The House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church meets twice every year. The bishops include spouses for the fall meeting, and in September 2017, Karen Knisely accompanied her husband, the Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, to the meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview with Dave Seifert, diocesan communications consultant, Karen shares memories and messages from that visit.
Q: Why Alaska?
Karen: The presiding bishop (The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry) likes to guide the meetings to places that need help or awareness. What can the Episcopal Church do for the people in that place?
Q: What did you and Bishop Knisely do while you were there?
Karen: The typical agenda primarily has meetings for the bishops, but it also consists of smaller groups making visitations to churches or engaging in community projects. A few groups went out to the wilderness to visit villages, and the rest of us stayed in Fairbanks. The bishops went to bless the land to raise environmental awareness in both the remote villages and in the city.
Q:Who typically lives in Fairbanks?
Karen: I thought Fairbanks would be like Providence, but I was surprised how few people I saw out on the streets. It’s economically depressed and leans so much on summer vacationers (sounds familiar?). Fairbanks has low-income housing for folks who can’t survive in the remote villages. They miss their village families but can’t physically survive out there. The bishops’ spouses talked about praying for people in the villages, and I proposed that we also pray for the people in Fairbanks.
However, there were some bright spots, including a small park along the river. There is also a beautiful arts and cultural center called the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. One of the main characters featured there was an Episcopal priest who was elected Bishop of Alaska and became a local hero. He reached out to people in the wilderness by flying, and a replica of his airplane is on display. (Note: The Rt. Rev. William J. Gordon Jr., elected in 1948, became known as “the Flying Bishop of Alaska.” In 1952, the Episcopal Church Women raised money nationally to buy him a new airplane.)
Q: What was memorable about seeing Fairbanks and Alaska?
Karen: What was memorable to me was learning about how delicate the connection is between the cities and the remote villages. I was blessed to fly in during the day. It’s the northernmost city in Alaska in an area that’s predominantly wilderness. When I arrived, it looked like a moonscape: rugged and very flat but beautiful. The airport has three runways — one for commercial planes, one for smaller planes and then a water runway, because so many of their planes are seaplanes.
One important point I heard about is about how these airplanes could only take so much weight. So each passenger could have been replaced with food or supplies for the villagers. The bishops and spouses were very much aware of this and brought with them much-needed supplies. There’s a thin thread between Fairbanks and the villages, and it’s those planes delivering life-sustaining materials.
Q: What about some of the other spouses’ stories?
Karen: I heard one story about the changing environment. Each village location is based on a river. The water is not only a source for drinking and cleaning, but it also provides food with the fish and the animals that come there to eat and drink. Villagers talked about how low the water level has become in their local river. It turns out that the glacier feeding the river has receded so far back that the outflowing water is now redirected to another stream. It was nothing they could control, but the results are serious indeed when there is a very delicate balance for survival.
Q: Did you have any notable local experiences?
Karen: All the bishops and spouses went to a potlatch (traditional gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest). We drove an hour to a village that had one enormous hall that could seat about 300 people. Everyone in the village and the surrounding area was invited.
The only table was in the center, for food. We sat on chairs in a large circle and were fed by the younger generation. We were told to please accept everything given to us. The main course was moose head soup. Literally, soup with a moose head in it. It had cooked all day, outside over a fire, and had vegetables and potatoes, along with other bits and pieces of the moose. It was eye-opening but quite delicious. Then, at the end, dessert consisted of ice cream made with crumbled whitefish and berries; it’s considered quite a delicacy.
If you’re a villager and come to a potlatch, you know to bring Tupperware or zip bags so that you can take home whatever is not eaten. It’s a rare opportunity to get that quantity of food. That’s why it was so important that we received the food graciously and we give back any leftover food. Think about this: They had to kill at least three moose for the potlatch, and that could have fed an entire village for the winter. It was truly humbling.
At the end of the potlach, we were all given beaded necklaces made by the local villagers as a sign of welcome and honor. Mine is hanging on the wall in my room where I can be reminded each day of our amazing experiences and to pray for them.
Q: What else did you learn from the visit?
Karen: We had the opportunity to visit friends who live in Fairbanks. One family moved there many years ago from the East Coast and fell in love with Alaska from the very beginning. Another friend is a student at the local university and loves being able to walk out of her dormitory and within minutes she is in the wilderness. So, to see Alaska through their eyes of appreciation was inspiring.
Q: What do you want Rhode Island Episcopalians to know about your visit?
Karen: The most important reason the presiding bishop wanted us there was to bring back stories — to make sure we shared what we saw and heard. It’s why the diocese invested in sending me there, so that there was something I could bring back to us here. The entire experience was very humbling and inspiring.