Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Of reindeer, hunger, and hope

The story of Brevig Mission and Shishmaref Lutheran churches

There had been years of famine in the land. For the Inupiaq, an indigenous people living north of Nome, Alaska, and south of the Arctic Circle, hunger gripped them in the early 1890s.

A government leader and teacher, Sheldon Jackson, suggested that introducing reindeer and reindeer husbandry into these communities might alleviate their suffering. Herds of reindeer were located across the Bering Strait in Siberia. It was also known that Laplanders from the northern regions of Norway had the expertise and skills needed to make the plan work. A hungry people, a herd of reindeer, a government official and Laplanders, three continents, and a variety of languages and cultures were the stuff of legend, of mission and the work of the Holy Spirit.

But, was it a recipe for a church plant?

Susan Tjornehoj

Not yet! It was the spiritual needs of the Laplanders that necessitated the call out to seminarians training at Luther Seminary in St. Paul: “We need a pastor!” So, from across the plains of Montana, a train carrying Pastor T.L. Brevig, his Norwegian bride Julia, a group of Lapland reindeer herders, and a Lutheran deaconess left to meet the hunger of a community on the banks of the Tuxuk and the Bering Sea. This place became Brevig Mission, Alaska, where the first (former) American Lutheran Church (ALC, 1930) congregation in that state began in 1894.

A continuing ministry point

Almost 90 years later, in 1983, a just-married, newly ordained clergy couple left to serve among the Inupiaq (Eskimo) community birthed from the intersection of reindeer and hunger and the Gospel. Elsie Kugzruk, born upriver in an umiak (boat), remembered the missionaries gathering the colorful Lapland reindeer herders into a wall tent singing songs in an unfamiliar language. She told me, one of those newly-minted pastors, that story and described the scene in which she was just a child, outside the tent looking in. Strangers had entered into her world, a vibrant established Inupiaq community, armed with a faith, the gospel, and the skills of reindeer husbandry.

A flu epidemic ravaged the villages of the Seward Peninsula in the years between 1914 and 1918. Trained deaconesses and nurses, young women of faith, were called to tend to the orphaned children left behind. Sister Anna Huseth, Sister Helen Frost, and many others raised the children, tended to the sick, and cared for the spiritual needs of these young Inupiaq at the orphanage in Brevig Mission.

Long before words like cross-cultural and multicultural became fields of study and intent, Brevig Mission and Igloo, Alaska, were a study in cross-cultural ministry. Many of the Inupiaq elders in the village shared stories of these women who taught them to sing hymns in their first language, Norwegian, and to knit colorful gloves and mittens in the patterns brought with them from Norway and Denmark.

Lutheran presence in Alaska

This context is a snapshot of the development of leadership among women in the immigrant Lutheran churches. It was the cry and vision of Sister Anna Huseth and the missionary zeal of the newly formed Lutheran Daughters of the Reformation (LDR) that planted the church in Shishmaref, Alaska, in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Sister Anna knew that there was an entire village that had not yet heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. On one of her furloughs, Sister Anna met with the young women of the church and with the church leaders (at that time only men) and told them of the need for a church in Shishmaref. Out of the offerings of the women, funds were secured to build a church and call a pastor to develop a Lutheran presence in Shishmaref.

Now, almost 120 years later, the communities of faith — in Nome and Teller, Brevig Mission and Wales, Shishmaref and Alaska Native in Anchorage — proclaim the gospel in English and Inupiaq and continue to nurture leaders for their villages and towns and cities and state.

Polar bear are harder to find and the warming of the ice cap means the ocean is rising and taking back the once-thriving village of Shishmaref. A forced migration of people is leaving this island for Brevig Mission, Nome, and Anchorage.

The church has emerged as the primary instrument in helping to preserve the Inupiaq language and culture through the translation of hymns and the exploration of new forms of worship, including traditional dance and drumming. Young adults shaped in these communities of faith take on the challenge of governing their communities for future generations.

Susan Tjornehoj, former pastor of Brevig Mission and Teller Lutheran congregations in Alaska, serves as director of evangelical mission in the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod. (Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”)

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