Written by: John O'Keefe
Last week I went to Bethel, Alaska to visit my daughter Erin. She moved up there 18 months ago to do a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and decided to stick around another year, maybe two. I had a lot of frequent flyer miles, so off I went.
Bethel is far away in more ways than one. Situated 400 miles west of Anchorage in “Bush” Alaska, there are no roads in or out. The only way to get to Bethel is by plane (year round) and by boat up the Kuskokwim River in the summer. It takes a long time to get there, almost as long as it takes to get the Europe. But, Bethel also feels like another country. Whenever I got out my wallet, I felt surprised that they took dollars. It’s also really cold, at least in the winter. One day the wind chill dipped to -67 Fahrenheit. That was pretty nasty. Undeterred, the Bethelites bundled up and went out on the frozen river to watch the finish of the annual dog sled race, the Kuskokwim 300. Mushers are local heros.
The Jesuits (and the Jesuit Volunteers) minister in Western Alaska in service to the native Yup’ik population. The Yup’ik are a soft-spoken and very interesting people, many of whom still live a quasi-subsistence lifestyle heavily dependent upon hunting and fishing. However, their communities also suffer from the same social ills that plague other native groups in the lower 48. So, the ministries there resemble the Jesuit/Ignatian ministries in South Dakota on the Rosebud reservation. It’s good work and consistent with the Ignatian commitment to the work of social justice.
Perhaps the most salient feature of my time in Bethel, though, was a powerful sense of community. This must surely be one of the reasons every year some of the Jesuit Volunteers, like my daughter, decide to stay even after their year of service is completed and even in this harsh climate. My daughter has no television, the town only has one radio station, my cell phone did not work, and for internet access I had to walk across the frozen tundra to the local community center, which I did once a day. So, I had a lot of down time, and I was suddenly and blessedly free from the relentless barrage of information that constantly invades my life. Stepping out of the plane into Bethel is like stepping back in time to a slower paced and more humane form of life. Community happens naturally there in a way that is perhaps impossible even in a moderate-sized city like Omaha where calendars and schedules rule. Bethel is a time machine or an artifact or both.
On Friday night — before it got really cold – the town turned out on the ice road/Kuskokwim River to send off the mushers. We watched the dogs pull the sleds into the darkness, then went in for tea, warming our toes by the heater, the noise of modernity inaudible and nearly forgotten.