At GA, I asked Theo Gil, the editor, how he happened to give us such a marvelous boost. His response was simple. He had grown totally bored with all the mishmash on Human Sexuality and saw our overture as real mission, what the church ought to be about. For him it was a welcomed relief, and for us, a shot in the arm.

Between Council and Presbytery, I went to Seattle for a Synod staff meeting. During our presbytery report time, I told the story of Willa’s encounter and Pavlov’s invitation and the Council’s recommendation to presbytery. All the presbytery executives were excited and supportive. But the Synod Executive wasn’t pleased about our desire to bypass Louisville’s administration. However, by this time we were determined, in spite of the dash of cold water. The exec complained to the office of Worldwide Ministry, calling for a meeting with our commissioners and myself at GA.

About the same time, I began receiving phone calls from Bob Lodwick, GA’s liaison with the World Council of Churches in Geneva. I had known Bob when he was the Board of Christian Education’s representative with Sheldon Jackson College before its independence. Bob was terribly concerned that our “land grab” would upset a hard-fought agreement hammered out between the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church and the WCC. They had struck a delicate balance and our action would threaten the accord they had gained. We quickly began to realize that the pressure was mounting, with opposition in high places.

In the providence of God, our commissioners to GA that year were elder Paul Rookok of Savoonga and Sig Kristiansen, at that time pastor at Nome, though formerly at Gambell and before that at Savoonga. The appointed meeting with Worldwide Ministries Division officials came early. Director Cliff Kirkpatrick with his Associate for International Evangelism, Jeff Ritchie, and Bob Lodwick, and our Synod Exec, met with Paul, Sig and myself. When the three of us told our story and of the invitation extended to Willa, with our desire to create a mission of Alaskan Natives ministering to Russian Yup’iks, they were as excited as we were about the opportunity. But when it came to the land issues and the extension of our boundaries, they explained two obvious truths. First, our intent was being read as a threat to the delicate balance recently gained between the WCC and the Orthodox Church. Second, they questioned just how ecumenical our effort could be if Yukon Presbytery laid clam to any of the Russian Far East.

Long before we got to GA, our better senses began to catch up with us. We had concluded that beyond getting the attention of the Assembly and the Church, the “land grab” was not in our best interests. We held no desire to be a threat to any part of the body of Christ, not even the WCC. However, we did not publish this fact, holding it as a possible bargaining chip. When the con-versation turned back to us, we shared our readiness to set it aside. With that the Worldwide Ministries delegation gave us their hearty blessing and $5,000 to be used for the survey trip to Magadan which was being planned. Del Brunet’s “way out” idea turned out to be the triggering action to get the whole church behind our effort to have mission come full circle.

During the Spring of 1991, my task was to try to bring on board with us those denominations who also ministered to Alaskan Yup’iks: the Alaska Mission Covenant Church, the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Moravian Church, the United Methodist Church. In contacting all the executives, I got an eager response and readiness to do mission ecumenically. The response for participation was an immediate “yes!” We began meeting regularly and early determined that whatever kind of church emerged on the other side of the Straits, it would probably not look like one of ours; that probably the model for the initial stages of church planting would be on the order of “house churches”, and that the Russian Christians would determine what would evolve. Further, we agreed that we should go to the Far East and see for ourselves just what the possibilities were, and definitely gain the endorsement of Igor Pavlov. As each of the executives set about to get their institutional support, I was delegated to set up the trip to Magadan.

II. Action

Glasnost became the magic that opened the Russian doors to the rest of the world. Having barely stepped inside as far as Leningrad in the geographical giant, the Soviet Union, in August of 1989, it came as no surprise when the Berlin Wall fell later that year. The demise of the Communist Party and its rigid control over the people for the next year and a half was inevitable. As we were making our plans for getting our Yup’ik people into the Chukotka Peninsula for mission, and the survey trip to define our capabilities, the Communist bureaucracy still ran the nation. Westerners were allowed into the Soviet Union, but they had to have an invitation from the Russian side before they could acquire a visa for a non-standard tourist trip. So we now had to go through a rather ticklish process of saying to Igor Pavlov, “You made an invitation to Willa. Were you serious? Will you make an invitation for a group of ecumenical representatives?” With that, a waiting game began. We joke about governmental red tape in our country, but our bureaucratic hang-ups are nothing next to Russian bureaucratic decision making.

