Two Letters From Alaska
Two very different responses with very different perspectives on our story "More Trouble From Alaska" have been sent to OCANews.org by two of the most well-known figures in the Alaskan Diocese – Ms. Minadora Jacobs, Assistant to Bishop Nikolai and Director of the Russian Orthodox Musuem in Anchorage and Dr. Richard Dauenhauer of the University of Alaska Southeast, former poet laureate of Alaska, and former member of the OCA's Metropolitan Council. Neither letter was solicited by OCANews.org, both were unexpected and both are published here, in full, as they were received.
In her email dated November 21, 2006, Ms. Jacobs writes:
"Dear Mr. Stokoe,
The purpose or mission statement on this website states that the intent is: 'To inform members of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) of the origins, nature and scope of allegations concerning financial misconduct at the highest levels of the central church administration of the OCA by providing news and supporting documentation about the scandal.' To my mind your posting of "More Trouble in Alaska" is a total distraction from the scandal which, as we all know, centers on misuse of funds in charity accounts, secret discretionary funds, mismanagement of funds and cover-ups. The lands question in Alaska is not part of this equation. The lands question in Alaska is merely a disagreement over jurisdiction - a question, if raised within a healthy organization would be decided rationally, historically and canonically. Given the alleged corruption and mismanagement in the central administration, one can only speculate how much Alaskan church land would have been sold to cover deficits in the OCA budget had His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI not claimed Diocesan jurisdiction over these lands. Furthermore, raising this 'red-herring' of lands, combined with Dr. Black's "A Sad Tale" and false characterizations of His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI all reduce this site's journalism to the level of petty gossip.
My preference would be to remain silent, to avoid the inevitable ammunition I will no doubt provide those intent on perpetuating accusations, innuendo and gossip. But, I am hopeful that there are readers of this website who would appreciate having more than a one-sided view of the Orthodox Church in Alaska. I would also like to provide some factual context related to Dr. Black letter to this forum.
I have served as His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI's assistant and the director of the Russian Orthodox Museum in Anchorage for the past two years. Previous to that I worked with His Grace in a less formal capacity from the time he first arrived in Alaska in June 2001. I retired from the Anchorage Museum in 2002 after many years as an archivist and have extensive background in museums and libraries.
Dr. Lydia Black has been a colleague for many years. Our work has intersected through collaboration with prominent Russian scholars, preparing translations and working on exhibitions. I have a high regard for Dr. Black's contribution to our scholarly knowledge of Russian America. When she began her work in the Orthodox Archives in Kodiak, I was assistant archivist at the Anchorage Museum and she sought my advice and guidance on materials, suppliers, conservators and procedures for processing the archives. She was a retired professor of anthropology/ethnography but not an archivist at that time. Yet, I have seen the work she accomplished in the Archives and can say without reservation that it was done with care and considerable expertise. His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI, the Seminary Dean and I have acknowledged this publicly and privately many times.
I was not present when the incident occurred, which Dr. Black described in her posting, so I will not comment on that directly. I would like to remind your readers that they have only one interpretation of the event that led to her dismissal. Knowing both 'protagonists', this was not a mismatched encounter of strong personalities. I would like to ask, has Dr. Black sought reconciliation with His Grace privately rather than using this public forum? In my experience, His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI is one of the most compassionate and forgiving people I have encountered. Aren't we counseled in Holy Scripture (Matt. 18: 15-18) to approach our brother alone with our grievances before speaking publicly? It is a pity when scholars, who depend on the power of words to disseminate knowledge, fail to avail themselves of their power in communicating on a personal level and reconciling.
