Kabloona, religion, and the far reaches of the world

From the beginning of Kabloona:

In the spring of 1938 I stood one afternoon before the house of the Oblate Fathers in the Rue de l’Assomption in Paris. The day was fine, the street deserted and still, the house-front blank with that anonymity characteristic the world over of the city dwellings of priestly communities. I was about to embark upon a long trek into what was for me the unknown. If those within were willing to help me, my first step would be taken without stumbling. If not… well, I should go forward somehow. …

There I stood, then, with my finger on the bell at the door of the Oblate Fathers. It is the particular mission of the Oblate Fathers to evangelize the most distant and disinherited peoples of the earth. For generations, Christian priests have gone out of this house to the confines of the world–to central Africa, to the Brazilian jungles, to the Arctic. Here in this house you would not have guessed it. Not a footfall sounded, not a map hung on a wall. Someone, a shadow, had opened a door and vanished, shutting the door behind me. I stood alone in an old-fashioned reception room, waiting in the company of three green chairs and, on the wall, the enlarged photograph of a dead bishop.

A man came in: obviously a religious, and one look at his face and bearing told me that he was a chief. He signed to me to it down, and we sat in two of the three straight-backed chairs. Without a preliminary word, I blurted out the purpose of my visit, which was to go live with the Eskimos. Not those of Greenland, who, I gathered, were domesticated under governmental tutelage; nor those of Alaska, who carved souvenirs for tourists; but the Canadian Eskimos, those of the Central Arctic who, because they inhabited regions so emote and difficult to reach, still lived their primitive life of thousands of years ago, knowing of the white men only an occasional solitary missionary. I knew that their islands in the Glacial Ocean formed part of the immense diocese of that Oblate father who was celebrated in Canada as the “The Bishop of the Wind”; that the bishop toured his diocese in his own airplane’ and what I wanted was to be flown in by the bishop. Could the Oblate Fathers help me to realize my wish?

The man had not stirred. A proposal that had seemed to me, as I made it, monstrous, childish in its effrontery, seemed to him entirely normal. You have only to write the bishop,” he said in a curiously depersonalized voice, “He will reply.” As if the Arctic lay round the corner! This was my first lesson in humility, and I had been taught it even before leaving Paris. In a single word this religious, for whom neither time nor space existed, had reduced my vainglorious project to the dimensions of a Sunday picnic. But the bishop did not know me, I had ventured to say; the recommendation of the House would perhaps be necessary…. With a wave of the hand my objection was dismissed. “Not at all. It will be much better if you write direct. Here is the address. Good afternoon.” And silently this imperturbable servant of Christ had left me, shutting himself back into that eternity out of which he  had for an instant emerged.

It was in April that I wrote, addressing my letter to the bishop’s episcopal seat at Fort Smith, on the sixtieth parallel. At the end of May came the bishop’ reply. His Grace would be pleased to fly me in, provided there was space’ “for,” he wrote, “the plane is small and there will be another passenger. Meet me at McMurray, in northern Alberta, at the beginning of July.” …

I had left Paris on June 11, 1938.* It was on the 9th of July that I took off from Fort McMurray with Bishop Breynat, his chaplain, and Bisson, his pilot. … As the plane rose above the tree-tops Bisson made a sign with his hand; we fell back, and I, looking behind, saw the chaplain purple with tenseness and the bishop quietly absorbed in his breviary. …

In this wise I saw Goldfields born and die again, where the bishop left, by way of a gift, a haunch of beef. I saw Fond-du-Lac spring into existence and then vanish, where, on a little knoll, Brother Cadoret knelt, and the Indians with him, to kiss the bishop’s ring. It was there that an Indian had ventured to speak to the bishop.

“You go to see the Great Seated One,”–the Pope–he said. “Take him this, and when you have seen him, pray for Higine.” He had put three dollars into the bishop’s hand; and as we sat again in the plan and the earth darkened and the lakes below us shone like metal in the darkening earth, the bishop still held in his hand the three dollars, forgetting in his emotions to put them into his purse. …

We had flown fifteen hundred miles when I saw one night, shining in the Arctic sun, a pool bigger than any I had seen before. This was the sea, the Glacial Ocean. Again the pilot dived, again a little cluster of huts sprang up; and exactly at midnight on the 14th of July, I was set down in Coppermine. Father Delalande took us to his mission house, and without a word the old bishop climbed the wooden ladder into the attic and went to bed Next day he was off. He had done what he could for me in dropping me here at the last outpost of civilization.

