Shishmaref FAQs

1.Bless you! Did you just sneeze? (How do you pronounce Shishmaref?)
It’s like shish-kabob but with mar ef at the end. Sh- as in Shine; -ish- as in Danish; -mar- as in March; -ef as in  effluvium. Shh-ish-mah-ref.

2.Can you see Russia from your house? (Where is Shishmaref?)
No. We cannot see Russia from our house. Actually, the best view from the parsonage is facing the wrong way anyway. Our bay windows look across the bay (living up to their name in a way most bay windows can only dream of) and southward toward the mainland. However, even if we were pointed at the sea, we are not close enough to Russia to see it. Sarichef Island, where sits Shishmaref, is off the coast of the Seward Peninsula of Alaska. (A name I cannot seem to pronounce correctly. I always want to say “sea-ward,” because we look toward the sea. But if you don’t have my special brain fluke, it’s pronounced like Steward without the t. — I spent all my pronunciation powers on Shishmaref earlier.) At any rate, the Seward Peninsula juts out of the middle of Alaska and points mostly North into the Chukchi Sea, missing Russia by a lot.
A good single word to describe our location is “off.” Shishmaref is off the road system, off the grid, off the coast (5 miles), off the data plan, off the radar, off in the middle of nowhere, off — as in past its best-by date (that was a climate change joke), and off the end of the world. The church here is the northernmost outpost of the ELCA. The closest neighbor is the village of Wales 72.2miles to the east. The closest city is Nome which is 123 miles south.  Elevation is 16.08’. GPS coördinates are 66.2567° N, 166.0719° W.  Zip Code is 99772. Please send aged gouda and other fancy cheeses marked “For Pastor.”

3.How does food work? (Are there grocery stores? Restaurants? What do people eat?)
Shishmaref is primarily a subsistence hunter gatherer community. The main local staples are: seal, walrus, caribou, musk ox, berries, salmon, smelts and tomcod. Occasionally we get whale, polar bear, or reindeer but those are less common. Shishmaref does not boast enough of an economy to support restaurants. Although I am told some time ago there used to be one, there are none today. For what you cannot hunt or gather, there are two stores. I would not call them grocery stores in the lower-forty-eight sense of the term. One is kind of like a hardware store that happens to also have food, party supplies, and other sundry items. The other has more of a grocery focus, but is like a corner store or gas station in presentation. Stock of any particular food or item is sporadic and follows eldritch wave functions that are unknowable. Sometimes there are jalapeños, sometimes there are eggs, but probably not in the same day. Sometimes it seems like all the store has is just the one bag of Doritos®.
It is weird being one of the few non-teacher families in town that has a job which largely precludes hunting and gathering as a main source of food. We are very grateful when people have donated native foods to us, like tasty caribou meat. And we are also very grateful when people back home ship us Outside World foods. We have also gone fishing and berry picking and on several other adventures, but that is hardly how we get most of what we eat. My wife and I supplement what we get from the stores with Amazon prime orders and a subscription to Full Circle. Full Circle is artisan grocer and organic produce delivery service based out of Seattle, WA. They send us vegetables and other foods with more regularity than we can get elsewhere. Like most things, Full Circle mostly works. Sometimes planes are delayed, sometimes most of the vegetables taste like the box. But they’re more greens than we’d get otherwise. Amazon prime also only mostly works. It is good for free shipping, but not for reliable shipping times. Sometimes things arrive months after we order them, sometimes in a few weeks. There is also a quantum uncertainty about what things Amazon will willingly ship us. Sometimes, you have to get your loving family members and friends to send you vanilla extract. All supplies are ruled by the same eldritch wave functions as the grocery stores. That is: it all has to be flown in, and the planes are not big, and not constant. Even with the scheduled 3-a-day, reliability is not a thing. In fact all shipping is this way: doesn’t matter if it is FedEx, UPS, or trained elephants. It all ends up in Nome, and in order for it to get to Shish, the pilot has to decide there is room and weight capacity enough for it on today’s plane.
Once, for a birthday present for Ann, I ordered some sandwiches from the Subway in Nome (they will deliver!). The sandwiches arrived two days later in a box that I picked up myself from the snow in the back of the airport guy’s pickup. That is to say, we still ate them like they were the first food we’d seen in years. But, fresh being already a stretch when you get them in person, these were not so much. This is special occasion territory, not something you can rely on. But if you time it right, and are lucky with the weather, you could hypothetically get such a delivery the same day. It helps if you are already in Nome and getting on the plane yourself to make sure that the food travels with you. But that is not normal, and like everything else: expensive.

