In 1986 I worked as a Land Surveyor of the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Cadastral Division. 13 other men and I dwelled in a tent camp about 2 miles outside the native village of Kokhanok. Kokhanok is located on the south shore of Lake Iliamna, 22 miles south of Iliamna and 88 miles northeast of King Salmon. Kokhanok is accessible by air and water. A State-owned 2,920' long by 60' wide gravel airstrip and a seaplane base serve scheduled and charter air services from Anchorage, Iliamna, and King Salmon.
The original site of Kokhanok, called “Isigiug”, was located 2 ½ miles down the beach from the present location of Kokhanok. This fishing village was first listed in the U.S. Census in 1890 by A.B. Schanz. The village has a mixed Native population, primarily Aleut. Subsistence activities are the focal point of the culture and lifestyle. The village is served by the Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church. (Priests in the region are scarce. In the 5 weeks that I was in Kokhanok I attended the one and only service and it was conducted by a local “reader” that chanted the readings but did not teach or offer Holy Communion.)
I woke up Dec. 29, 2005 with a burning desire to do some research on Kokhanok. One of the first pages that came up was a page created in 1998 after interviews with several residents. I sensed a thirst in each of the interviews and recognized a huge gap growing between the youth and the elders. I felt that through me God could inspire the youth to embrace their circumstances and use their time to further God’s Kingdom by developing relationships with the elders and also sharing their music with each other. The burden on my heart was to give Kokhanok a whole month of my time, time being the most valuable asset I have.
I continued to follow news headlines for Kokhanok and searched for ministry opportunities with established missions but found no one doing ministry in Kokhanok. I connected with a couple missionaries that were serving in villages nearby but no one had been to Kokhanok and hadn’t heard of any evangelical outreach going into Kokhanok. On January 26, I watched an interview with a Native American that was ministering to his people. He spoke of how his people were filling voids in their life with many things that were unhealthy to them and how he was spreading the good news not only to his own people but to indigenous peoples around the globe. His message is that God’s story belongs to everyone and we all have a place in it regardless of our color, race, or background. The whole message seemed to be God growing a place in my heart with his love for the people of Kokhanok.
On January 27, I read on a news service on-line that two young men were missing from Kokhanok. They had left on a quad, were caught in inclement weather, and a search was being conducted for them. 3 days had passed and the temperatures were -40° so there was little hope for their survival. I felt a deep empathy for the people of the village and searched the school website for an email address. I sent the school secretary an email offering my prayers and the prayers of our church. This is the full text of her reply:
“Thank you for praying for our village...both of the young men were my nephews. I will let the village people see and read your email message. Thanks again...have a nice day. Irene”
The authorities (including a cousin of our own Nancy Wilson) and local volunteers found the bodies of the young men after a few days. Losing a 13 yr.-old and a 25 yr.-old in any community is painful but in a village as small as Kokhanok it was especially tough. I decided at that time that God was paving a way for a movement of his spirit in Kokhanok and began my plans for a visit. I emailed one of the missionaries that I’d contacted and asked for his help. He was reluctant to be involved, not knowing me nor my intentions but did give me a name, Shirley Nielsen, the grandmother of one the 25-yr. old that had just died, that I could contact regarding my transportation, food, lodging, etc. He said that she’d probably be helpful. I sent Shirley a letter but got no reply. I wrote to the village council and received no reply. No one replied to me at all but the Holy Spirit continued to fuel the fire of discipleship in my heart so I studied their culture, religion, and demographics in an effort to have the most impact for the Kingdom while leaving the least of human impact.
After much planning, much weekend surveying work, the blessing from my employers at Trinity Engineering and Surveying to take a leave of absence, I finally boarded a train in Grand Rapids on May 30. I carried 140 lbs. of gear that included everything I’d need for the 5 week stay with the exception of about 3 ½ weeks of food. I counted on my wife to send the remaining food by mail. Here is a good point to thank those who helped and gave. I received $350 in cash, much prayer support, lawn mowings for the entire time I was gone, a couple youth guitars, and hours of dehydrating from my wife and daughters. My wife could make a business of outfitting with dehydrated meals. I was surprised to discover that ordinary extra sharp brick cheese would last 5 weeks without spoilage if kept somewhat cool. My diet was all planned out and packaged according to a 2200 calories per day and balanced nutrition. I packed meat (dried beef, venison, ham, and sausage), rice, pasta, fruits, and some packages of tuna and salmon. This was supplemented often with fish I caught easily from Lake Iliamna.
I arrived in Chicago and was like a fish out of water. I have never used public transportation, with the exception of a cab, in a large city. Glory be to God and his marvelous provision! Just a short time after off-loading from the train I was approached by a somewhat sweaty man as I perused the map of Chicago on the train station wall. He certainly sensed my lack of direction and offered enthusiastically to help me out. I prayed a quick prayer, gave him a once-over, searched his eyes quickly and told him what a blessing from God he was. He offered to carry my bags to the subway station or call me a cab. He recommended a subway because it was cheaper. We had a great talk about how bad Chicago needed people to love her and her people as we hustled toward the subway. He helped me get the bags down the steep steps and up to the boarding turnstile and I handed him a $20 and bid him blessings for a rich and interesting life. He likewise blessed me and was gone as fast as he had approached me. He didn’t smell all that good but I’ll remember his easy smile and seemingly limitless exuberance as much as any part of the trip.
The subway was probably the most disconcerting time of the whole trip. There were a few different men that got on and then off that were the type that seemed to challenge you with their looks. Posers with wounds so deep and a well of pain so full that I found it impossible to ignore them and I prayed solemnly for Christ to move their hearts, to wet their dry, red eyes with tears of surrender, and to heal their brokenness. There were women with children, elderly people, business men and women, almost all entering silently, riding from one burden towards another, then exiting. It was the saddest hour and 40 minutes that I think I’ve ever observed. Not my own sadness but the sadness of a people, colored like the rainbow but devoid of light and power. Slumped, sullen, angry, lost shells moving slowly from one aspect of their dreary lives to another. Chicago subways are not a place of joy.