Early in May I started applying for an invitation and for visa requests. The replies would ask all sorts of questions about who would be in our team. By the time they would get around to responding and thus delaying our initial plans, the team would change and we would have to start all over. I was a regular visitor to Archbishop Frank Hurley’s office where he let me use their Telex to communicate directly with Pavlov. And each time I got a response seeking more information, I would have to contact each member of our team, scattered from Anchorage to Barrow, to Bethel to Nome. I also had to make and re-make reservations for our charter flight out of Nome to Providenia, with our dates constantly changing. It seemed as though we were never going to get a direct invitation but only the run around.

Then one late Friday afternoon in August, Archbishop Hurley’s secretary called to say the invitation had finally come over the Telex. I rushed over to his office immediately, picked up the invitation and dashed to the office of the agent handling Russian visas. I then went home and called everyone on the team to tell them the invitation had come and was told we would have our visas in about ten days, and we set a date for leaving Nome, Monday, September 16, 1991, 1:00 p.m. With these specifics finally settled, I began to relax. The following Sunday evening, August 18, Donna and I settled down to watch “Murder, She Wrote” on television. Right in the middle of the show, a news bulletin was inserted reporting a coup d’etat was in process in Moscow. I remember saying to Donna, “I’m beginning to think the Lord doesn’t want us to go to Russia.” The next day I called the visa man to see what we should do. He simply said, “I sent the applications and passports on to San Francisco, so lets just wait and see. We don’t really know whom these people are that are running the coup. Go ahead and make your plans.” We did.

Then a new waiting game began. With the September 16 departure date set, we just had to wait for the visas. Meanwhile the coup was running its course, Gorbachev and the Communist Party were ousted and Yeltsin appeared to be in charge. But that didn’t speed up the bureaucratic system in the San Francisco Embassy. About Wednesday, September 11, there was a conference call with all our team members planning to go. We debated whether we should even attempt to go, whether it was the Lord’s will to go, concluding the doors were open, that in spite of the opposition and resistance, we should proceed. We agreed to be ready right up to the last minute to leave Nome the following Monday morning. Nothing happened, no word on the visas. On Saturday afternoon, the visa agent phoned to say they had just arrived by special delivery. I went immediately and picked them up and started phoning once again. Everyone arrived at Nome on time Monday for the adventure to begin.

The survey team consisted of the Rev. Dr. Willa Roghair, Presbyterian from Barrow; Rev. John Waghiyi, Methodist, then living in Anchorage; Rev. Henry Pearson, Director of the Alaska Mission Covenant Church, Anchorage; the Rev. Dr. Kurt Vitt, Principal, Bethel Moravian Seminary, Bethel; the Rev. Dr. Ray Balcomb, supplying as the Mission Superintendent for the Alaskan Methodist Missionary Conference, and myself. Our flight left as scheduled, 1:00 p.m., Monday, September 16. We landed in Providenia an hour and a half later on Tuesday, September 17 at 10:30 a.m., having crossed the International Date Line where each new day begins.

