Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Latter-Day Saints In Bush Alaska Worship; Sister Colleen Marie In Shishmaref Uses Teleconferencing

Sunset in Shishmaref, Alaska on December 21st, 2008 - at 2:49 P.M.

For many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, getting to a place of worship is a snap. In South Jordan, Utah, in addition to LDS chapels on nearly every block, there are three different temples within 15 minutes driving distance of the community. But some in areas not so well favored will complain about having to drive 1-3 hours to get to a temple.

Would you believe there are communities in the United States that are as much as 500 miles away from the nearest chapel? Yes, there are - in Bush Alaska. Most of the villages in Bush Alaska are less than 1,000 in population, far too small to warrant the construction of an LDS chapel. In addition, the LDS population of these villages is grossly insufficient to organize a branch, never mind a ward. Furthermore, Bush Alaska is off the state's road system, accessible only by air, by river, by dogsled, or by snowmachine.

One such location is Shishmaref, Alaska. From this post on the Mormon Mission blog, we learn of the existence of Sister Colleen Marie, a high school teacher who lives in Shishmaref and who documents her experiences on the Cold Hands Warm Heart blog. In a March 4th, 2009 post entitled "Church in the Bush", she points out that there is only one church in town - a Lutheran church. But the lack of a sufficient number of other Mormons in town has not stopped her from worshipping the Lord; she uses teleconferencing. Here's a brief excerpt:

...Some of us, however, are highly attached to our religions, and don't want to leave them behind just because we move to the middle of nowhere. Enter the joy that is teleconferencing.

My little congregation out here consists of people from little villages across the state. There are usually 15-20 families that call in on Sunday morning for Sacrament meeting. By the time we get to Relief Society, there's maybe nine women.

Our branch presidency is based in Anchorage, and the rest of us just call in on teleconference. We can mute ourselves individually, so no one hears us anything going on on our ends. The presidency can also mute all of us, just in case. Prayers and talks are done over the phone, the passing of the sacrament is done in every little town that has a priesthood member. Songs are a little tricky, as there is a bit of a delay over the phones. If we all tried to sing in tune with everyone else, we'd really be behind, and they would hear us even after that. So songs are played at one place, and we all just listen, or sing along without sound on our end.

It's awkward sometimes. I don't ever know if I'm being heard. Maybe I'm just talking to myself here, and everyone else is wondering where I am. I know it doesn't sound like "Mute off" and "Mute on" could be confusing, but it's true, it's sometimes hard to tell them apart.

Colleen Marie also describes everyday life in Bush Alaska. Read this post about grocery shopping, a post about the shortest day of the year (sun barely breaks the horizon), and a post about spring breakup. The cost of living, although offset somewhat by the availability of subsistence hunting, is still significantly higher than in the Railbelt. A typical market basket of groceries can cost twice as much in Bush Alaska as in Anchorage or Fairbanks; fuel costs likewise can be twice as high. Life in Bush Alaska is not for the faint-hearted; it requires imagination, flexibility, and patience.

If and when Sister Colleen Marie - or anyone else in Shishmaref - decides to move to a location on the road network, I doubt that they would complain about having to drive three hours to get to a temple. They would be overcome with joy merely to be able to worship normally in the company of other LDS in a chapel. Their perseverance in serving the Lord under less than ideal conditions is noteworthy.

Shishmaref, locating along the Bering Sea coast (map HERE), is a challenging place to live. Exacerbating the challenge is a consistent problem with beach erosion which threatens the existence of the village. An effort to effect the relocation of Shishmaref from its presently barrier island location to a mainland location is under way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Colleen Marie says:
How did you find me? Who are you? And for the record, I now live in Nome, where I can drive to church, and can see the people in Sunday School looking back. I'm still a plane ride away from the temple.