I have made an attempt to tell this story without violating the privacy of those involved. Some of those involved are people I still very much care for and respect, and I do not want to betray their privacy or put them in a bad light.
But this is a story that I strongly feel needs to be told.
So I’m going to tell it.
In this essay, I use the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ in order to protect the privacy of those described in this account and I have omitted all names of the parties involved (the only names listed are of a long passed missionary whose journal is archived and available to the public, and my own name, of course). Additionally, some details of these events have been omitted or left purposefully vague.
The Co-opting of an Indigenous Expression
For fourteen years, I was involved in a Christian college ministry that largely recruited rural Alaskan indigenous students. I was first involved as a student, then as a recruited student leader, then as an alumni volunteer. I attended events, and eventually I hosted events in my home and I even gave religious ‘messages’ during our meetings.
For the first six years of my involvement, they used a generic English title for this ministry. But, suddenly one day, they called themselves by an indigenous expression (an expression from my own culture, actually) despite the fact that they did not have any indigenous leadership. (And to this day, they have only had one indigenous director). I will not share this expression in this essay to protect the privacy of those still working in this ministry and its umbrella organization. (In this essay, I will be referring very vaguely to various levels of this ministry)
It somewhat breaks my heart that I cannot spell out this expression here, but again, I am trying to preserve the privacy of those involved. This is a very common expression used in my culture. It is an expression that is dear to my heart. An expression that I have used since I could speak. An expression of positivity that cannot be adequately translated into English.
Thoughts Told by Colonizers
“Shecoppock and Ahyugak were married publicly. Two of our natives have gone into sin and we will have to look after them. Have doctored five today…” Martha Hadley, The Alaskan Diary of a Pioneer Quaker Missionary, March 11, 1900.
“We’ve noticed that in rural Alaska, people just want to do what they want without anyone telling them what to do…” they (a non-indigenous, non-rural Alaska resident) declared. “….we judge a person’s leadership ability based on their personal lives.” [name and date omitted].
A Meeting in a Coffee Shop
They hadn’t arrived yet, which was what I had planned. I arrived early to purchase my own beverage. I didn’t want anyone buying my time or submission (especially with a mere cup of caffeine).
They arrived out of breath. “Oh…I was hoping to get you a coffee.”
“It’s ok.” I smiled.
I waited while they ordered, looking forward to this being over.
“Well, I think we both know why we’re here.” They smiled awkwardly, with as much loving friendship as they could gracefully show.
“Yeah,” I also smiled, knowing exactly what the meeting was for, yet still falling for their trap. A meeting for a 30-year-old to advise this 29-year-old on how to live their personal life. And that this advice was on the living situation that I, the 29-year-old, had not shared with the 30-year-old but somehow…the 30-year-old had gone out of their way to find out about it.
Apparently, to be involved in ministry is to have no privacy.
“So, you know we love you and you have been a part of [the ministry] for a long time….”
Yes, longer than you.
“People admire you, they look up to you, they listen to what you say.” I stayed silent, waiting for them to get to the point. “…and we come to you out of love…” They stretched their neck up, as they so frequently did when wishing to put on a display wisdom, authority, and when they wanted to (literally) look down on someone.
My chai latte has a third of the cup left. It’s getting cold.
“The Bible specifically reserves living together for marriage. This can have a long-lasting impact…”
I swirled the spiced drink a couple times.
“Marriage is sacred, it’s a commitment, and it’s hard. It’s really hard…”
I smiled again and, knowing that she was finished, responded at last. “I know that you are saying these things out of concern and care. I’ve thought about this a lot and it’s what I want to do. I’ve made my decision.” A momentary silence followed. And more smiles.
“Well, I just want to let you know that this has been thoroughly awkward for me…” And then they reached in for a hug. We both smiled, ending the conversation.
[My partner had been taken aside in a similar fashion, and had been challenged with “Move out or marry her,”]
A Meeting Outside
They sighed long, smiled a kind, weak smile, “I just got out of a teleconference with the state-level ministry.” They set the box of moose meat down. Meat to add to the stew I was prepping for the next day’s meeting. Meat that they had offered after I offered to host the ministry’s weekly meeting in my apartment.
“So….someone expressed concern that it would reflect poorly on the ministry if our meeting took place in your apartment considering that…you and [your partner] are not married…”
They continued “So in the conference we discussed…”
I stayed quiet. The snow crunched beneath my feet. I was glad that it was a balmy 20-ish degrees Fahrenheit.
“…and the Friday meeting will still be at your place…” Thanks for the permission. “…but, when we give the names of the leadership team…your name will not be mentioned.” I had been asked to be in the position in the first place when I had no interest in it. But ok.