Providenia was the place where we soon determined every step forward that we might take would be within the providence of God. No one seemed to know why we were there or who we were. The immigration and customs officers checked us out nevertheless. The customs people knew almost no English, but were very concerned that we might be carrying checks. I said I had none in my possession. I was carrying a manila envelope with forwarded mail for Archbishop Hurley’s priest in Magadan. When I was asked to open the envelope and then each letter inside, I saw that the packet contained three bank statements and my heart sank. I had no idea how I was going to explain the canceled checks I would soon have to reveal. We spent 45 minutes trying to explain a canceled check and its value. But with no knowledge of how the American banking system works, I was in a hopeless situation, wondering if they were going to call me a perjurer. My interrogator called in her supervisor who began to go round and round with me. Normally, my patience fuse is pretty short for such a ridiculous situation, but this scene seemed so hopeless, I began to chuckle. I didn’t know what else to do except to silently cry out to God, “Help!” Suddenly, the supervisor picked up the priest’s mail along with the canceled checks and thrust them into my hands and disgustedly waved me on through. All the rest of the team had each been processed through in about five minutes. So they were pretty anxious about me and quite relieved when I finally joined them. During the ordeal, it occurred to me that having someone describe a canceled check in the game of charades could add to the fun.

We were confined to the airport “terminal” from 10:30 a.m. till about 1:00 p.m. while the locals were trying to figure out what to do with us. About 1:00 p.m. a man entered the terminal and spoke to us in English. He was from the Committee, or the governing body of Providenia. When we explained to him who we were and why we were there and that we were given an itinerary that as no more specific than to go to Providenia and from there to Anadyr and spend two days and then go to Magadan. But there was nothing to tell us who to meet or where to go at each stop. With this information, the official went over to a small kiosk with glass windows and the curtains inside pulled shut. He knocked on the door and there to our amazement was a woman inside. She was the agent in the Aeroflot office. She told the official we were 24 hours late. We never did get the confusion of the calendars and the Date Line straight in all our communications. Anyway, the official told us to go ahead, buy our tickets and catch the flight to Anadyr leaving at 3:30 p.m. I think they were rather relieved to have us gone.

The flight to Anadyr was about an hour and a half long. I’ll say no more about the Aeroflot’s 50-passenger turbo-prop, other than hint that the Federal Aviation Administration would have grounded it, probably permanently. But within the providence of God we arrived safely, though landing at Anadyr was very unique. Thirty-two MIGs were lined up at the ready right beside the runway. Anadyr was a Russian Air Force base, the counterpart to Alaska’s King Salmon AFB, its first line of defense. We were the first group of foreigners to land there following the coup d’etat.

Deplaning, we had to grab our bags off the plane and catch a bus to the terminal. I was the last to get on and was barely squeezed in, so when we stopped, I was the first off and stood aside waiting for the team. A man walked up to me and in perfect English asked, “Are you Neil Munro?” That is an eerie feeling when you are in a strange place and know no one. But that was the beginning of what would be one of God’s most providential turns in our mission. The man introduced himself as Anatoly Krashakov. Little did we know then that he would play a major role in the development of the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry, mission come full circle.

III. The Survey

Anatoly (Tony) took us to a VIP room where we had to wait three hours before we could catch a ferryboat to the city. So he opened the conversation by saying, “I don’t know who you are and why you are here.” We explained our mission and what we hoped to accomplish. After a few questions, he abruptly left us and was gone over an hour. When he came back, he informed us that he had worked out our itinerary for the next two days, starting with an interview with the governor of the Chukotka Region. He also arranged for our housing and board. Then he told us that he was the governor’s assistant and that he had been out of town, arriving back in his office about an hour before the ferry was to leave for the airport. He got a call from Magadan instructing him to meet us and take care of us for the next two days, which he did with finesse. So Tony Krashakov enters the mission picture. He would later become a key consultant and arbitrator for the Executive Committee and the missionaries as they got their start.

As we waited in the VIP room, I noticed that Tony became rather pensive. He appeared to be sizing us up. Then in a rather nervous voice he quietly said, “I’m a believer.” Clearly, he was greatly relieved when we expressed our gratitude to God for placing us in the hands of a believer. Then he rather haltingly told us that the previous Sunday he had gathered about thirty people together to organize an Orthodox group so that they could ask the Bishop of the region to provide a priest. Again there was a most supportive response from our team, which seemed to encourage him. But shortly after this he became pensive again. Then in a lull in the conversation, he blurted out that he was very apprehensive about what was going to happen when his colleagues would find out that he was a believer. He was coming out with the truth that he had been hiding since his youth as he lived in an atheistic society and work environment. His concern and anxiety as he anticipated the reactions of his peers was very apparent. As a team, we felt compelled to stop the trivialities of our conversation and pray for Tony. It was an experience of concern for him that he had never before known. He felt accepted as a fellow believer, as a Christian. What little he knew and understood of the faith, he had learned from his grandmother and mother, who were faithful believers in spite of the policy of atheism promulgated by Communism.

