By Rev. Michael Oleksa
The Yup’ik Eskimo people in southwest Alaska depend on harvesting hundreds of salmon each summer to feed their families throughout the year. At the turn of the century, a consortium of British and Canadian investors announced their plans to dig the world’s largest open-pit gold and copper mine at the headwaters of the world’s largest wild salmon fishery, on the shores of Lake Iliamna, Alaska’s largest lake. The local people were overwhelming opposed to this, but it seemed the government (looking for tax revenue) and the billionaire investors would gain approval for this massive project.
Nearly all the Yup’ik Eskimo and Tanaina Indian villages in this region are Orthodox Christians, having converted to Christianity in the time when Alaska was part of the Russian Empire. The Orthodox missionaries learned their languages and presented the Gospel of Christ as the fulfillment of what these tribes already believed. They already understood it was wrong to lie, steal, murder, covet or blaspheme. They had never heard Christ’s command “Love your enemies.” But when they accept the Gospel, they also ended all inter-tribal warfare and violence. And they soon produced their own clergy who celebrated the Orthodox services in their local languages.
In the normal cycle of the liturgical year, the Great Blessing of Water is performed at Theophany every January. In Alaska this means cutting a cross-shaped hole in the ice, and processing to the lake or river to insert the holy cross through the ice. Invoking God’s blessing on their waters has become an important event in the life of every parish. So when the Pebble Project was announced, threatening to poison and pollute the lakes and streams, the Orthodox Diocesan Assembly, composed of the clergy and laity gathered with their bishop, unanimously passed a resolution, “invoking God’s Blessing” on any development that would enhance the lives of our People,” but withholding such a blessing on “any development that threatened to polluteor poison the waters which we consider sacred.”
The following January, His Eminence, Archbishop Benjamin flew north from California to perform the Great Blessing of Water. His presence added special significance to the blessing and attracted national media attention. Mr. Robert Gillam, a wealthy banker in Anchorage, provided funds for radio and television advertisements to give the local people a voice in the public debate about the Pebble Mine.
In the end, the state conducted a referendum on the mine and the entire population of Alaska voted against the mine in every precinct. This means the vote opposing the mine was unanimous. Only the Orthodox Church took this public stand against the mine. No other religious group had the courage to stand against it, but the Orthodox, who had been invoking God’s blessing on these waters for hundreds of years could not remain silent and allow them to be poisoned. God so loved the cosmos that He sent His Son.