4.How does water work? (Do you really have to haul water? What do you mean you harvested ice?)
The city of Shishmaref has no central plumbing nor sewage system. There is a washeteria which supplies most of the village water needs. Basically, it is a really big drum of chlorinated water. There are coin-op laundry and showers there where most people go to get clean. Water for drinking and cooking is also available at coin-op at a dollar per however many gallons it pumps out. People usually have several trash cans that they fill up at a time and haul back to their houses. The parsonage has a ~300 gallon cistern which gives us the rare luxury of an approximation of running water. We have our own showers and laundry, as well as flush toilets which feed into a septic tank (most of the village uses honey buckets). We have a 150 gallon water tank which we use to haul water between the washeteria and the cistern. We never fill this water tank in a load because it would be too heavy to move. We haul the tank by cart behind a four-wheeler in the warm times and by sled and snow machine in the rest of times. With two people living here, we usually have to haul water once every two and a half to three weeks. You truly think about water differently when you have to personally transport all of it that you are going to use to your home.
We supplement washeteria water with water that we collect from ice or rain (temperature depending). Usually the ice/rain water is our drinking water. To get ice, we travel seven miles by snow machine over the frozen bay to a frozen freshwater lake on the mainland. To get rain, we collect in trash cans what rolls off our roof.

5.How does anything else work?
Largely, it doesn’t. Or it does to an extent — with lots of elbow-grease and prayer. Much of living in Shishmaref is learning to be patient, flexible and hardworking. The people here are really welcoming & helpful though. Usually, if you stand around and look frustrated any longer than one minute, five people will come by to help you get your snow machine unstuck and up the hill. Again, I am truly grateful for this community and their willingness to help me learn how to live here.

6.Are you really the only church in town?
Yes. If you are going to a church in Shishmaref, having a funeral, wedding, baptism, or spiritual whatnot—I am the guy. Shishmaref Lutheran is the church. Shishmaref consists of a small, mostly Native population of about 580 people. There are three things to do in town: Go to school, go to church, or go to the bingo hall. That’s pretty much it as far as public spaces go. There are a handful of other faiths here, but we only have the one Lutheran pastor and umbrella under which we all meet. The hymnody of the church is actually Methodist, using the 1967 book Favorite Hymns of Praise. So our service already starts out with an understanding of eclecticism and inclusivity. As far as how we got to be Lutheran: the story goes that Lutherans arrived here when someone decided Eskimos needed to learn to herd caribou. So the government hired Scandinavian caribou herders to come and teach the skill, but the herders would not go to Alaska without their own Lutheran ministers to go with them. Caribou herding never really caught on, and the Scandinavians are also gone, but Lutheranism stayed.