Starting the next day with an interview with the Governor, Alexander Nazarov, we were soon to learn something about our host. Tony is an instantaneous translator. As the spokesperson for our group, I was designated to make our presentation to the Governor. The two of us sat across from each other at a table, with Tony sitting beside me. I talked in English directly to the Governor as though he understood me. As I was talking, Tony was talking at the same time in Russian. At first it was rather confusing, until I paused and the Governor responded. He talked directly to me in Russian, but I was hearing Tony’s translation. In a very short while I was no longer conscious of Tony, talking directly to the Governor and hearing him talk back as though he was speaking in English. It seemed like the conversation was just a normal one on one conversation. The outcome of the dialogue was a genuine welcome and a sense of appreciation for the fact that we were there not to exploit but to give to a group of people who did not always rate very high on the social scale.

We observed several things as a follow up to the coup d’etat that took place only a few weeks earlier. The top floor of the government office building had been the domain of the Community Party directors. The next floor down held all the offices of the governor and the strata of civil government that made things operate. This level of leadership was in place and running the whole Chukotka region. When Gorbachev and the Communist Party was ousted in Moscow, their underlings across the nation were ousted at the same time. The Communist hacks sat on the fourth floor doling out their signatures and approval of what the civil servants planned and did. With the end of the coup, one whole layer of government was abolished. The Communists were removed from the building and their offices padlocked shut. And all the signs outside the front door were ripped off the wall revealing unpainted spots where the signs designating the various communist officials had been. Because of this middle level of civil servants still in place following the coup, the nation was held together and possibly made more efficient.

Tony escorted us all around Anadyr, introducing us to all the Native leadership he could find. With each person we met, we would tell our story and would get very polite responses. Because Tony had been a teacher and had lived in several Native communities, he was rather knowledgeable about them. We were beginning to get a picture of Native people that had some differences from the people we knew in Alaska. And the further west we moved from Providenia, the less physically discernible as Natives the people seemed to be. We also were beginning to see that what we were given to understand as villages, did not match our experience of what we called a village in Alaska. When we eventually got to Tauisk and Olla, which the Russians considered to be villages, we would find all the people living in the stereotypical, hideous architectural concrete monstrosities called apartments. Each of us was beginning to appraise the situations to which we were being introduced, starting with Tony at Anadyr and later with Pavlov at Magadan. We were beginning to mentally realize we could not be the whole solution to all the problems faced by the minority people of the Russian Far East.

Leaving Anadyr for Magadan, we reversed the process exiting by ferry and bussed back to the terminal from the dock. Thank goodness, Tony was with us. I’ve seen chaos and confusion in airport terminals, but there is nothing to compare to the absolute chaos of the Anadyr terminal. There were lines everywhere, but Tony knew the system. He took our passports and tickets and went right straight to the counter and got immediate service. The people, who seemed totally accustomed to standing in line and waiting for insufferably long periods of time, seemed most docile as we were pushed in front of them. There seemed to be no reaction or noticeable objection. But for us it was rather embarrassing. Still as we would later have to catch more Aeroflot flights (should I say “frights”), we found ourselves being most grateful for any and all the escort help we could get. We began to appreciate how good our “people handling systems” are in crowded airports, especially when you can’t understand the language of commerce.

