“I need a new communion kit. But it can’t be bought.”
Peter John, traditional chief of the Athabaskans of Alaska and spiritual leader to thousands beyond that, presented me with this dilemma as I brought him communion in his home in Minto. Though more than 100 years old, his presence was strong; he was certain of what he said. But his speech was often mysterious, requiring prayer and faith on the part of listeners until a deeper meaning emerged.
I thought about it a lot. Every time I saw him for the next year, he would ask, “Where is my communion kit?” When I suggested I could purchase one for him, he said, “No. It cannot be bought.” I was stumped and nervous. What could this mean?
As I sat in my office one day, thinking and praying, I looked up. I saw the communion kit of Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, certainly one of the greatest missionaries of any era and a hero to the native peoples of Alaska. He, along with a number of Athabaskan companions, was the first to climb to the top of Mount Denali. Often known as Mount McKinley outside of Alaska, it is the highest peak in North America.
Archdeacon Stuck made the excursion in 1913 to show the tremendous capacity of native technology and skill. He was confident that the presence of the living word of God in creation gave to the peoples of the land a wisdom that had much to teach others. The gospel made the conditions for a creative exchange. To say that the gospel implied the end of native wisdom was, he insisted, a monstrous conceit.
The communion kit was given to me by a family. They had found it among some items left by a deceased relative with connections to Alaska.
It was the communion kit that could not be bought.
I quickly and eagerly brought it to Peter John. He held it, trembling, as he told me of being at St. Mark’s Mission in Nenana when Stuck and company returned from Denali. He held it high and began to pray.
He said that it had been spiritually revealed to him that this was the kit Hudson Stuck took with him to Denali. He began to pray, saying, “God has given Peter John Hudson Stuck’s communion kit for his last journey.”
It was, without question, one of the most moving events of my life. Crying with him, there was a sense that the room had dissolved and we were somewhere else.
I think of this event often. These are people whom God has placed among us-the Hudson Stucks, the Peter Johns-and they are still there, if you look and believe. More important, this is the God, whose compelling and creating presence is just a short distance beyond our perception, calling us forward, calling us deeper into the mystery of the presence of the living word of God revealed in the good news of Jesus.
Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.