This article was written by Sharon Dewey Hetke on behalf of the Council of the North.
In the Yukon community of Old Crow, Bishop Larry Robertson hears the snow crunch under his boots as he walks to the community hall. On this -43 C evening, there is a fog in the air that you can cut with a knife. Following several days of pastoral visitation, Bishop Larry is on his way to another service, part of a triad of weekend events—a Saturday funeral, Holy Communion on Sunday morning and now this community healing service.
Old Crow has seen little of the sun on this day—sunrise was at 12:29 p.m. and sunset at 2:20. But when Bishop Larry enters the community hall, the warmth and light dispel the cold and darkness outside. Bishop Larry describes the hall: “All around the room are pictures of elders who have died.” This reminds him of Hebrews 11, of “a great crowd of witnesses surrounding us.” In a few minutes, the prayers and praises of the community will join with those of the elders and saints who have gone before.
This community has suffered greatly over the past year, with several untimely and tragic deaths. But it is also a community with a “strong spiritual past they can call upon” in times of death and grief, says Bishop Larry.
The Rev. Laurie Munro knows this community well. She has been rector of St. Paul’s in Dawson and St. Luke’s, Old Crow, since September 2011, and visits Old Crow monthly. She is thankful for St. Luke’s ministry team, led by Deacon Marion Schafer, which holds weekly services and provides ongoing pastoral care. Munro says that, along with looking to family and friends, Old Crow residents do look to God and the church for support. She describes a recent funeral she officiated for a young man, after which “many house blessings were requested and many people asked for prayer in their homes and on the telephone.” She says “people opened their hearts to God and asked for his power to fill and heal them.”
This growing openness was encouraged by a service this past summer on the Sunday before Old Crow hosted a Gwich’in gathering. Munro says, “Gary Simple from Alaska played guitar and led the singing. I officiated and prayed with the people. Both Gary and I spoke about God’s healing work.” Since then, the people of Old Crow have asked for more services like it and, in early January, “God’s timing brought things together,” says Munro.
The service began quietly with several gospel songs and a teaching time on forgiveness and the path to hope. Those gathered then shared Holy Communion and were invited forward for prayer and anointing with oil for healing. As many lingered for individual prayer with the clergy, the congregation continued to sing gospel songs and traditional hymns in the Gwich’in language. Munro says, “It is hard to describe the wonderful feeling one gets when standing and praying and seeing God at work in a person’s life. Tears and laughter, pain and joy mingled as our Lord moved in people’s lives.”
Bishop Larry describes moments when “anger and fear” were displaced by a “healthy grief and a determination to make change happen with God’s help.”
Old Crow’s spiritual leaders have the wisdom to know that this service was just the beginning of the change that needs to come. But it was, in Bishop Larry’s mind, a “turning point.”
“Healing has begun,” he says. “God is good.”
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