On board our Aeroflot jet we had about a two-hour flight to Magadan. Our team was separated since it is open seating. And I began to wonder if seating was the right term. The back of my seat was broken so that it was permanently laid back. We were served a glass of sugared water for a snack. And the uniformed flight attendants were grim and rather rude. But we flew over hundreds of square miles of larch forests, all in their colorful bright orange/yellow needles of fall. Again the disembarking routine from the jet was typical, confusion.

John Waghiyi was a couple of rows behind me and about three or four rows ahead was a Yup’ik lady who had a couple of words in English. She called to me and pointed to John and asked, “Yup’ik?” I said “Da!” Then she began to talk with great animation to John in Yup’ik.

We walked into the cavernous terminal building and couldn’t find anything, nor was there anyone looking for us. The Yup’ik lady stood off to the side watching. When she saw our utter confusion, since we couldn’t find our luggage, she showed us the way to a fairly well concealed luggage room. Then when we got back into the main part of the terminal with our stuff, we still didn’t know what to do. We didn’t realize the plane was a half-hour early. So again, the Yup’ik lady came to our rescue. The airport is about 25 miles outside the city. So she got us onto the city bus, sending her family who had greeted her, with her stuff in their car.

She rode into the city with us and made sure there was someone to meet us at the bus terminal when we arrived. Igor had gone to the airport with two cars to get us but by the time he got there we were on our way into town on our own, but all ended well and we were taken to the VIP hotel and given our rooms. They were not fancy, but by comparisons to the Anadyr hotel, quite luxurious. And there was toilet paper in the bathroom (not much.)

That night, we met Igor Pavlov and his staff in the dining room of the former KGB building, where his office was located. Because his invitation categorized us as people concerned about the problems of alcoholism amongst Native people, and because most of our team were teetotalers, and knowing that vodka toasts were part of a meal protocol, we decided early on to be right out front and explain our refusal to partake in any alcoholic offering. This was a very new reaction to our hosts who couldn’t understand our religious convictions about alcohol use. But when we explained that if we were on this survey trip to determine what was needed for dealing with the problem of alcoholism, that we ourselves ought not to be part of the problem. That made sense, though it seemed to be a strange bit of new logic. And I don’t think they had ever met a group who took their cause seriously. But from there on there was no issue made and our wishes were respected. The vodka was always on the table and after a meal or two our hosts would politely offer and imbibe themselves.

Igor and his friend Eugene Syuchov gave us a tour similar to Tony’s as we met their governmental officials and the people who really were in charge of the Native affairs for the whole Oblast. Clearly, Magadan, once the headquarters for the gulags in the Siberian Far East, was a fairly large city. Unlike the civil servants we met at Anadyr, there was s sense of slick politicians at work. We were very graciously received by whomever Igor introduced us. But each one of us silently felt we were getting the run around. I think Igor was sincere and had certainly done a good job in making our arrangements (in spite of our hang-ups at the starting blocks), but I am satisfied that the Lord was closing all sorts of doors in front of us so that we wouldn’t lose track of our purpose.

Knowing we were concerned about Native people and desired to have a mission with Siberian Yup’iks, we soon found that they were a very small minority on the eastern shores of the Far East. While in Magadan, far to the west with a different environment and very different cultural settings, the Natives were not so discernible as in the Chukotka region. Pavlov put us in the charge of Dimitri Karaveya, a very charming, older Native person who was the lead official for Native affairs within the Oblast. He was also a man who commanded much respect and a sense of reverence wherever we went. Dimitri hosted us on a tour of Olla, considered to be a Native village. He showed us much of the self-help work of the people to set up a saltery. And he took us to an agricultural college that specialized in reindeer animal husbandry. There were many Native young people in this college. We were also introduced to one class where we lined up on each side of the room and had a debate about democracy and religion. I must say, they were a most articulate group of young people. They were the kind of students any college would be eager to have.

