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What I saw on my summer vacation

By September 24, 2021 9 Comments

Her apparel suggested a sect I didn’t recognize. Her husband wore a great bushy beard. He appeared to be a man not afraid of work—farming probably.

She didn’t mean to hide. They weren’t Muslim, and no Old Order Amish I’d ever seen dressed in such flamboyance, as if she were insisting on, rather than resisting, attention. 

You can’t help thinking rural Alaska has more than its share of folks who want nothing more than to be left alone to live off all kinds of grids. Just rugged individualists, I thought.

They paid for their goods and left. Nothing in their behavior or groceries suggested some freaky religion, but their unique dress had to be a religious statement. They looked Depression-era—Dorthea Lange types–except for the opulence of her dress, and cape, a full scarf. It was no burqa. 

At our next stop for groceries, three women and their children were similarly dressed, but younger and meticulously made up as if they were about to be photographed for a magazine feature. 

Glamorous, long, dangling earrings, eye shadow, lipstick, each of them were similarly hooded in vibrant silky prints. They were not cowering or shrouding their beauty; they purposed to be glamorous. What was their thing?—I was dying to know.

So I asked. “Your dress–it’s very beautiful,” I said. “It’s part of your religion?” 

Young woman, maybe five kids. Getting them all into the van required more than she cared to give, but she smiled at me, nodded, and said something I didn’t quite understand, something about there being so many beautiful colors to choose from in the world. 

“Yes,” I said, and let it go.

Then, in yet another line, this one in a bakery, we stood beside yet another woman dressed and hooded in a silky flowery print. Maybe thirty years old, same dress. 

“You’re tourists?” she said, a question that made clear she was interested. We did the ordinary salutations, and I asked her the same question–“Your dress is beautiful. It’s meant to indicate some specific faith?”

“Orthodox,” she said, smiling. She was Russian, she said, although born here. And that was her mother, she told us, pointing at a tiny woman in a babushka. Born here, in the States, in Oregon. Her mother, she said, had never learned to speak English.

They’re called Russian Old Believers. Amazing.

Around the time of the Mayflower, they suffered what they considered to be a frightful change in church liturgy. They pulled up stakes and never returned. They speak their original Slavonic language, almost entirely unspoken elsewhere in the world, packed it up and took it along with a significant portion of the old way of practicing their purified Orthodox faith.

And they’ve got some miles on them. Originally Russian, they were chased out for their beliefs, so the forefathers and mothers walked until they felt safe, a massive emigration that brought them from Russia into China, where they lived quite happily until 1948, when the new communist regime ruled foreigners out. 

When they left, many went to Brazil or Uruguay, where they stayed together in communities they built with their own hands, always practicing their traditional faith in four or five-hour Orthodox worship. They had trouble practicing their Christmas rituals in the middle of summer, enough to make them look around for another place to call home.

Home became Alaska’s Kenai peninsula, where today they live in communities all their own, communities of Russian Old Believers–Old Order Amish from the pages of Vogue.

The young woman in the bakery, with her mother and her daughter, showed no sign of discomfort as we talked. It was Saturday night. I couldn’t help ask. “So if we wanted to come to church with you tomorrow,” I said. “where would we go?”

She waved off the question. They worshipped at Homer, a couple hours away.

“Homer?” I said. “We were just there.”

“Oh, it’s really hard to find,” she said. “It’s a long way from Homer even.”

I took it that Russian Old Believers weren’t much into evangelism.

I’m not the biblical scholar some of the Twelve are, but I think there’s some difference of opinion on the whole Babel story. What a curse it must have been in Shinar when a bunch of working stiffs were suddenly incapable of saying “pass the wrench.” The tower didn’t so much as come down, I suppose, as just go unfinished. The Almighty could have made us all members of a single church who dress the same, eat the same vegetables, carry on in the same language; but at Babylon he made a lingual mess of things and the people scattered. It was punishment, or so I was taught years ago.

What sweet agonies. Some went to Russia, then China, then Bolivia, then Homer, Alaska, where these folks build ships and fish commercially and, more than occasionally, do some serious shopping at Alaskan fabric stores.

But the Creator of Heaven and Earth spun into motion yet another language mess some centuries later, when the disciples started speaking to each other in tongues that others appeared, oddly enough, to understand. Once upon a time on a huge construction job, he drove us apart; and once upon a time on a street in Jerusalem, he brought us together, even passed out little tongues of flame if the language thing wasn’t proof enough of a sea change.

The Russian Old Believers were dressed out in finery I’d never seen before, but they bought groceries from the same stores, packed their kids in with seat belts, and took aging moms along shopping; they use iPads and cell phones, and that night at the bakery, some few were lined up to buy the very same jelly-filled belt busters for a special Sunday morning breakfast.

It’s quite a world. On our Alaska trip this summer, we saw grizzlies and moose, caught rock fish and halibut, spotted whales and sea lions, even stood by a calving glacier. All Alaskan-level wonderful.

But those Old Russian Believers were the most amazing. Loved it.

Like that mom in the parking lot said while packing up her kids, “So many beautiful colors in this world.”

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh yes, makes me so happy.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Hi Jim,
    I’ve learned a different take on the Babel story. The Tower Builders were forcing those living in the Empire, to speak only one language: theirs. God means for humans to speak in a variety of languages, with tribes and (other nations) to flourish, not be subsumed.
    Even in the New Creation, tribes and peoples and nations still persist. It is not a melting pot. It’s more like a pot luck, each bringing their own unique gifts to the Table.
    But Luke’s Pentecost story is meant to reveal that there is One Table: The Table of our Lord. All are invited to share in the largess, bringing our redeemed selves to the Table. The language we use? The Language of Love

  • Jim Payton says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience interacting with Russian Old Blievers. I’ve had the privilege of studying and teaching Orthodoxy and its history over many years. The story — and history — of the Old Believers is intriguing.

  • Ann McGlothlin Weller says:

    Thank you for sharing this very interesting piece. I hope you were able to visit Sitka, where there is much Russian history.

    • James Schaap says:

      Didn’t visit Sitka, but I’d love to go back and stop there. I’ve been very interested in the work of Rev. Sheldon Jackson, who did more than a little work in that region–also the Sheldon Jackson Museum and College. Alaska seems to me to be a great place to visit–and re-visit!

  • Gary and Laura Van Dyke says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It reminds us that we saw the same things almost 30 years ago. We remember the little Russian orthodox Church.

  • Emily R Brink says:

    Loved this, Jim. I remember the first time I saw a beautiful b/w drawing of a Russian Orthodox Church in Northern CA; they evidently dot the coast from Alaska on down, all connected by sea more than by land. In fact, I used it on a cover of Reformed Worship once. Hidden beauty.

  • Allen Likkel says:

    Thanks for the delightful story. You blessed our day!
    Allen and Lynn Likkel

  • sawsmachine says:

    I appreciate you sharing your knowledge. really fantastic article. I wish you had the chance to go to Sitka, which has a rich Russian history.

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