His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI transferred the museum objects from Kodiak to Anchorage for two reasons. First, St. Herman Seminary was in dire need of additional space to accommodate the library; and secondly, having the museum in Anchorage provided a better venue for the visiting public. (The population of Kodiak is approximately 6,000 and Anchorage is 270,000 and the hub for travel to other locations.) The Russian Orthodox Museum with gift shop and cafe is open 6 days a week. Attached to the museum is a small chapel which currently serves the mission parish of St. Tikhon. His Grace established this mission in 2003 to minister to the large Russian immigrant population in Anchorage. This past year, our museum guest book was signed by nearly 2500 visitors. We have not de-accessioned any objects in the museum collection. We anticipate enlarging the museum at some time in the future so more artifacts can be displayed. The Museum is a member of the professional organization, Museums Alaska and we maintain a close working relationship with the curatorial staff at the Anchorage Museum. The Smithsonian's Arctic Study Center is within walking distance of our museum and I have a longtime professional relationship with its director and staff. We offer tours to school groups, university students and historical organizations. Local residents and tourists are fascinated by the significant role Orthodoxy has played in Alaska's rich history. In addition to icons and Russian craft items, our shop offers a nice selection of books on Orthodox theology and history. We have only been open for sixteen months, but with the support and guidance of His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI we have made considerable progress in establishing our museum in downtown Anchorage.
There were objects of Dr. Black's which were unknowingly packed when the museum collections were shipped to Anchorage. His Grace has been quite adamant that any objects belonging to Dr. Black should be returned immediately. I transferred, at her request, a series of six framed prints to the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. I expedited the return of a large map to her assistant in Fairbanks so that it could be included in a publication. At the request of the family in Kodiak who maintained close relations with Fr. Gerasim Schmaltz, I negotiated a loan of the Schmaltz collection to the Alutiiq Museum. We offered to transfer the collection to the Alutiiq Museum so that it would be available for research, or for the Alutiiq Museum to display. Recently (Sept. 2006), Dr. Black asked for the return of her materials associated with the Veniaminov exhibit she curated in 1997. This was the first time I heard about this collection's existence in our Archives. On my last visit to Kodiak, I looked for this material but did not find it.
You listed over 76 possible names under which land in Alaska belonging to the Church might be researched. That number alone suggests the complexity of the land's question in Alaska. As in everything he has done since coming to Alaska, His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI has been meticulous in putting things in order. He sought the expertise of a former executive administrator for the Real Estate Commission for the State of Alaska to make sense of the land's question. Lands have passed through so many Church administrations not to mention governmental transferences from Russian America, U.S. Purchase, Territory of Alaska, the State of Alaska, beginning in 1794. As His Grace outlined in the summer 2006 issue of The North Star, he has sold three parcels of originally deeded land. Two of these would have been lost to adverse possession but the parties occupying the land were honest enough not to claim adverse possession but to pay for the land. The third sale was an acre for acre trade to the village of Chuathbaluk to accommodate the installation of public utilities.
The Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska extends over 586,000 square miles and includes over 100 parishes. His Grace travels regularly by small plane, boat, four-wheeler and snowmobile to visit the faithful throughout his immense Diocese. In most of the villages he stays in parishioner's homes or on a bed in the school. Those who have traveled with him are privileged to witness the great love he has for his faithful and they for him. Churches are being built and restored and the parishioner's enthusiasm is evident in the transformations.
Under the previous administration our beloved St. Herman Seminary nearly closed its doors. Now the Seminary is thriving. It is on the verge of regaining the accreditation it lost previously to mismanagement. Remarkably, students who commit to serving in Alaska do not graduate with school debt. His Grace understands the village economy where they will serve after graduation and does not want them burdened with debt. Under His Grace's tenure there are now more priests serving in Alaska than ever before. In addition to their academic courses the seminarians receive special training in counseling and substance abuse. This was made possible through active collaboration with Native corporations and the University of Alaska, Kodiak. The Board of Trustees recently authorized the purchase of land to build new married student housing.
His Grace works actively with other support organizations such as Ilaasi and Outreach Alaska. Both are managed by volunteers and provide essential support to St. Herman Seminary. During the past summers, His Grace has hosted OCMC teams who have come to Alaska to help restore village churches and renovate the Seminary buildings. Managing volunteer organizations requires oversight, encouragement and trust. Without it, we all know nothing productive would happen. When you state that 'he disregards the rights of volunteers', I wonder how you justify this statement?
His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI has embraced the efforts of the non-profit organization, ROSSIA, to restore historic churches throughout Alaska which are in need of repair. See: http://www.rossialaska.org . People serving on this board are reputable scholars and volunteers.
