Two Reflections On A Missionary Trip
By Michaelyn Sloan
Peering out the window of the small village church of Ouzinkie before morning prayer, I found a picturesque scene - a small graveyard with individual graves adorned with large wooden Orthodox crosses perched on a hillside overlooking the ocean with lush green islands in the background. I couldn’t help but reflect on what a perfect site the founders had chosen for this place of worship on Spruce Island, home of St. Herman of Alaska.
In preparation for our mission trip here I had read a book about how Orthodoxy had come to Alaska and the work of St. Herman. It was a time of vibrancy with thousands of Native Alaskans baptized into the faith and the Church an integral part of life in the villages and later cities of Alaska.
The beautiful church in Ouzinkie was once part of this dynamic time of growth and life in our faith. Now, islanders reported that a few adults attended the Reader’s services on Sundays, as well as the weekly Akathist to St. Herman each Thursday (a common practice throughout Alaska), but other than an occasional baptism or funeral by a visiting cleric, the church was silent.
I found myself reflecting back to another early summer morning in 2010 when I stood outside of what was once Christendom’s most magnificent church in the world, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. I had visited this church 35 years earlier during which time minimum restoration of the iconography had begun. At that time it looked like the mosque that it had become but now it was unmistakable with the large renovation program going on that beneath the plaster laid a once beautiful Orthodox church.
I would be returning home in a few days to my family……..to my own Orthodox parish in the Midwest, or “lower 48” as the Alaskans called it. A Spirit filled temple of people who loved the Lord, embraced our faith of Apostolic succession and brought their individual spiritual gifts together to “grow” this House of God. How easy it was to take this for granted. How easily lost could once vibrant bastions of our faith become. I had first-hand experience - I was standing in the midst in of St. Herman’s earthly home in Alaska and had stood in the midst of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
It was the close of day # 3 in the village of Ouzinkie, Alaska. Our previous days had been filled with morning prayer, and Orthodox Vacation Bible School, afternoon games, crafts, hikes, swimming, evening Compline service, beach bonfires, late night fellowship and of course preparation and clean-up of three meals and snacks daily.
I have never been one to label a Church program’s success by the numbers attended, always bearing in mind that Christ started out with only 12 disciples. My own experiences in volunteering in mission and secular humanitarian programs abroad had attested to the fact that sometimes it was a matter of just being present and doing the work that laid before us and not measure the outcome quantitatively.
Nevertheless, I found myself pondering about the work behind and that ahead of our mission team before our return to Kodiak, Alaska where we would debrief prior to our return home. Our prior focus had been one of teaching. Our theme for the week was “We are the Church. We are the Body Christ.” I wondered, had we been successful in conveying this teaching to the youth and adults we encountered? Had we made a difference – spiritually?
The next day – day #4 – as we said the Our Father prayer during the baptism of three of the children we had taught that week and had asked to be baptized, one phrase suddenly stood out -
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth, As it is in Heaven.”
The baptisms were obviously part of His will along with the some of the other tangible “successes” we witnessed. But in the end it came down to some basic truths: It’s His Kingdom. It’s His will – not ours. Only He knows!