Fr. David Salmon, the first Gwich’in Athabaskan to be ordained to the priesthood, was one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. His ministry touched thousands, though he lived in a small village on the border of Alaska and Canada. His knowledge and wisdom were respected by academics, clergy, and politicians, though he had finished only the second grade in school. When, in October 2007, he died at the age of 95, he was the traditional chief of all of the Athabaskan First Nations of Alaska. Flags flew at half-staff across the state.
Fr. David often used an ancient Athabaskan teaching technique, still alive among many of the Athabaskan, or Dene, peoples, including the Navajo in the U.S. Southwest. He would use his hand to teach Eph. 4:11, suggesting that Paul may have used five fingers as a way to show that the Holy is imprinted in Creation. Five is significant, he would say, because our hands have five fingers and our true humanity is written on our hands-an obvious connection to the Ten Commandments. As my teacher and friend Steve Darden would say, “The tongue can lie, but the hand never lies.”
If I say that I love you, but my hand hurts you, I prove that I am a liar.
Fr. David would point to his thumb, the “Apostle-Bishop,” and show that it was the only finger that touched all of the others ministries. The first finger pointed, which indicated the spiritual gift of prophesy. The second finger, as evangelist, was the longest finger. The third finger, on which we place the wedding band, stood for the pastor. The little finger was the teacher; when you move it, the other fingers move
He would use this device to encourage people to recognize their spiritual gifts and the gifts of others. They are, he said, distributed in each of us, each in our own unique way, and in all of the church. We should look for the gifts, not only in the churches, but in our families, in our co-workers, and in the community at large.
God’s purpose touches each and every human being. It is our privilege, responsibility and joy to take God’s hand of anointed ministry and mission, and walk in partnership with the Holy. Ω
Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.