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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

The Church of Nome: Part 1

January 5th, 2011 · No Comments

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Nome, Alaska, is isolated. You can reach it only by ship or airplane. This view of the port of Nome with a cruise ship at the dock shows that with the sun rising on a full moon the scene can be beautiful.

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This, however, is what most people see when they arrive in Nome on the 539-mile flight from Anchorage. Driving to Nome is not a choice, unless you live on one of the dirt roads leading up to about 80 miles out of town.

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Here is the Pilgrim River and Mount Osborn along the road from Nome to Kougarok.

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The Community United Methodist Church’s van — with an open door — near the subsistence settlement of Teller, the only real town that you can drive to from Nome. Fewer than 300 people live in Teller.

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Here is the tundra in all its glory as you approach Teller, Port Clarence, and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

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Nome is far from anywhere — except for the town of Teller and the Arctic Circle, which is just 141 miles to the north.

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A few people still come to Nome by dog sled. The town may be best known for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race. Here is the sign on Front Street. The race starts near Anchorage and ends here in Nome, a land distance of more than 1000 miles. This race is the most popular sporting event in Alaska. It commemorates the most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing, the 1925 serum run to Nome.
A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome, especially the Eskimo children who had no immunity to the “white man’s disease.” But the nearest quantity of antitoxin was in Anchorage. Both of the planes then in Alaska had never been flown in the winter, so the governor ordered the serum to be sent by train 298 miles to Nenana, where they passed it just before midnight on January 27 to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles from Nenana to Nome. The Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome at 5:30 a.m. on February 2, just five and a half days later.

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Up close, Nome isn’t particularly attractive.

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Worse eyesores are Nome’s liquor stores and bars. Unlike other commercial hubs in rural Alaska, Nome is a “wet” city, full of bars and liquor stores. Nome has plenty of them to serve the 3600 people who live there, many of whom have an alcohol problem.

Inupiat Eskimos comprise more than half of Nome’s residents. Some people estimate that three-fourths of the Eskimo population has a problem with alcohol. A study about 20 years ago in the somewhat similar community of Barrow found that 72 percent of the Eskimo men and women there were alcoholics.

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At this bar, the sign below the word “Saloon” says, “Headquarters for the Sin City of Nome.” One former pastor of the Community Methodist Church of Nome said that the town was becoming the “Sin City of the North.” This nickname stuck — for good reason.

Alcohol is a scourge of the community, and the United Methodist Church in Nome has long had a strong witness against its use.

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Nome has had a Methodist Church for more than a century. It is the town’s oldest Protestant church.

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Julie and David Elmore are the church’s co-pastors. They take turns in giving the sermon or make the sermon a dialog between them. Each of them wear a Kuspuk, a parka of Eskimo design especially made for them, “To bring native influence back to the Church.”

In 2001 Julie first came to the church in Nome as a US-2 Young Adult Missionary through the United Methodist Church. She stayed in Nome until 2005, when she moved to Kansas City to attend seminary at Saint Paul School of Theology, where she graduated in May 2008.

Julie and David met in seminary and married in August 2007. Together they went to Nome in July 2008 as provisional elders. They hope that in another two years they will be fully ordained.

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“Our dogs set us up, because we lived in the one dorm that allowed pets,” David recalls. “Gracie was my dog and Sere (short for Serendipity) was Julie’s.” Both of their dogs are with them now in Nome.

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The church in Nome is a part of the Alaska United Methodist Conference, a Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church. But David resists being labeled a missionary.

“Early missionaries in Alaska as well as elsewhere were part of the colonization,” David says. “They came with the government to provide some structure and some means of control of the community. In Alaska there was a missionary compact among a number of the Protestant churches to educate Alaska and ‘to civilize the natives.’ That civilization meant converting to Christianity and speaking English and coming to participate in the Western economic system. And part of that effort was to remove any traces of the native culture here.

“We have members who remember going to church-run schools where the teachers would punish them for speaking their own language. So the term missionary here has a deservedly bad name.

“In Christianity we see Jesus continually concerned with those who were on the margins of society and standing up for them against the larger society. And we see the church in the days of colonization doing precisely the opposite of what we are called to do.”

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