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Nurturing Community: Relational Humility by Ray Buckley, Neighborhood Seminary Faculty

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

“God is good, but can He get you your own dressing room?”—Sister Act 2

Francis of Assisi was not a priest. Toward the end of his young life, surrounded by the brothers of the communities he had brought to birth, he rejected the title of “Brother Superior”, instead, referencing himself as the “inferior brother”. He had heard the call of God to “rebuild the Church”, and took it literally. Coming upon the fallen structure of an abandoned church building (many, in fact), Francis used his hands to rebuild it. From the moment he put on the rags of the poor, he chose nothing else, but dependence upon God. Many saw him not only as irresponsible, but suspect, for in his time, as in ours, to choose poverty is to live on the edge of life and society.

For Francis, all of God’s creation was the gift of an expansive, extravagant, joyful God, and the human experience as a portion of that creation, urged to an appreciative, expansive, extravagant, and joyful service of participation within it. Francis would probably have understood that those who formed community with him were not so much an “order” but a gathering of like-minded children of God, resolving petty issues together, to the end of inviting, loving and serving.

One of my favorite lines from Tom T. Hall’s song, I Love, is the phrase,

I love winners when they cry, losers when they try…

It helps me to remember that not all winners are remembered, but how they win is what impacts our hearts. We award the immediate spoils to those who entered the contest, and that day, that day, were the victors. Still, those without the laurels; those with as much training, sweat, the “almost-winners” of races, battles, movements, and notoriety; these are measured in how much effort we perceive they exerted in the final contest.

Is there a distinction between those-who-nurture-a-community and nurturing-communities? In my grandparent’s tradition, these hyphenated words would become proper nouns. Living names.

Given to individuals and communities by those looking in, or living in, these names would acknowledge the spiritual skeleton/ DNA of those to whom they were given. It is God who “calls us by our names”, both individual and communally, but often those outside the walls of the institutional church, who most accurately testify to the quality of our fruit. We do not name ourselves, but we do bear witness to the spiritual names of others.

Those-who-nurture-communities sometimes receive notoriety, but they are not those who seek it. It is the difference between ministering to and living among. The spiritual hunger to live among seldom attracts those who seek recognition, but becomes the fruit of those who have recognized a heart-beat, and have helped to identify ways to strengthen that beat, for the life of sacred community within the created work of God. We strengthen our spiritual journey as we enable others to discover and live out the names God has given them.

Is it presumptive to celebrate that the gift of Creation is an expression of the humility of God; the Incarnation, the singing aloud of the relational humility of the Word? The heartbeat of one-who-nourishes and community-which-nourishes is relational humility.

I have a copy of an old photograph from the late 1800s. It is in a birch-wood twig frame, and placed where I pass it often. We don’t know a great deal about the young man in the photograph. We do know that his Tsimshian (Canadian First Nation) name was Wil-Um-Clah, or Clah; his baptismal name, Phillip McKay.

Previously known as Port Simpson, Kw'alaams, British Columbia, is close to present day Prince Rupert. Located on the Port Simpson Indian Reserve, it is the home of the Nine Allied Tribes of the Tsimshian Nation: Giluts'aaw, Ginadoiks, Ginaxangiik, Gispaxlo'ots, Gitando, Gitlaan, Gits'iis, Gitwilgyoots, and Gitzaxłaał. When Clah was boy, there were about 2,300 persons, living in 140 houses. In 1862, as a young man, one-quarter of the population would die during the smallpox epidemic, and many more during repeated diphtheria outbreaks.

The Christian community had begun, not with the arrival of missionaries, but from Tsimshian converts returning from Victoria, B.C. Methodist missionaries would arrive in 1874, and with them, residential boarding schools; the destruction of totems, familial/kinship systems, and village life; the insistence of western culture as an outward expression of Christian conversion.

What had begun as a faith community became a targeted missionary effort to alter the racial/cultural identity of a people. Parishioners were categorized, creating caste systems within the church. There were those of full membership, and those on probational membership. Those from high-born Native families were selected for leadership positions and assigned the preparation of the Eucharist, often leaving individuals from hereditary slave families outside of the peripheral vision of the church. When the missionary was away, only white assistants were allowed to make decisions.

Across the border of British Columbia into the Territory of Alaska was the U.S. military outpost of Fort Wrangell. Founded by the Russians a century before as a fur-trading outpost, it had also become (and remains) a Tlingit (Alaskan Native) village, by the name of Ḵaachx̱aana.áakʼw.

Clah was essentially, a manual laborer. He and his wife, Annie, had received some formal education and were active attendees at the mission in Port Simpson. Had he the advantage of a post-elementary education, he would not have spoken of it. To do so would have placed him in a position of appearing to be superior to those in his community. Community was about lifting one another up. Beginning as packers for white miners, Clah and three other young men (George Weeget, Andrew Moss, and John Neas-quo-juo-luck) canoed from Kw'alaams, British Columbia, to Wrangell, Alaska. There they received a contract for 500 cords of cut wood, intending to stay until the contract was complete.

Clah did not return home. He stayed.

Cutting wood in the light of short winter days, Clah met with a small cluster of the Tlingit Christian converts. In the spring of 1876, the young logger and the community began holding worship services. Tlingit communities had large, rectangular cedar houses, named for each clan, where traditional dancing and celebrations were held. It was there (later to be called a heathen dance house by missionaries) that worship services were first celebrated. As the traditional cedar house overflowed, the hereditary chief, Toy-e-aat, offered his home, an enormous, open-spaced cedar building, entered by backing in through a tall totem, celebrating the family heritage, history, and tribal identity.

