The idea that climate change is a political issue or a matter of debate makes no sense, said Thomas Richter, pastor of Shishmaref Lutheran, the only congregation in the Alaskan village.

“This is not a question that my people struggle with,” Richter said. “We are too busy wondering how we can eat, what we can do with no sea ice, and what will be the future of our way of life. There is nothing political about our homes collapsing into the ocean or the thinness of the sea ice, whose thickness we depend on for food and protection from the storms. There’s just suffering.”

The island, located north of the Bering Strait, is about a quarter-mile wide and 2 1/2 miles long. It’s being gobbled up by flooding and erosion attributed to climate change.

“We’re really only two good storms from being completely underwater,” Richter said.

In a move that caused division, residents voted in August to relocate their entire community to the mainland about 5 miles away. The decision, which carried by 11 votes, thrust Shishmaref into the national spotlight. Residents have become known as “climate refugees.”

“Many of the older generation have not lived anywhere else their whole lives and do not plan to,” Richter said. “Many of the younger generation are frustrated with the insecurity of life here and are ready to try somewhere else. The hope with the vote to leave is that we can do something to preserve our culture and our way of life before … we are forced to be scattered to the world.”

Residents, of which there are about 600, were caught in a catch-22, Richter said. If they voted to stay, they might have received more funding for basic needs, including central plumbing. But the reality is, he said, even if they received the money, they might end up having to leave anyway.

“There is no money either way,” Richter said. “We do not have the money to relocate. … Before we were climate refugees, we were already Native Americans. People here already feel largely ignored, forgotten and betrayed by our government. Add to that the way America is currently leaning toward refugees, [and] it doesn’t look hopeful that this new name of refugee will give us any different treatment.”

Richter said one of his primary roles is to provide space for people to grieve and to feed residents both physically and spiritually.

The lack of sea ice makes hunting for seal, the primary food source, almost impossible. This year the ocean has frozen only twice. It used to be that it would freeze and stay that way all winter. With no sea ice, there are no seal.

“That simple math leaves us with food scarcity and a deep mourning for the way life used to be,” Richter said.

Shishmaref Lutheran, which averages about 50 parishioners in worship every Sunday, is networking with the ELCA and other churches to help in small ways during the meantime. When the relocation and expansion efforts start in earnest, the church will be there to do anything it can to bridge the distance, Richter said.

“The people of Shishmaref don’t have the luxury of considering climate change from a political perspective,” said Shelley Wickstrom, bishop of the Alaska Synod. “Regardless of how we explain the disappearance of winter ice, coastal people face food insecurity because of the lack of ice and its impact on walrus.”

When Shishmaref Lutheran moves, Wickstrom said the synod will raise funds for a new church and parsonage.

Not everyone sees what’s happening as something negative. Archie Kiyutelluk, 46, a musician at Shishmaref Lutheran and a congregation council member, is one of them. He doesn’t like being portrayed as a “victim.” He praises the warmer weather and longer summers for gathering plants and berries.

“Some may say [and] think we are in dire trouble because of climate change, but I think we are doing OK,” Kiyutelluk said. “We can continue to trust God will always be there for us in all situations and he will continue to bless us with what we have—our land, our community and our lives.”

For a related story on the ELCA’s advocacy work with Shishmaref, read “Shisharmef: Called to care.”


Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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