“I’m taking a rosary walk.”
“Don’t get lost.”
I stood up stiffly from the low cot where I had been reading for hours under piles of blankets and leaned against the damp windowsill, peering through the dirty glass into a bleak Alaskan landscape. The late October light was watery and faded here in the far Northwest. For thousands of acres in every direction, the tundra stretched out gray-brown and flat, with no break except for winding rivulets and pools that divided the boggy ground into puzzle pieces. No matter how far I walked, I would never get lost as long as I could still see this haphazard Yupik village huddling on the horizon.
My husband John and I were in Alaska for a ten-day Live Free mission, but mostly it felt like a silent retreat. I was catching up on sleep (the sun didn’t rise until almost 10 a.m.), praying a lot, and teaching myself Italian for fun. We were invited by intrepid Bishop Chad, an ex-military chaplain who hung up on Vatican City when they gave him “the call”—he thought it was a prank. But, no, it was for real. Chad Zielinski, from Alpena, Michigan, was consecrated bishop of the Fairbanks diocese in 2014. It is the largest diocese in the US, with 409,849-square miles, and yet there are only seventeen active priests. The bishop travels by plane from village to village with a simple duffel; he walks a mile or so from airport to village unless someone remembers to come and get him from the tarmac in an ATV; he seems to survive mostly on seal jerky. Bishop Chad called us to bring the message of deliverance to his people, because he was concerned with the wave of suicides that were making national news, a shocking and heart-rending manifestation of the deep depression, hopelessness, violence, and addiction that grips the remotest corners of our forty-ninth state.
This village was our last stop. We had been traveling with a missionary priest, Fr. Greg, who spends two-to-four days a month with each of his five parishes. The official idea was that we would give talks on deliverance and pray with people for freedom. The unofficial idea was that we would mingle with the people, mostly native Americans, and get to know them and their stories. The reality was apathy. People stayed to themselves and kept busy with their activities, except for gangs of children who followed us around, and small bands of faithful Catholics who greeted us at the daily Mass—if you can call four days a month “daily.”
The presentations we gave were attended by eight people at the most, and these groups consisted of mothers and grandmothers who were trying to hold their families together. Most of them work full-time as well as caring for multiple children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren; additionally, there is a strong culture of taking in orphans or virtual orphans, so many of the homes held up to ten or more kids. These women were desperate to preserve the faith in their families, faith that had dwindled severely in the last few decades. The Church in Alaska has suffered from the precipitous decline in the numbers of missionary nuns and priests who used to carry the full weight of parishes and schools. There is no model—and no time—for lay involvement in church programs, so the old paradigm of catechesis and formation continues at a painful, hamstrung pace. John and I were present to witness First Communions and Confirmations of twenty- and thirty-year-olds who had finally finished their catechetical preparation, begun in grade school.
By this point in our mission trip, weariness and discouragement were dogging us. Not only was it disappointing to have come so far and invested so much for so little a visible result, but the weight of despair over the land was spiritually and emotionally draining. Every native person we talked to had stories of losing friends and family to suicide, not just one but many. Truly we were witnessing the disintegration of a people group. One eighty-five-year-old woman wailed to me,
“We used to be so rich. We had the land; we had all the food we needed from the land; we had each other. Now our children are poor. They do not know how to survive here anymore. They want to leave. They go away when the government check comes; then they come back with nothing.”
Beyond that, we were witnessing the dissolution of faith. Missionaries had zealously criss-crossed this same tundra and brought Christianity to the Eskimo groups. But belief in Christ was dying out as surely as whaling.
I set out walking with all of this weighing heavily on my heart, praying as I went. It felt good to leave the untidy confines of the village and shake off my lethargy. I took a meandering path, because it was impossible to walk in a straight line. I was continually diverted by impassible bogs and swirling creeks. I began talking aloud to God about the mission; about the sadness I saw around me; about the faithful, aging priests, and their overwhelming workloads.
Far from the village, I started on my rosary, counting on my fingers. It was a Wednesday, so I recited the Glorious Mysteries. The Resurrection: faith. The Ascension, hope. The Coming of the Holy Spirit . . . Something bright on the ground caught my eye, a startling pink against the dun turf. I looked down, and I saw at my feet a thin, pink thread and a sparkle of metal. I bent down and picked it up. It was a hand-knotted rosary bracelet with one small heart charm attached.
My heart pounded and I looked at the sky. This was one of those moments when you say, “God sees me.” God knew exactly where I was, in the lonely Alaskan wilderness, saying a rosary—and He knew exactly where that tiny bracelet was, half-buried in the mud. He brought us together.
I understood. The power of prayer, especially when joined with the prayer of Our Mother, is beyond the power of despair. And if we travel to the corners of the earth only to lift one heart out of the mud, it’s worth it.