I don't know that what His Grace has mortgaged in Alaska is anyone's business. I do know that upon his arrival he 'inherited' one run-down residence and less than $100 in the bank. With the sale of this property and prudent investment he was able to purchase other properties which have increased in value. He is knowledgeable and seeks expert advice about business transactions which have benefited the Diocese. Moreover, the Diocese of Alaska continues to tithe to the OCA.
Earlier I mentioned St. Tikhon Parish which holds regular services in the chapel attached to our Russian Orthodox Museum. His Grace has also established the mission parish of St. Alexis in west Anchorage. When His Grace arrived, there was only St. Innocent Cathedral in east Anchorage. Now there are three active parishes here. The St. Tikhon parish has purchased land in south Anchorage and is in the process of building a church there.
I have highlighted a few of the accomplishments achieved during the His Grace's five-year tenure as Bishop of Sitka, Anchorage and Alaska. Of course, anyone with such energy and determination as His Grace will inspire detractors. Some will imagine slights and others simply resist change. You referred to him as 'authoritarian'. His Grace certainly recognizes the awesome authority and responsibility that has been bestowed on him by virtue of his episcopacy. But, he does not abuse that authority; rather he seeks to do the will of God. One does not make the kind of significant progress across such a huge territory as Alaska in five years without having dedicated people assisting you. These people help him willingly out of love for Christ's Holy Church, for him and respect for his vision.
Mr. Stokoe, I believe I have addressed the false accusation referring to His Grace's 'seizing archives, dispersing collections, de-facto closing of museums.' What I find objectionable is the unfounded assertion that His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI ignores Native traditions. To my knowledge, you have not attended our services and heard the hymns sung in the Native dialects; you have not traveled to distant villages with His Grace and witnessed entire services in Yupik. You have not sat with him at the table in Yupik homes and partaken of Native foods and listened to the stories of the Elders. Six of the eight Deans in Alaska are Native priests. Native priests are in charge of two of the historic Cathedrals of Sitka and Unalaska. The Bishop's Protodeacon is Yupik. It even seems foreign to me to have to make this kind of justification. We all know and give thanks that our Native faithful preserved the faith throughout Alaska's history and that we are blessed to venerate St. Yakov (Netsvetov) of Aleut origin, to remember the Martyr, Peter the Aleut as well as the Martyr Juvenaly's unnamed Native companion. Incidentally, it was research initiated by His Grace into the Martyr Juvenaly's death which revealed that it was a Native companion who perished with him. In every church in this Diocese on Thursdays, the Akathist to St. Herman is sung. We praise and venerate him as one who truly interceded (and continues to intercede) on behalf of the Native people. To suggest that His Grace ignores the Native people in any way is hurting and ludicrous. As Orthodox Christians, there is one culture here and that is our oneness in Christ. We honestly do not differentiate. During this 'time of troubles' in our Orthodox Church, it is particularly critical that we remain vigilant with the words we use and the allegations we make. Without facts it becomes destructive gossip and we are called to a higher standard.
Through the annual St. Herman Pilgrimage, last year's pilgrimage of the wonderworking icon, 'The Sitka Mother of God", travels to Russia and Serbia His Grace reaches out to Orthodox communities nationally and worldwide. We recognize that we live in a Holy Land where the first saints of North America labored and he has sought to share that spiritual wealth with others.
As in any family, there will be those who resist or fall away, there will be critics and prodigal sons. And there will be those who accept and benefit from the wisdom and guidance of the parent. His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI has tremendous responsibilities in Alaska: financial, organizational and pastoral. There is not another diocese within the OCA which encompasses so many disparate cultures, parishes or land mass. Bishop NIKOLAI guides us by the Grace of God with confidence, humility and through it all, maintains a sense of humor.
In a recent address at His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI's fifth anniversary celebration, His Grace Bishop BENJAMIN quoted Dostoevsky: 'Beauty will save the world '. He made this remark in reference to His Grace's persistent efforts to beautify our Church buildings, to rejoice in the splendor of the Orthodox services and to surround us, the faithful, with beauty. His Grace celebrates the beauty of Christ's Holy Church in everything he does. He recognizes and gives thanks for the beauty in all God has given us. Through example and hard work, he has breathed vitality into this Diocese which was languishing under the previous administration. Please let it be known that we in Alaska are blessed with a Hierarch who works tirelessly and selflessly to the Glory of God for all his people. He serves as a faithful custodian of all the property under his jurisdiction. He encourages us to embrace the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through the richness of the services and through our interactions with one another. He has great expectations for us all, but no more than he expects of himself.