*The Nazis occupied Paris on June 14th, 1940.

From Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC:

In the dark we were greeted by the priests in the mission. Before we could even say something they said “Il faut rien dire, on comprend!” – “No need to talk, we understand”. They were friendly and gave us a bucket of water to wash in. We could park the car in their garden. We closed our tent at midnight. The adrenaline was still rushing trough our veins. …

The mission is at the same time a (boarding) school. … The priests (Brothers actually) are nice guys. There are 4 of them, young and smart. All of them have studied in Lubumbashi or Kinshasa. After they finished the seminary they were sent to a mission. They cannot choose which one. We could hear the sadness in their voices when they told their stories.

They sampled the “world” when studying, they have a degree (one of them had a masters in engineering) and then they are sent to a mission. They know they will probably never have the chance again to live in a city. At the mission they take care of the kids, teach, etc.. A noble and rewarding job. But they carry all this knowledge that they cannot put in practice here. They have no computers, no tools, no electricity, no budget, …

The priest-engineer was setting up a project to generate clean energy from a river. He had a recycling project. A radio project. An irrigation project, … He had to run all these projects without any funds, without material. So many ideas, so little chances. …

Thus far the missions were havens of peace and quiet. Were things were functional (sometimes) and clean (sometimes). Not so at the home of Frère Louis. He lived like the Congolese lived… in a rundown building without any comfort. He had a bathroom that hadn’t seen a brush in ages,.. . It struck us as a bit odd, but later we would understand that Frère Louis is one of these rare people that does not care about himself, but only about the others. We would meet Frère Louis later on this trip and everything would become clear then.

He was well organized though. He was the only one in town with transportation … He uses this truck to get supplies from Lubumbashi to all of the project he is running in the area. The big wheels, the portle axles and the huge winch make it a capable bundybasher. …

While we were there several people came to visit. Among them was a friendly older lady. She had beautiful (homemade) clothes. She was responsible for the orphanage that was run by Frère Louis. …

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

There is much more, but I have quoted too much already. You can read it all on Frederick and Josephine’s thread.

According to the Orthodox Church in America website:

Several centuries later, two monks, Hourg and Barsanuphii, journeyed east to Kazan, capital of the Tartars, learned the Tartar language, and established a monastic community for the conversion of the Mongol peoples. St Stephen of Perm (1340-96), another monk, would in turn journey beyond Kazan, across the Ural Mountain, into the forests of Siberia to labor among the pagan Zyrians. There Stephen devised a Zyrian alphabet, translated the Gospel, and subsequently converted an entire people. This model of monastic evangelization became the pattern for other Russian Orthodox missionaries as they trekked ever eastward, eventually establishing a network of missions across Siberia and along the entire Pacific Rim: in China (1686), Alaska (1794), Japan (1861), and Korea (1898). The eight Orthodox monks who arrived in Alaska in 1794 were simply part of this centuries-old missionary heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church.

From the Wikipedia, on the history of the Orthodox Church in America:

Russian traders settled in Alaska during the 18th century. In 1740, a Divine Liturgy was celebrated on board a Russian ship off the Alaskan coast. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries—among them Saint Herman of Alaska – to establish a formal mission in Alaska. Their missionary endeavors contributed to the conversion of many Alaskan natives to the Orthodox faith. A diocese was established, whose first bishop was Saint Innocent of Alaska. The headquarters of this North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was moved from Alaska to California around the mid-19th century.

Abbot Nazarius of Valaamo Monastery blesses missionaries leaving for America, at the direction of the Empress Catherine the Great.
Abbot Nazarius of Valaamo Monastery blesses missionaries leaving for America, at the direction of the Empress Catherine the Great. source

On Saint Herman:

Saint Herman of Alaska
Saint Herman of Alaska

The Shelikhov-Golikov Company appealed to the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to provide a priest for the natives [of Alaska]. Catherine the Great decided instead to send an entire mission to America. She entrusted the task of recruiting missionaries to Metropolitan Gabriel of St. Petersburg, who sent ten monks from Valaam, including Herman.[14] The missionaries arrived on Kodiak on September 24, 1794.[15]

Herman and the other missionaries encountered a harsh reality at Kodiak that did not correspond to Shelikhov’s rosy descriptions. The native Kodiak population, called “Americans” by the Russian settlers, were subject to harsh treatment by the Russian-American Company, … The monks themselves were not given the supplies that Shelikhov promised them,[17] and had to till the ground with wooden implements.[18] Despite these difficulties, the monks managed to baptize over 7,000 natives in the Kodiak region, and set about building a church and monastery. Herman was assigned in the bakery and acted as the mission’s steward (ekonom).[19]