“Ok…” I needed to process. What on earth was going on here?
“If you need to talk it over sometime…after you’ve had time to process…then we can do that…”
“Thanks.” I wish I had taken them up on their offer.
It was the final day of the ministry’s biannual retreat. About a hundred in attendance, and I attended as a ‘volunteer’ in this organization.. The state director had just thanked me for my involvement in the ministry that had so recently decided to remove me from leadership because of my marital status. (Also, this person apparently thought that opening their eyes as wide as they could while speaking very loudly conveyed friendliness, when in reality the expression conveyed the countenance of a murderous clown.)
I smiled, while feeling incredibly uncomfortable, and thanked them.
Later, we were all gathered together in a cold hall that apparently was heated mostly by the presence of people. I had been to these retreats before. The usual order of business was prayer, final worship, and a reminder to clean the ramshackle cabins that retreat-goers were housed in. We were also kindly reminded that our registration fee was cheaper than the cost of housing and feeding us in the backwoods of the Mat-Su Valley. The director was giving the farewell Word and then added
“Umm…this isn’t planned but I just feel like the Lord put it on my heart to say this…”
Ok, what is this? I want to get back to my room, pack, and leave. I have a full day of teaching high school tomorrow and a 6 hour drive to get back home.
“You know…a lot of young people want to live together because they love each other and it feels right….”
Ummm…did they just make eye-contact with me?
“…but it causes problems and some people even commit suicide over failed relationships…”
[suicide is a serious issue in Alaska, often linked to colonization and SHOULD NOT BE USED AS A MINISTRY TACTIC]
“…so I just felt like God put it on my heart to say that I encourage you all not to live together outside of marriage…”
That was the last retreat that I attended.
Awkwardness over Avocado Curry
I glanced down at the bamboo table mat. This could have been an email. “It would be great if you two could be involved…” they said.
My spouse and I made eye contact, as we all were sitting around the table with our Thai curry and noodles. By that point, we had been married according to the laws of the dominant, colonizing culture. We had started our careers and purchased a home. And then after those events had occurred, we each had suddenly been approached (unannounced, at our places of work) some time before, with performative humble requests that we once again be involved in the ministry.
I, personally, had been a bit confused. To my knowledge, we were still members in the ministry, why this sudden request to be once again ‘involved?’ Did they consider us not involved and ‘forgot’ to tell us? Yes, our attendance had decreased, because once a mystery person/people decides you are so sinful that they will not eat your food with you in your own home, why pour so much energy into that ministry?
But somehow, we still agreed to the offer of dinner in exchange for discussing the matter of our involvement.
I spooned more curry over jasmine rice. “Well…one hesitation we have is that we were removed from leadership and were blocked from hosting because of our living situation…this decision was made about use without our knowledge….We feel like this was not right…”
A pause. Then a verbose (non) apology.
“I’m sorry that happened to you…But it would be really great if you could be involved…Let us pray.”
Agaayupta. Let us pray.
“And this is Chelsey. She’s been with us a long time.” They said quickly and briefly, leaving no room for me to speak. This was after they had given a long, detailed description of another member’s education and current professional career. Yet again, I was introduced to a group of people I did not know, while not being given an opportunity to speak for myself. And yet again, I was reduced to someone who was merely connected to them. By that point, I had earned Master’s degrees in literature, writing, and education and was working as an indigenous language instructor at a local university. None of this was mentioned as I was being introduced by someone else.
“Excuse me, I have something to say…”
A Letter of (De)Termination Addressed to the Ministry
The door of my home is now closed to [you]… In order to be affiliated with and to endorse [this ministry], I need to be treated with dignity and equity, and not be tokenized…
If you ask for my voice, then listen to my voice. Do not speak for me.
Some Thoughts from the Author
I am sharing snapshots of this experience because the ministry described here tokenized me as an indigenous Alaskan, then discriminated against me based on my marital status, attempted to remove me from the ministry, and then asked for me back without any acknowledgement or meaningful apology for what they had done.
And they continue to recruit young indigenous Alaskans into their ministry. This ministry organization makes attempts at appearing to be inclusive and equitable, but is founded on colonization and the tokenization of indigenous peoples. And they are not the only one.
I do not discriminate against any religion and I highly value spirituality. But I acknowledge that Christianity is a religion of colonization and has caused long-lasting damage upon indigenous peoples. Although there are Christian ministries/missions that are doing good things, mission work perpetuates the colonization and subjugation of indigenous peoples. Until these systems are dismantled and rebuilt to be equitable institutions, then they will continue to perpetuate colonization and inflict long-lasting harm.
Tarra, that is all.