We have a lot to do to restore unity and confidence in our national Church. Let us proceed by acknowledging that by the Grace of God so much good continues to be done in His name and so much of that is happening in Alaska, thanks to the leadership and dedication of His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI. Let us be faithful, cautious and vigilant in how we treat one another through word and deed. It matters to each of us now, and it matters to our ultimate salvation.
If your readers are curious about the activities in our Diocese, I invite them to visit our website: www.dioceseofalaska.org
Mina (Minadora) Jacobs
Assistant to the Bishop
Director, Russian Orthodox Museum
601 A St.
Anchorage, AK 99501"
In his email forwarded to OCANews.org by a mutual acquaintance, Dr. Dauenhauer writes:
"I am writing in response to the 11.15.06 posting of 'More Trouble From Alaska' on the OCANews.org site. You have my permission to post this wherever it may serve the most good and reach the widest readership. Although I have shared the following information privately with friends, I have never spoken or written about it publicly until now. My desire has always been to resolve such issues privately, personally, within the family, but what follows will explain why this has become impossible. Perhaps greater than any single problem many of us have with Bishop Nikolai is the impossibility of discussing that problem openly and honestly, and thereby ideally resolving it in the spirit of reconciliation. It is not about communication, but power. I am 'going public' as a last resort.
I will start with a few words about myself. I am sixty-four years old. I was raised Roman Catholic, began attending Orthodox services in high school and college, and was received into the Orthodox Church in Anchorage in the late 1970s. I was tonsured a reader by Bishop Gregory in 1978. I have held all parish offices, and have served on the Diocesan Council, the Metropolitan Council (early 1980s), and as a member of the Board of Trustees of Saint Herman Seminary. I have academic degrees in Slavic languages, German, and Comparative Literature. Since moving to Alaska in 1969, I have worked in applied linguistics and folklore with Alaska Native languages, especially Tlingit. I have served on and worked for several secular, non-profit boards during my professional career. I am a former Poet Laureate of Alaska. I am currently PresidentÕs Professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast. I am a communicant of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Juneau.
I first became aware of the incident described by Dr. Lydia Black on August 8, 2001, the day after it happened. I have been a friend and colleague of Lydia for many years, and she is currently co-editing a book with my wife and me about Tlingit-Russian relations during the Baranov era that will be published in the spring of 2007 by the University of Washington Press. But she contacted me on this issue as a board member. I received an email from her saying, 'You, in your capacity as a member of the board are the first to know. I have been fired.' She explained how she had been volunteering all day to help people arriving for the St. Herman Pilgrimage to their rooms at the seminary and to get them laundry. The seminary did not provide bedding, and Lydia offered help, which seems to have backfired. She continued, 'A visiting priest to whom I gave my own sheets and pillows ran to the bishop saying that I did something or other. It is a disgrace that no linens were provided. And it turned out to be all my fault. The bishop came running to my door and ordered me out forthwith.'
Word of this spread rapidly. Over the following days, as a board member, I began to get emails and phone calls from all over the country asking me what was happening. 'I hear the bishop is out of control', reported one person. I had spoken with Lydia on the phone and knew her account of what happened. I also talked to a seminary official who told me that 'The bishop claims Lydia was fired for 'ongoing negative attitude toward the Church and Church authorities, and cynicism toward the Central Church.' I felt that as a board member I should ask Bishop Nikolai for his perspective on the episode, that I should get his point of view directly from him and not rely on second-hand information or hearsay, or on Lydia's account alone, even though I had no reason to question it. Accordingly, I emailed His Grace, Bishop Nikolai, on August 26, 2001.
I was writing in the context of his email of August 24, 2001 to me as a member of a committee of the St. Herman Seminary Board. 'Dear Bishop Nikolai, Thank you for the email and encouraging report. I am concerned about the situation with Dr. Lydia Black, and wonder if we can talk about that some time. I expect that you are busy with travel and conferences, but I would like to get your perspective on this. Sincerely Yours in Christ, John Richard Dauenhauer.