… After over a decade spent in Alaska, Herman became the head of the mission in 1807, although he was not ordained to the priesthood. The local population loved and respected him, and he even had good relations with Baranov.[22] Herman ran the mission school, where he taught church subjects such as singing and catechism alongside reading and writing. He also taught agriculture on Spruce Island.[23]

Herman moved to Spruce Island around 1811 to 1817.[25] The island is separated from Kodiak by a mile-wide strait, making it ideal for eremetic life. Herman named his hermitage “New Valaam.” He wore simple clothes and slept on a bench covered with a deerskin. When asked how he could bear to be alone in the forest, he replied, “I am not alone. God is here, as God is everywhere.”[26]

Despite his solitary life, he soon gained a following. He received many visitors—especially native Aleuts—on Sundays and church feasts. Soon his hermitage had next to it a chapel and guesthouse, and then a school for orphans.[7] Herman had a few disciples, including the Creole orphan Gerasim Ivanovich Zyrianov, a young Aleut woman named Sofia Vlasova, and others. Entire families moved in order to be closer to the Elder, who helped to sort out their disputes.[27] Herman had a deep love for the native Aleuts: he stood up for them against the excesses of the Russian-American Company, and once during an epidemic he was the only Russian to visit them, working tirelessly to care for the sick and console the dying.[7][28] Herman spent the rest of his life on Spruce Island, where he died on November 15, 1836.[29]

In 1812, Russian’s most southerly colony in the New World became Fort Ross, California:

The reconstructed Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross, CA, photo by Introvert
The reconstructed Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross, CA, photo by Introvert

From the Wikipedia Page on Russian colonization of the NW:

In 1920 a one-hundred pound bronze church bell was unearthed[by whom?] in an orange grove near Mission San Fernando Rey de España in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. It has an inscription in the Russian language (translated here): “In the Year 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Juvenaly of Alaska, during the sojourn of Alexander Andreyevich Baranov.” How this Russian OrthodoxKodiak church artifact from Kodiak Island in Alaska arrived at a Roman Catholic Mission Church in Southern California remains unknown.

Saint Peter the Aleut
Saint Peter the Aleut

Unfortunately, the Catholics and Orthodox didn’t always get along so well in California, as in the case of Saint Peter the Aleut, tortured and murdered by the Spaniards in 1815.

Even the Jews have their missions:

Non-Jews Help Jump-Start New Chabad Center in Alaska: A warm welcome in wintry Wasilla from the entire community

When Rabbi Mendy and Chaya Greenberg moved into their new home on a quiet dirt road in Wasilla, Alaska, one week before the High Holidays, they received a different kind of welcome.

A crew of local residents—almost all of them not Jewish—descended upon their house to unpack boxes, sweep, clean and arrange furniture. In fact, with just hours left before the onset of Shabbat, they even purchased and set up a brand-new dining-room table around which the couple would celebrate the holy day.

Who is this group of helpful denizens, and why have they raised thousands of dollars and volunteered countless hours for a Jewish group?

The answer lies with Ruthann Crosby-Cleeves, a local chaplain who leads “ChessedAlaska,” an organization dedicated to teaching the Seven Noahide Laws—the universal values of the Torah—to non-Jewish people.

And in Nepal:

On the sixth day since a massive earthquake crumbled buildings and shook mountains in the impoverished country of Nepal—before recent warnings of a new earthquake to come forced everyone back indoors—the focus of Chabad’s efforts have been concentrated on providing sustained humanitarian aid to thousands of people who have lost everything in the rubble. …

The delegation brought hygiene supplies, hot meals, fresh water and fruit.

“Tiny babies are thirsty for water, their eyes empty and dead, their small faces wizened like those of old people,” continues Lifshitz. “Wherever we went, people fell on our necks, begging for some food, for more water. We promised them that we would not forget them. We will be back tomorrow, and then again, the day after tomorrow. We will be there for the as long as they need us.”

Just before she left to return to the Chabad House, Lifshitz recalls that a woman with a pinched, wrinkled face approached her. “All she wanted was a hug,” she says. “We hugged for a very long time. Her tears remained on my shoulder long after we parted ways. How much strength did I get from that single hug…”

Rabbi Kotlarsky distributing food after the Nepal Earthquake, 2015 (photo courtesy Chabad.)
Rabbi Kotlarsky distributing food after the Nepal Earthquake, 2015 (photo courtesy Chabad.)
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