Patrick HallJanuary 18, 2021
An aerial view of the east fork of the Andreafsky River, Alaska (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite Bible verses comes from the letter of St. Paul to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is neither Jew, nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). Raised Catholic, I was familiar with those words. But it took an unforgettable trip to Alaska for me to appreciate what they might mean in my own life. 

•••

Over 40 years ago, I found myself—a young African-American from upstate New York—teaching at a Yupik Eskimo boarding school in Western Alaska. St. Mary’s Mission School, founded by the Jesuits and staffed by Ursuline sisters, had been a fixture on the Yukon Delta since the early 1900s. The school served the children from small communities all over the region, a remote area dotted with evergreens, ponds and marshes.

I arrived at the mission with other staff on the back of a flatbed truck, which had ferried us from an airstrip out on the tundra. One of those colleagues was John, who grew up in a rural part of upper Michigan. A couple of days after my arrival, I met Moses Fancyboy, a member of the school’s maintenance crew. Moses was a Yupik Eskimo, a very reserved and generous man whose family had a long history with St. Mary’s Mission. 

John, Moses and I could hardly have been more different. We were all raised Roman Catholic, but the similarities ended there. John was extremely talkative and blunt. He would greet everyone at the mission—including the rector and Ursuline sisters, with a hardy “How the hell are you?” I was more of a “Yes father, Yes sister” type. John loved his guns, which he brought with him to the mission, while I shied away from any firearms. John would also let everyone he met know that he was a staunch Republican, which stood out because the overwhelming majority of the staff at the mission, myself included at the time, were quite liberal.

John and I did have one thing in common. Unlike Moses, we were Gusiq, a term Yupik Eskimos used to describe non-Eskimos.

“Here there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” At St. Mary’s Mission, it took me a little time to appreciate the words of St. Paul. 

“There is neither Jew nor Greek”

The main event at the mission every August was the unloading of the supply barges from Seattle. Canned goods, toilet paper, school supplies, fuel, electric generators, cereal, pilot bread, powdered milk, flour, sugar, tons of frozen and dried meats, fruits and vegetables, toothpaste, clothing items—anything that was needed from the lower 48 was on those ships.

We unloaded most of it by hand and with brute strength. The ancient Egyptians would have been proud of some of the more inventive ways the staff, along with John, Moses and I, moved bulkier items like oil barrels and oversized generators off the barges.

It was during those days of toil that we first got to know one another not as white or black or Eskimo—but as Christians.

It was during those days of toil that we first got to know one another not as white or black or Eskimo—but as Christians. Moses talked candidly about his wife and kids and the challenges of family life. He opened up about his faith in God and how it helped him through the shattering experience of losing one of his children in a boating accident on the Yukon River.

We also found out we had something else in common: nuns. Moses shared with us his grade school memories of some very strict French Ursuline sisters, who had come to the mission to start a school back in the 1930s. As he recalled his experiences with the sisters, John and I bonded over the strict—occasionally to a fault—pedagogy that we endured as Catholic school children of the 1950s and ’60s. At the Catholic schools John and I attended in New York and Michigan, the nuns were very conspicuous in their application of Proverb 22:15. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.”

John, Moses and I agreed that the rod was an unwelcome feature of our grade school years. But as adults we looked back with gratitude at what the sisters accomplished in turning a bunch of unruly boys into responsible Christian adults.

“There is neither slave nor free”

Slavery was an unquestioned practice in Jesus’ time. Even the Gospels lack a serious polemic against this peculiar institution. But Paul’s letter to the Galatian community signaled that this world was changing. During a time when hardly anyone would question the right to own a human being, the apostle’s words provided the spark for the spiritual emancipation of humanity.

As an American who happens to be black, I still struggle with beliefs and preconceived attitudes that enslave. For me at St. Mary’s, it was my discomfort with country music, which both John and Moses loved to listen to. Where I came from, we thought people who listened to country music were members of the Klan or some shade of bigot.

Many of my former colleagues would go out of their way not to offend me. But that just wasn’t John.

John did not help things much, because he was hardly what we would call today a strict multiculturalist. He had the tendency to make off-colored jokes about me longing for some stereotypical southern Black cuisines that was not available in Alaska. John even made remarks about interracial relationships upon learning that my spouse, who also served at the mission, was white. John just said things, openly and honestly, that were a part of his upbringing. Many of my former colleagues would go out of their way not to offend me and carefully monitor their political correctness. But that just wasn’t John.

John was also a skilled teacher and extremely patient with the many Eskimo students who struggled with math. I often witnessed John during after-school hours providing extra help to these students. Students would hang out with him in the recreation areas, playing pool, cards and listening to country music, which was constantly streaming from the dorm’s jukebox. Maybe because of his crass, unfiltered way of speaking, students felt more comfortable going to John just to talk and communicate some of their concerns. Many of our students were often homesick and found a personal bond with John that I was never able to develop with them.

Despite John’s personal foibles and maybe because of them, we became close friends. And through this friendship I was gradually converted to country music which, if you really listen, is just storytelling at its finest.

“You are all one in Christ Jesus”

During my time living in St. Mary’s, I was captivated by the culture of Yupik Eskimos. The other staff members and I had many opportunities to enjoy Yuraqing, the traditional Yupik dance celebrations. We dined on Yupik Eskimo foods such as akutaq (Eskimo ice cream), fertile eggs, frozen fish, seal, as well as different types muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber). I was fascinated by the guttural intonations of the Yupik language and even picked up a little.

But the lesson that sticks with me the most, 43 years later, is that, whether we are black, Eskimo, or white, human beings will always be more similar than different. It is the one truth that I taught my now eight adult children and their grandchildren. And as a nation increasingly divided by identity politics, it is a truth we desperately need to embrace.

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