Bishop Nikolai replied a few hours later. 'Dear Richard, I don't know what perspective you want on Lydia Black? If you want to talk with me about something that is fine but I am not going to discuss Lydia in particular as that wouldn't be appropriate at your level. Love and Blessings, +Bishop Nikolai.'
I wrote back early the next morning, Monday, August 27, 2001. 'Dear Bishop Nikolai, Thank you for your prompt reply. I don't want to sound out of line on my concern over Lydia, but as a board member I am very concerned with the future of the archives, and as a 25-year-plus colleague of Lydia, I am also personally concerned about the Seminary's treatment of her as an elderly Orthodox Christian and as a scholar and volunteer. I would like to have as full an understanding of the situation as possible. If my interest is not appropriate, please accept my apologies..'
Later that day, the bishop replied, 'Dear Richard, Sometimes people who are on boards or parish councils overstep their bounds with the clergy but as long as you understand the perimeters I accept your apology. Love and Blessings, +Bishop Nikolai. p. s. the proper way to write an Orthodox Bishop, especially if you are in his diocese or the same church, is to ask his blessing or at least to address him as Your Grace, certainly not, 'Dear Bishop.'
At the time, and more so in retrospect, the email exchange was interesting for a number of reasons, both linguistic and theological. Despite the otherwise informality of email stylistic conventions, I learned that Grace and endearment seem mutually exclusive. My mistake. What is more enduring and troubling is the question of the role and responsibility of board members, whether lay or clergy, in a theocracy, what is 'appropriate' for my 'level'. How are we to 'understand the perimeters?' How do we understand 'obedience' in the living tradition of Orthodoxy? The bottom line seems to be that as a layperson, I do not have the right to ask certain questions of a bishop. As a board member, I do not have the right to ask certain questions of management. For a linguist, this exchange provides interesting data on information flow in a hierarchy. This seems symptomatic of the larger, ongoing problem in the OCA today. I never received an answer from Bishop Nikolai on his 'side of the story'. Therefore, we must rely on Lydia's account and that of eyewitnesses, all of whom support her account.
The event of early August (2001) received renewed internet attention around October 10, with a flurry of activity on the Orthodox Forum, some of which was forwarded to me by friends (as I am not a regular participant). I would like to comment in particular on what Bishop Tikhon had to say on October 12, 2001, when he contributed to the running dialog with the following. 'She was given lodging at the not-so-prosperous seminary FREE in exchange for the work she does for her own museum? Who arranged that? Was this event something like a last straw? By the way, speaking as, on the one hand, a 69 year old (as of next month), and, on the other, as a person with some experience of Church Life a seventy-year old laywoman can be a formidable, stubborn, trouble and disturbance of church order to the same extent or more as a twenty-year old. I believe Lydia has been recently decorated by the Russian government, so I do not question the worth of her personal museum: I just wonder how it rated her free lodging in a struggling seminary. Love, +Bishop Tikho [sic].
Here the idea of 'her own museum' and 'her personal museum' enter the discourse, and the problem of what constitutes 'free lodging' arises. Disinformation at best, one wonders where Bishop Tikhon obtained his information. Presumably from his protege, Bishop Nikolai. The St. Herman Seminary museum and archive were by no means Lydia's 'personal museum'. In fact, construction was financed in part through grant support from the State of Alaska, so that the facility is even more than the 'personal' museum of the Seminary or Diocese, and is to some extent shared with the interests of the public at large. I find this disinformation, combined with the personal attack discrediting Lydia as a little old lady and disturbance of Church order, disturbingly close to the bearing of false witness by a person who is expected, in the words of the OCA service book, 'rightly to define the word of Thy truth'. Lydia was working for the Seminary at no salary; her only compensation was a place to live. The arrangement was made by the Dean of the Seminary, approved by the Bishop.