However, the hostess, who was the superintendent of the college, set the tone. With Karaveya present, we got a rather blunt, though polite statement from her that our help was not needed. I was reminded of the many times in Alaska when I heard and participated in discussions that said of the “Wonders from the South 48”, what do they know about our needs? Who needs help from these political hacks? We were not discouraged, but we were getting a helpful picture and discussed amongst ourselves the fact that our ministry needs to be in the Chukotka region. Furthermore, we were getting another picture of a rather academic core of Native elitists, in whose eyes we were clearly out of our element. And Dimitri’s pride in what we were seeing was far from concealed.

The next day we loaded into our minibus and went out from Magadan about 90-km west to Tauisk, a Native village. It was not as big as Olla, nor as sophisticated. But it was plagued with the traditional concrete apartment houses for the Natives. But we would not stay there. Igor and his wife accompanied us on this trip and he would take us another 90 km to a “fish camp” run by Natives (mostly Evens). We rode about 30 km along a dirt path, just wide enough to accommodate the bus. Then we were transferred to a surplus army vehicle, comparable to our Army’s old two and a half ton truck. We jammed into the covered truck bed with Igor’s wife and Willa riding up front with the driver. There were only two tiny windows in the rear doors, but we soon discerned that we were bouncing along an even more restricted trail, and that about half the time the truck would go down into the river and drive up stream for about a quarter of a mile at a time, with the water at least four to five feet deep. It was an amazing trip full of close harmony, many bumps and bounces and lots of laughs. What we were enduring was highly translatable in Russian and American laughs.

What we found after we got to the camp was that Igor had a plan and the Tauisk people had bought into it. They wanted us to consider making this camp into a hunting and fishing lodge that would attract foreigners and obviously bring some income to the community. This we caught on to early and politely reserved our reactions. Dinner was standing about the campfire. For that latitude, it was obviously fall, with clear, cold nights, but the conversations were very energetic.

Gennady Poppov was the key spokesperson for the crew. He was a loud, outspoken, charismatic leader, as well as a charmer. But to set the scene and the tone for our conversations, he declared very early that they were not the least bit interested in having us preach our gospel to them. Then he vociferously expressed an underlying feeling we were picking up as we were meeting various people, and as we were forgetting about how recently the coup and the ouster of the communists had been. He showed his complete disillusionment as he told us, “All their leaders had gone to hell and had left the country in disaster.” Thus he was not about to have us or anyone impose another ideology upon them. That whole evening Gennady was diffident. He also had a terrible cough that got worse as the evening got colder. I offered him some cold medicine and aspirin that I was carrying. He took it and thanked me rather gruffly.

Our sleeping quarters for the future “lodge” consisted of three trailer-vans about the size of one of our moving vans. They were insulated and had a stove, and we were warm and comfortable, though while we were eating, one of the stoves in the van overheated and started to burn. But they were fast and alert and got the fire out quickly. Had they not done so, it could have been disastrous. The next day, the water was as solid as a rock. But we were able to observe a fascinating fishing process as they netted great schools of fish out of the river. It was the role for the village of Tauisk to provide fish for the villages of the region. Other villages would provide meat and food stuffs, and we were experiencing how their village cooperatives worked.

The next morning, Sunday, we broke camp. As guests, we were not allowed to help. So standing in a small circle, we conducted a worship service, while everyone else hustled all around us getting ready to leave. As we sang hymns and prayed and read scripture, we were definitely a curiosity to the rest of the crew, who in spite of their work didn’t miss a thing of what we were doing. Headed back to Tauisk on the truck that brought us to the camp was no easier the second round, though the truck itself was a magnificent piece of machinery, in sharp contrast to the vehicles we saw and rode in.

Back in Tauisk, our team and the Pavlovs and Eugene were all invited to dinner at Gennady’s apartment. It was a terrible squeeze but a rich time of fellowship. And Gennady, whom I called “Poppoff”, had by this time warmed up to us and even asked for more of my medicine, plus he asked Willa for a Bible. While there, we signed a document that Pavlov had typed at the city offices, a copy in Russian and a copy in English. It was a statement of mutual accord and commitment. It was a full page document, which when we read between the lines, essentially said we would express the same sort of hospitality to the Tauisk people if they ever come to Alaska. About two years later we had that opportunity and hosted Gennady, his son and Eugene Syuchov, with three other people from Tauisk, in Anchorage.