7. Didn’t the island vote to move? (Aren’t you literally melting into the ocean? When will you move? How are you still there?)
First, I want to say that it is a strange thing to move to a place to start a new job there, and immediately have the world ask me when I’m leaving. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. It is one thing to face the realities that have made the way of life here no longer tenable, it is quite another to get anything done about it. The facts are these: climate change is rapidly destroying Shishmaref’s livelihood. Sea ice is not as thick as it should be, and is not around as much as it should be. It used to be that the ocean froze over in early October, and it would stay frozen until June or July. The ice was thick, really thick. This winter the ocean didn’t freeze for good until January. It briefly glazed over a few times earlier in the season, but each time the ice was too thin and blew away. We’ll be lucky if the current ice lasts through April or May. It’s that drastic a change. The community depends on that sea ice for protection from winter storms and for providing access for hunting seal and walrus, among other things. Thin to no sea ice means less food and less safety. We are losing between 2.7 and 8.9 feet of land a year to erosion and melting permafrost. Even with preventative measures, life as it exists and has existed here, will likely not be able to continue very long into the future. It has already drastically had to change. We have voted twice now to leave, and the community is still very divided about the issue. The last vote was very close and divided across generational and familial lines. Either way, a vote to stay or to leave, we are caught in a Catch-22. There is no funding for one thing, either for staying or for going. (While moving has obvious costs, staying means near equal costs to maintain and improve existing defenses and infrastructure.) On top of that, the hope with the vote to leave is to preserve Shishmaref’s culture and way of life before things sink into the ocean. The grief that makes us want to stay, is that here is our culture, way of life, and livelihood which we don’t want to sink into the ocean. We end up mourning the loss of our way of life, without money to do anything about it either way.
They have since changed the language to “expansion” instead of “relocation.” My guess is, this change has to do with broader funding opportunities if we call it “expansion,” and with a kind ear to the divided feelings about the Shishmarexit vote. On the 28th of this month (February) we will have a special election to choose an expansion site from two alternatives. One place has no on-site water source and slightly better building conditions. One has slightly less favorable building conditions and an available water source. After that, it is a waiting game of funding and planning and bureaucracy. The first practical step, assuming funding and voting and politics all sort out eventually, will be building an access road between the shore and the new site. Then we can start the process of beginning to move and build. But these are all things that will not happen soon or cheaply.
So the answer is, Yes. We are moving. Or maybe expanding. But nowhere fast, and nowhere soon, and not without a lot of help and prayer. God help us if there is a catastrophe before then, and we end up having to be evacuated.

8.Are you insane?! (Why would you go to Shishmaref?)
One of my early ways of responding to this question was to ask it right back to people. This is because I am a mature adult. “Why would I go to Shishmaref?” But in all seriousness, Shishmaref makes sense. One oversimple way of putting it is that I have often seen myself as a misfit toy, and now I found a whole misfit island to live on. But even that is not completely fair. Once you get over the learning curve of “life here is different,” doing ministry in Shishmaref is just like ministry everywhere else. Everywhere has the same learning curve, life in any congregation is different. Shishmaref just wears its differentness right out in the open with some extremes that everyone can see. It is not really as different as it sounds: the Law is still the Law, the Gospel is still the Gospel, and people need to hear it preached. People are wounded here and grieving here and need a pastoral ear. People are wounded and grieving everywhere else as well, in their own and different ways. A previous pastor here put it this way: “My hauling water is someone else’s half-hour commute. Both take getting used to, but both are completely natural for the problems you will face in different contexts.”
It also helps to know that I spent my entire approval essay on the first chapter of Mark. To quote myself: “Where does Christ go immediately following his baptism? Christ does not go out and celebrate with his friends and family at a local diner after his baptism. Instead, he is immediately driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness. The wilderness, where Satan is tempting and the wild beasts are licking their chops!” Why would Christ go there?
I continue: “God, by this great act of love and adoption, is driven into the wilderness. The last place we would think to look for God–there God is most driven to be. Our wilderness. God is compelled and promises to show up in the places where we are tempted and gnawed on. God surprises us, by showing up most plainly where God would seem most absent, even in God being wrenched from God’s self screaming the psalm of lament, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is God. In those thin wilderness places. Driven. Compelled by the Spirit. And God is faithful to God’s promises, so that we can say of our most tortured moments, “This too, has God’s hands working through it, if even to bleed along with me.”
Going back and reading that essay, it is no wonder I got my first call out in the wilderness of Shishmaref. In the “off” place. For that is where, by my own theological commitments, I am convinced God is most surely to be. So I am called and sent here, to this far-flung corner of the world. And truth be told, it is good to be here. Amen.

2 Comments

  1. Sharon
    Feb 24, 2017

    This is the best called and sent essay I have read in a long time.

  2. mary dunn
    Mar 7, 2017

    This is a fascinating essay on a totally other way of life, and an inspirational message ,too. It tells me what a young man is prepared to do to bring comfort in changing times.

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