At the time, I did not enter the fray on this; the email battle was lively enough without my participation, and I still had hopes of resolving such issues privately and quietly. I did, however, write to Bishop Tikhon later (as a member of the Synod of Bishops) on another matter, along with other members of our parish petitioning in support of our priest who was being defrocked by Bishop Nikolai for the sole sin of asking not to serve under Bishop Nikolai, but to accept an invitation to serve with the Antiochian parish in Eagle River, near Anchorage. In an email of March 23, 2005 to me and several other recipients I received an interesting reply. Along with asking who gave us permission to write to him, Tikhon, Bishop of San Francisco and the West, commented, 'This disorderly and tiresome (at best) petition is ... just [the] rustling of ... mice ... nothing to get excited about.' This is the first time I and half of our then-active parish have been compared to vermin by a vicar of Christ.
I would like to describe one more encounter with Bishop Nikolai. I believe it is accurate to say that Bishop Nikolai initially received 100% support from me and from most of us in the diocese. He was charming and cordial on his December 2001 visit to our parish in Juneau. He was witty and delightful in subsequent emails. After his installation as Bishop in Sitka in March 2002, decrees began to flow, each indicating another thing that was wrong with diocesan practices, and ordering change. One decree forbade us to wear crosses in church (such as the St. Herman Cross Lydia described). Another ordered our parish back to the old calendar. With the blessings of two bishops, we had been on the new calendar in Juneau for twelve years. In April 2003 Bishop Nikolai and his entourage visited Juneau. At the dinner in the parish hall after liturgy, I asked him why we were no longer allowed to hear the anaphora prayers, which he ordered priests to read silently.
He replied, 'In case you haven't noticed, there are two kinds of people in church: the clergy and the laity. Those are my prayers, not yours.' I remain very disturbed by the clericalism of this reply. It runs contrary to most of the Eucharistic theology I have been reading. I see his insistence on late-nineteenth-century Russian rubrics as a pastoral dead end. We are twenty-first-century North Americans, not serfs in Tsarist Russia or the Ottoman Empire. The goals of full, conscious, active lay participation in the Divine Liturgy and of responsible stewardship were replaced by policies of 'pay, pray, and obey', and 'my way or the highway'. The conciliar Church, the Church of 'speaking the truth in love', can easily degenerate into a Stalinesque reign of terror. To put it more harshly, the Prophecy of Hosea reminds us, as I understand it, that the Church can become a whore.
The afternoon continued apace. The bishop invited questions from parishioners, but then seemed threatened by them. These questions were neutral and informational, not baiting or provocative, but were often answered not only defensively, but offensively. The replies were often an attack on the questioner. Some of the comments I noted in the course of his replies were, 'I didn't ASK to come here! In Las Vegas I lived in a palace. Do you know how long it takes to get used to a honey bucket?' I thought to myself, this man is speaking to a roomful of faithful church goers, most of whom were born in rural Alaska, and raised with honey buckets. I've lived with honey buckets. Yes, we do know. Or, as one young mother muttered to me, 'Yes, I'm not used to living in a palace in Las Vegas.'
The inability of the faithful to ask legitimate questions of the hierarchy is not spiritually healthy for either group, as the current OCA financial scandal demonstrates. In fairness to Bishop Nikolai, I must state that some rumors I was able to investigate proved to be misunderstandings. But other reports proved true. As long as there is no process for dialog or communication, the rumors and Nikolai-lore will thrive and expand unchecked. One can privately ask forgiveness of the Bishop for violation of protocol and be reinstated to his personal and administrative good graces, but that won't solve the continuing problems that give rise to the questions in the first place. It only hides them away, covers them up. As long as the protocols include no vehicle for open, honest assessment of reality, and for reciprocal forgiveness and changing of course when conflicts are resolved, we enable questionable practices to continue in secret, often obscured by a public relations campaign. (By the way, the alpine background to St. Nicholas Church in Juneau on the recent fundraising stamp is an electronic fake.)
I could relate many more episodes and raise other issues, but they are beyond my purpose here, which is to confirm the encounter between Bishop Nikolai and Dr. Black. Taken alone, many of these events and examples are trivial, but the cumulative effect is painful, demoralizing, and deadening. I was reminded by one spiritual advisor: 'Jesus is living, even when we seek him among the dead, like prisoners in Plato's cave.'