It was dark by the time we got back to Magadan where again we were given a feast by Eugene Syuchov’s wife in their apartment. It was another tight squeeze, but marvelous fellowship, allowing us again to see the very gracious sides of a few Russian people. Our last day in Magadan was made most memorable by our visit to the city’s museum. The curator filled us in on the history of the city. Yet we found her carefully skirting around many questions that dealt with the gulag system which was administered from Magadan. But we were told about the gold and oil reserves in the Oblast and we were also told about the nuclear reactor power plants distributed across the Oblast’s Arctic. That was a cause for deep shudders, for they are of the Chernobyl type.

But I think the one display that immediately brought my thinking back to our purpose for being there in the first place, was the display of a Chukchi Shaman’s regalia. I asked the curator to tell me about the small display. She said it had been taken from the Shaman in 1932, when Stalin had him and his colleagues executed along with other leaders of the Native people. Being older than the regalia on display, I was suddenly reminded of the fact that our Siberian Yup’ik people on St. Lawrence Island were not very far removed from the powerful shamanistic heritage of their families in Chukotka. I could also sense with fresh insight why John Waghiyi was so anxious to cross the Straits to share the gospel with his relatives.

We had to overnight in Anadyr on our return trip. However, Tony had to be away and he sent another translator, Irina, who would run us through the hoops in Anadyr. I had an opportunity to talk with her on the ferry ride, and through her sensed the vacuum many of the Russian people were experiencing following the coup. She had great anxiety over the future. Her husband was an alcoholic and her children, two girls and a boy, were teenagers. Later at dinner, in a cafe run by Koreans, and with a rock band attempting to emulate Western rock (badly and unbearably loud), our conversation was more in the nature of shouting to one another. But I managed to hear Irina express her sense of despair. She was talking to one of the team members and said, “All my heroes are gone, Lenin, Marx...All my ideals are shattered!” In Anadyr, where the culture more closely resembled Alaska’s vitality, we either ran into young entrepreneurial types wanting to copy the Western Free Enterprise system, or Irinas who were living in hopeless despair. Sensing the vacuum in their lives, each of us sensed at the same time an urgency to get the gospel proclaimed, and soon.

Back in Providenia, the Bering Air agent met us and got us into the hotel and arranged for our care. Two of the ladies from the local Orthodox church brought us our dinner and served it to us in one of our rooms. And while the rest of us were sightseeing in the community (village), John Waghiyi was making contacts in the Native community. We made a careful effort to not go directly to the Native people as a group of Caucasian Americans. John made all the contacts with them as Native person to Native person as we intended the whole mission to be. As it turned out, Tony was staying in the hotel as well so we had our last evening with him.

IV. Conclusions Drawn From the Survey

In the debriefing that began in the Providenia hotel that night and then when we got back to Nome, we came up with the following list of recommendations:

1. Whoever goes as a missionary to the Native people will need to know the language, first of the Native people and secondly of Russian. We began to pick up on the fact that the Russians were attempting to get the people away form their Native languages and that the young people tended to know Russian better than Yup’ik. But language was absolutely essential, Russian at least, but preferably Yup’ik, as well.

2. We felt that it was essential that whoever goes to the Russian side must have a sound education. Clearly, the Native people were seeing to it that as far as possible their young people were getting an education well beyond mere high school level. And the young people we met we found to be very articulate.

3. As it true when, as a foreigner, you enter another country, a knowledge of its history, especially its more recent political and economic history is extremely important and helpful.

4. Because of the college aged young people, mostly Native, in the college and training institutes we observed, we felt that any missionary serving in the Russian Far East must have a keen discernment between Russian and American economics and political philosophies and see them as challenges to his/her Christian theology. He/she is going to have to eventually deal with some well educated young Russian Natives who will have a rather sophisticated understanding of their own heritage.

