Indigenous communities around the globe share a common understanding that we are interconnected. We need each other to survive. And the “we” is expansive—it includes all creation, those who came before us and those yet to come. That understanding requires us to care for one another, acting with an abundance of love. This is an understanding that Jesus, who was Indigenous, commanded us to live by.
Though most people in the world can meet their needs by simply purchasing goods, the Inupiaq people living in villages on the Seward Peninsula still rely on each other for survival. Some of these villages have as few as 160 residents, only a few have running water, and there are a limited number of paying jobs. Due to the remoteness and weather conditions, the villages can be accessed only by plane, snowmobile or dogsled. Since most household necessities must be shipped in, the cost of living is high. As Bryan Weyauvanna, who grew up in Shishmaref and Nome, said, “Life up here is tough.”
The people survive this “tough” life by practicing a traditional subsistence lifestyle: hunting, fishing, gathering, creating and bartering. Shannon Klescewski, who grew up in Teller, told me that her son was going to hunt walrus and would give the first animal to the community elders.
He talked about dreams and their importance, encouraging others in the room, especially the younger ones, to share.
It’s no surprise that the people of the Seward Peninsula draw on the traditional values of community, relying on one another and the world to provide for them. What might come as a surprise to some is that many of the Inupiaq people on the peninsula are Lutheran.
The congregations are organized into the Seward Peninsula Lutheran Conference (SPLC), which consists of five majority-Inupiaq congregations on the peninsula plus Alaska Native Lutheran Church of Anchorage. Weyauvanna is the president of SPLC (as well as its endowment fund organization, the Seward Peninsula Lutheran Ministries). Since the 1940s the congregations have traditionally gathered every year for their Spring Conference, five days of worship and fellowship.
I was invited to attend this April’s conference, the first since 2019. As I stepped off the tiny bush plane onto the frozen tundra, I had to catch my breath. The wind was fierce, and the temperature was hovering around 5 degrees Fahrenheit despite the sunshine and blue sky. I could see for miles in any direction—snowy, rolling hills to the north; a frozen Bering Sea to the south; and, to the west, the village of Brevig Mission.
Days are for community
In a village of about 400 residents, there aren’t a lot of public spaces. Brevig Memorial Lutheran is the only church there, which means that for major life events, the people turn to its pastor, Brian Crockett.
While I was there, Crockett, who also serves Teller Lutheran Church, invited me to join him as he visited a woman grieving a family member who had recently died. We arrived, were welcomed in and sat comfortably around the kitchen table as our host and Crockett shared stories about loved ones. There was a lot of laughter and comfort at that table.
Time moves differently in these communities. Because people care for each other more than productivity, you don’t feel a sense of obligation to be there and you never feel the need to rush. It was so familiar to me. I felt as if I were sitting in my grandmother’s house on the reservation.
I felt it again when Weyauvanna, who was raised by his “old school” grandmother, began sharing stories that had been passed down to him. He told us about when the first pastor came to Nome, bringing Christianity. He talked about dreams and their importance, encouraging others in the room, especially the younger ones, to share.
One day Klescewski hosted a women’s Bible study. She led us in a discussion of Scripture and then had the group do some beading. Our intimate group included an infant and the two generations of women who came before her, as well as the oldest elder in Brevig Mission. Klescewski later shared with me that she was glad she’d thought of the beading because it “made them feel comfortable, and that was awesome.”
Evenings are for song
Evenings at the conference are dedicated to song. People spread out in rows of chairs, wearing a mix of traditional and modern attire: store-bought and handcrafted parkas, sneakers and sealskin mukluks (boots), casual flannel and colorful kuspuks (hooded overgarments). A room full of people chatting, laughing, embracing. Children run out of the church to play in the cold, only to return a few minutes later out of breath and with rosy cheeks.
One Bible verse guides each gathering, with a new preacher and a new perspective shared every night. Crockett, guitar in hand, accompanies the host choir for their first song. In turn and for several rounds, each of the congregations’ choirs sings a different hymn. For various reasons the songs held great importance.
“The songs that we sing can maybe help somebody in their time of need.”
Shelley Wickstrom, who has attended many Spring Conferences over her 11 years as bishop of the Alaska Synod, reflected on the significance of the many hymns that were sung in both English and Inupiaq: “The fact that we’re singing translated songs is everyone’s effort to contribute toward the preservation of the language. There are people who, because they’ve sung the translated songs, their ear is just more attuned to learn Inupiaq as a daily spoken language. It is really important.”
Singing together is fun, intergenerational and community-building. Weyauvanna not only helped lead worship but sang with almost every group. “I try to be a steady bass singer so that the young basses can feel more confident to just sing,” he said. For him the lyrics are as important as the singers. “I want people to hear the lyrics,” he added. “The songs that we sing can maybe help somebody in their time of need.”
Throughout the service, people were invited to write notes with prayer and song requests. The song requests were often in memory of a loved one. Philip Hirsch, executive director of Christian Community and Leadership, was particularly moved by this practice. “They remembered them singing that song,” he said. “Singing it again in remembrance of them brought back their memory. I felt that. The way people talked about that person and invited the family and friends to come sing that song, I thought that was tender and true and joyful.”
I was grateful for the opportunity to attend the Spring Conference. These vibrant ministries bring great value to the ELCA and the wider church. Lisa Smith Fiegel, the synod’s director for evangelical mission, said the ministries “have made a real difference in our synod, helping us understand the gospel, testimony, hospitality. We’re a better synod for the contributions made by our siblings from the Seward Peninsula.”
Much like the lives spent in these communities, the Seward Peninsula Spring Conference is a beautiful combination of Inupiaq and English, the traditional and the religious, the harmonies and the memories. And all Lutheran.