Initial reports from Wrangell to the outside came from military sources. American officers stationed at Fort Wrangell, reported regular worship attendance exceeding two-hundred. A school was established, which included, in addition to children, 70 adults. From the archives of the State of Alaska, a letter is preserved, written by an enlisted soldier, addressed to Major General Rogers, describing the impact of the ministry and asking for assistance.

1874, when Rev. Thomas Crosby of the Methodist mission in Port Simpson, British Columbia, visited Wrangell, he found the four young men from his parish, and a thriving, nourishing, Christian community, respected by both the military presence and the indigenous people. Before beginning the journey, although he had never been to Alaska, he referred to the Ḵaachx̱aana.áakʼw (Wrangell) people as being of “quarrelsome disposition and blood thirsty character”. He would decline the use of the traditional community building, referring to it in the rhetoric of the time, as a “heathen dance hall”. When Chief Toy-e-aat prepared a feast and community celebration in his honor, thanking him for the four young “missionaries” (i.e. Clah), and offering the continued use of his home, Dr. Crosby declined but “permitted” Clah to remain.

It should not be assumed that Crosby was not pleased with the community at Wrangell. In his own way, he became a remarkable supporter, advocating for the need of sending white missionaries to Alaska and seeking support and funding from The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Wesleyan Methodist Church, and what would become The United Church of Canada (Methodist). His requests fell on stone ears.

Through the advocacy and presence of Dr. Sheldon Jackson (The Presbyterian Church), the significant ministry of Presbyterian lay-missioner, Mrs. A.R. McFarlane in Wrangell and beyond, protestant Christian influence would move continually northward in southeast Alaska. As in British Columbia, and elsewhere, the mission of the church was often merged with the ambitions of industry and governments.

Shortly after the arrival of Mrs. FcFarlane, Clah became ill. He refused to leave Wrangell, telling his family that God had called him there, and he would not leave. His body would die on December 28, 1877, at age 30. By canoe, his father and brothers returned him to British Columbia.

In 1914, Crosby, having retired from a lifetime of mission work, wrote a biography entitled, Up and Down the North Pacific Coast by Canoe and Mission Ship (Toronto; Missionary Society of the Methodist Church; Young People’s Forward Movement Dept.; 1914). His descriptions of the traditional Native communities of the Northwest, are at best paternalistic, racist, and superior. It is in that light that we understand the deepness of the compliment when he refers to Clah as The Apostle of Alaska.

Clah would probably not be comfortable with the characterization of the person that Crosby perceived him to be, and yet the person he was in reality would have astounded Crosby. In Crosby’s 1914 work, he attempts to quote Chah in conversations of which he was not present, conveying words, phrases, and expressions that are more typical of Crosby.

There is a Yiddish proverb which simply says that those who seek greatness will not find lasting greatness, but those who serve others and seek anonymity will be found out.

God who sees our worship in secret, awards us in the open, but our rewards are not often recognition, but community, with God, and with our neighbors.

Clah and his brethren were not missionaries. They certainly would not have been seen as qualified for mission work by their race and heritage. They would not have been afforded the opportunity of education or worthy of it. There would be no expectation of being included in a plan. An educated guess would lead us to believe that without oversight there would have been no permission for ministry. But they did not start a ministry. They “moved into the neighborhood”, cutting wood on the outskirts of the village. What was begun was not a ministry, but a community.

What was begun was not a ministry but a community.

The Tsimshian of British Columbia and the Tlingit of Alaska spoke distinct languages and had been traditional enemies. Being the same color does not mean being the same ethnicity, a guarantor of camaraderie, the same experience of history. The capacity of moving into the neighborhood, as part of the neighborhood, makes one vulnerable to the neighborhood. True vulnerability does not leave much room for condescension.

There is no historical indication that Clah tried to lead anything. It seems that, like Francis, he led with his hammer and not his lips. There was discovered a heartbeat that others heard and responded to. Food was shared, elders were cared for, needs met, and white soldiers and officers at the fort began to notice. Small groups gathered, until there were too many for houses. Where shall we go next? Where is the need? If the missionaries had been there the small community would never have been allowed to worship in the “heathen dance hall”. The community saw no defilement in an ancestral gathering place. They asked each other, “Who will help prepare the food, and where shall we serve it?” And the women came, and the men brought salmon, sitka deer, and black seaweed; food the missionaries would not have allowed. Some asked to read the Bible, and small classes began after working during the day, until not only the children, but 70 adults were learning to read.

When the clan house became too small, the hereditary chief, who one missionary would call, “that vile profane, heathen”, said,

I invite you into my home
This house made of cedar
That the winter rains cause to expand
And close off the snow.
Where the dance-masks
And carvings,
Tell the story of our migrations
Before the glaciers.
I invite you into my home.
I invite you into my home.

And the community made the decision to move into the chief’s house. And officers from the fort wrote letters to their commanders saying, “You should come and see! Something is happening here”. And the missionary who had not known that there was a community instead of a mission, with rules, and haircuts, and shoes in the summer, came for the first time, and reminded the community that they were all profane heathens, and should no longer worship in the chief’s house.

And Clah stayed because God had told him to stay; that these were his people. He would not let others call him a missionary, or a leader. They would fish in the spring and summer, hunt in the early fall, visit the sick and saddened. Relational-humbleness was at the core of their identity.

Clah would not have recognized the title of Apostle to Alaska. The name his community chose to give him was, He Came to Stay.

The name his community chose to give him was, He Came to Stay.
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