5. The missionary must have a functional experience and knowledge of Christian love and grace and carefully express it.

6. For the immediate period, we saw a great need for the missionary to be able to live with the grief process the Russian people were experiencing in their political/ economic/ cultural vacuum brought about by the collapse of communism.

7. The missionary will need to be absolutely honest and straightforward about his/her theological differences, while at the same time making it clear that there is no intent to be competitive with the Orthodox Church. This, of course, stresses the need to have some knowledge about the beliefs and functions of the Orthodox Church.

8. In terms of mechanics, it seemed to us that there ought to be a volunteer coordinator for the mission in Nome and Anchorage. It also seemed important that the Executive Committee, of which our survey team actually was, should have oversight of funds with a single account but reporting to each denomination.

9. It also seemed important that a covenant of agreement be forged and adopted, probably between the Executive Committee and Igor Pavlov and Governor Nazarov.

V. The Mission is Launched

Just prior to Christmas 1991, John and Della Waghiyi went to Providenia and began their ministry around that immediate area. They were well received as persons and their message caught on. A few months later Howard Slwooko also went across and ministered at Sireniki. He too had a strong impact upon the people there. And they ministered to him when he became very ill. In due time Tim Gologergen began to go across. Tim and his wife had for many months been hosting Russian Yup’iks in their home at Nome and had established many rich contacts on the other side. Sadly, we learned in 1992 that John Waghiyi was the victim of cancer and died. But it was not until he had opened the doors into the Native community on the Chukotka Peninsula. Of these pioneers in getting the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry started, Willa Roghair also died and then later Howard Slwooko was taken in death. Each of them had a profound impact upon the Russian Natives they sought to serve with the Gospel.

My part of this story ends about here, other than to note that the denominations represented on the survey trip, plus the Lutherans, who had been unable to send someone with us at the time, continue to function. It has been truly an ecumenical experience of loving outreach. The Executive Committee did a lot of coordinating in getting the missionaries back and forth across the Bering Straits. And Tony Krashakov continued to be immensely helpful and supportive. We worked hard at getting denominational support in terms of funding the work, but the administrative work was volunteered. I left Alaska in 1994, just before the exciting evangelism training program took place with Russian delegates being brought to Gambell. That’s a whole new chapter in Mission Come Full Circle.

VI. Conclusion

I would conclude with two comments. The first deals with reality. Our first missionaries have been marvelous men of God whom God has used in mighty ways. These men were seniors, retired men who commanded respect in their cultures. The problem of recruitment of their replacements is a critical point that should concern us as an involved denomination.

I feel it is utterly essential to be searching for Native young people and underwriting their education and preparation for such a ministry. I am greatly encouraged by reports that I hear of some of the people of Gambell picking up the mantle cast by John and Howard. I am even more encouraged to know that women are meeting the challenge, because I believe that very possibly on the other side, women will be key for the spread of the Gospel.

Second, I want to add a note of wonder at God’s grace and providence. When we began to discuss in the Executive Committee what can our missionaries take with them beside Russian Bibles? At that point we realized that David and Mitzi Shinen, Wycliffe Translators, had been working at Gambell and Nome for over 30 years, translating the Siberian Yup’ik language and getting it into a written form. They had already completed some of their work and it was in use among the American Yup’iks on the Island. But there was a problem with their printed material, the format was in Roman characters, most familiar to American Yup'iks. The Russian Yup'iks, on the other hand had their language in written form but with Cyrillic characters which they could read.

God knew long long before that we were going to run into this problem. So he planted the missionary seed in a youngster being raised in California in a Russian household, who spoke only Russian until he was nine years old. That youngster was Dave Shinen. So faced with the challenge and opportunity of getting the Gospel well beyond St. Lawrence Island and back to the place of origin for the people he was serving, Dave was able to take his translation of the Gospel in Yup’ik and shift it to the Cyrillic format for the Russians.

God had clearly prepared the way for Mission Come Full Circle.


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