When I was discussing the idea of a blog post with my beloved cousin, Beth Ringsmuth, on how Stephen and I keep ending up on the arctic island of St. Lawrence, I told her I was having trouble with finding a place to start that wasn’t, “So I was born early the morning of August 13, 1978.” I can see God’s hand in making me the person that makes the decisions I do since as far back as I can remember. In fact, I can see it in my parents and my grandparents, and for generations before them. I was raised by people who were raised by people, who were raised by people who were committed to following the Lord and sharing his love with others regardless of where that brought them. It goes almost without saying that there were deviations along that path for me and for my family, but the legacy left to me by them is one of service and of using our blessings to reach out to the downtrodden of any kind.
So, I went on “mission” to India with my grandparents in early 1994, and then to Russia in the summer of 1994 with my family and a good friend. I’ve worked with kids in the inner city here in Atlanta, and supported local and foreign ministries through my church and extended family. Then last year I worked in Ethiopian slums with my cousin Jessica, and most recently, missions-type work (along with vacationing) in Argentina with Stephen over the last few years. Much of this work is just random stuff that pops up, and I have the major blessing of jumping in to fill a need. . .And then there’s the work we do in Alaska.
Three-and-half years ago this idea of Alaska missions was presented directly to Stephen and me. A pioneer trip needed to be made to one of two, small, Siberian Yupic (Eskimo) villages on the Island of St. Lawrence in the Baring Sea, quite near to Russia. We would fly progressively smaller airplanes from Atlanta to Nome, Alaska, and then take a bush flight out to an airstrip that ends in a village with no cars to bring us to the ancient church building we would stay in. Only 4 wheelers and snow machines are able to maneuver the difficult terrain of an island on which people still live off the berries and greens on the tundra, and its land and sea life. A few people from our church had witnessed the needs in Northern Alaska among native populations for handymen, carpenters, and community outreach to encourage women and children. Addictions and abuse of all kinds are rampant as a result of some tragic historical events I want to be careful not to exploit publically. A vision needed to be established for how our church could be used to build long-term relationships with the local people and kindle a flame within the local church to make it self-sufficient.
That first trip was bare-bones mission work in the village of Savoonga. We went in there with some food, and the clothes on our back. We used materials we could scavenge from the church or around town to do some light-construction on homes in great need of drastic repairs. We visited with and prayed for the local people who have endured a long history of negative and even horrifying experiences with missionaries and church leaders. God has been demonstrated to them as a purely angry, vengeful God who wishes to punish them into submission. They were mystified by these new missionaries who smile, hug, pray, encourage, feed and lend a helping hand. The hardened hearts of those who stood back and watched with great, and totally justified, skepticism, began to soften, and in the first trip, locals moved in for a closer look.
The following 2 years, Stephen went to the other village, Gambell, on the very tip of St. Lawrence Island. From it you can see the mountains of Eastern Russia where their ancestors came from and their cousins still live. Stephen and a couple of his buddies worked their tails off serving the people by making simple, but often life-changing repairs to their homes. Most on the island lack the know-how to make even the most basic home repair, but time is spend teaching and showing people how to become self-sufficient in their own homes. The children were loved with fruit (sent in by Stephen and I and others who donate to the cause from our church) and healthy play from trustworthy men.
I was unable to go on those trips because of the concern that I would be left alone while the men worked on homes. No other woman was willing and able to go those years, but this year God put it on the hearts of not one, but 6 other ladies to go with me, including an amazing, godly, heroic, local Eskimo woman named Dorcas we got to know on our first trip in 2012, who now lives in Nome, Alaska.
By early spring of this year 8 men and most of the women were committed to the 4th trip our church was doing on St. Lawrence. The locals largely live off the land, and the local store is hit-or-miss with an incredibly expensive assortment of items that make it impossible to plan consistent meals for anyone not accustomed to eating whale or walrus. With me able to go on the trip, we decided rather than hiring an Alaskan missions organization to prepare and bring our food for us, we could plan for and bring that on our own too. The logistics of 4 days just for travel to and from Gambell for a total of 14 people, bedding, food for 6 days, and the gathering and packing of tools and materials needed for home repairs, among about a million other details and pre-trip meetings and phone calls, had Stephen working with every moment he could give for months to make it all happen. The new influx of women on the trip meant supplies and plans had to be made for outreach to woman and VBS for children. Plumbing for sewage is not available in the section of town where the Gambell church building sits, so work went into arranging access to flush toilets for the women, while supplies for a home-depot bucket, bathroom situation for the men were also flown in. This is just the tip of the nearby iceberg, but hopefully the readers of this blog entry are beginning to realize the logistical miracle pulling this trip off was for those involved.
Let’s jump back for a minute and think about the lives we are leaving behind for this trip. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I can speak to Stephen’s career, limited vacation time, and our 4 young children among many other responsibilities that must be considered and closely managed. Our children sacrifice for this trip too. They have to give up some financial flexibility due to the cost of the trip as well as prep and travel time with Stephen and I without growing bitter or feeling sorry for themselves, and that requires visiting and revisiting the reasons why family sacrifices like these are worth it. When a child is pouting because they are told “No” to a new pool toy or day at a trampoline gym with their friends because Alaska must be paid for, or when they are having to entertain themselves at home for pre-trip shopping trips, phone calls and then ultimately two weeks without us for the actual trip, it takes time to walk them back through the reasons it’s worth the sacrifice.
Christ did so much for us in laying down his life for a world filled with hopeless failures, during such a brutal moment in history, in order to bring us redemption, hope, peace, strength. . . We must be careful never to feel sorry for ourselves for sacrificing Earth’s temporary comforts for an opportunity to share our blessings with a message of hope to those God puts in our lives. Sometimes that’s as simple as taking a meal across the street, but sometimes it gets more complicated. If you’re a “believer”, there is only room for gratitude that God puts us in a place to bless others despite our natural depravity. We struggle with depression, insecurities, a compulsion to lie or lust or have bad attitudes about this and that, and then God says, “Remember how my love and mercy are enough to cover for all of that? Go tell those people about my redeeming and perfectly, excessively overflowing love to them right where they are.” In consideration of that, giving into fear or a temptation to feel self-pity is a victory for the Enemy of any work of redemption or ministry to a world who is desperate to see the grace and mercy of a loving God.
If you ask my kids, they already get it. If you catch them when they are in the mood to talk about it, they will actually beam with joy over how excited they are to be a part of it all. We have them help pack and sort and pray. Oh, and do they ever take the part they play in prayer seriously. Just because they are children doesn’t mean they are impotent to help carry the message of love and hope to others. They are part of this with us. They are already empowered to serve and see the most satisfying fruits of their sacrifices.
Well, I think that brings me up to the actual details of this year’s trip and ends part one of “How the Heck Does a Georgian Homeschool Mom and a Software Consultant Keep Ending Up in Arctic Alaska?” The details of the trip itself knock my socks off. What happened there was so ginormously bigger than me or any of us on our team that it speaks for itself of a God who is so present in our lives that he could never be denied or argued away by any brainiac atheist. Undeniable. I am changed again. Till part two. . .
(Here are a few photos, but many more are available if you want to contact me directly.)