Alaska

Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

It was hard to find any relevant art to accompany this post about the recent New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Football Among the Old Believers, in Alaska."

That's a compliment. This was a really unique subject for a news story.

I couldn't run the Times art, of course, because it's brand new and under copyright (and the newspaper didn't post a YouTube feature about the piece, as news organizations often do). The subject matter was so strange and specific that it was hard to find other art that combined the various subjects at the heart of the story. I mean, look at the second part of the double-decker headline:

Keeping a high school football team together is tough, between a Russian Orthodox sect leery of the outside world and the chores of life in an isolated village.

So we have high-school football, way up north, in a village that's home to a very specific "sect" -- I would have said "splinter group" -- linked to the Russian Orthodox faith that is a crucial part of the history of Alaska. Remote? We're talking 50 or 60 families on the Kenai Peninsula 200-plus miles south of Anchorage.

It's a classic old-faith wrestles with modernity tale, the kind of semi-National Geographic feature often written after a visit to Amish country.

What is missing? The whole point is that these people practice a bizarre faith that makes it hard to do "normal things" -- like play football -- in the "real" world. Readers are shown many symbolic details that illustrate what that looks like. The problem is that the Times team all but ignored the contents of the faith that defines these lives. It's like reading a sociological report about monks that ignores their prayers and worship. Imagine a story about members of the New York Philharmonic that ignores their love of music.

Here is the overture:

VOZNESENKA, Alaska -- The football players wore their black and yellow jerseys to class last Friday, a day before the home opener for Voznesenka School, the smallest high school in Alaska to field a team.
But a game required at least 11 players. And so far at practice this summer, the Cougars had fielded no more than 10.

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Alaska media don't get trans United Methodist minister-turned-activist

Alaska media don't get trans United Methodist minister-turned-activist

While teaching at the University of Alaska two years ago, I picked up a lot of resentment on the part of the residents against what they call Outsiders (with a capital “O”) showing up in the 49th state and telling Alaskans what to do.

Alaska has a large transient population (including a lot of military personnel who transfer in and out), so lots of folks there figure that until you’ve lasted through a few winters, you’re just passing through.

Still, many Alaska residents have come from somewhere else.

One of the folks who arrived there several years ago was a transgendered United Methodist minister. I’ll return in a moment to the history of Drew Phoenix but first, I want to point out how he made the news this week in this story from the Associated Press:

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- The Alaska Legislature on Tuesday rejected the appointment of Drew Phoenix, a transgender man, to serve on the state’s human rights commission.
The vote came near the end of an hours-long joint session called to consider Gov. Bill Walker’s nominees to boards, commissions and administration posts. Phoenix was the only nominee to be voted down.
Leading up to the vote, some conservative groups sought to paint Phoenix, who has advocated for LGBT rights, as too political for the post.

The story then includes some vague quotes from a Republican and a Democrat and then:

In a phone interview Tuesday evening, Phoenix said he was “incredibly upset and disheartened” by the vote.
“I just find it so ironic that somebody like myself, with so much years’ experience personally and professional working on behalf of human rights, that they would not confirm me to the commission on human rights,” he said.
Phoenix said a state Senate committee that held confirmation hearings asked him questions related to his work as a transgender man with the LGBT community and if, given the opportunity, he would work to advance issues of equality for the LGBT community through the commission. He said he replied that, if that’s what the commission seeks to do, he would.
He said one conservative group has framed the advancement of LBGT people as posing a threat to religious freedom. He said he is an ordained Christian minister and values religious freedom.

“He said” he is an ordained Christian minister? That isn't an established fact?

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Of football and faith in Fairbanks: The News-Miner tells half the story

Of football and faith in Fairbanks: The News-Miner tells half the story

I spent nine months at the University of Alaska this past academic year teaching journalism and one of the courses I offered was on religion reporting.

It’s a needed quantity in the 49th state, as the only Alaskan on the rolls of the Religion Newswriters Association was one of my students and there’s no one really covering the beat anywhere in the state. Which is odd, and sad, since Alaska has a varied religious history ranging from Russian Orthodox missionaries to much more recent Muslim immigrants.

Every once in a blue moon, I’d spot a piece about religion in the Alaska Dispatch News, the state’s largest paper. In the fall of 2014, I asked its publisher, Alice Rogoff, about hiring a full-time specialist, and she sounded interested but a year later, I am still waiting for news. I should note the ADN has Chris Thompson, a religion columnist who fills in some of the gaps, but in terms of hard news, there’s not much out there. The ADN is based in Anchorage but I lived to the north in Fairbanks, where the biggest religion story last year was the installation of a new Catholic bishop.

Which is why I was a bit surprised to see a piece in the News-Miner, Fairbanks’ daily newspaper, about an unwanted Christian message at a local public school. It starts as follows:

FAIRBANKS -- A speaker who visited several Fairbanks public schools may have run afoul of federal law last week when he handed out religious ministry material to students during at least one all-school assembly.
The speaker, Randy Rich, visited most of the secondary schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. His talk was titled “Dare to Dream” and focused on conceiving and achieving life goals.
The speech itself avoided adhering to a specifically religious message, but some teachers expressed concern after Rich, following his speech, offered a ministry pamphlet to students that he reportedly billed as his football card from his time playing in the National Football League.

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Muslims in northern latitudes get their day in the sun

Muslims in northern latitudes get their day in the sun

Earlier this week, Religion News Service ran an intriguing story by a Reuters reporter about Muslims who live in far northern latitudes and their struggles to keep the Ramadan fast when daylight stretches for nearly 24 hours. 

Personal note: For the past year, I’ve lived in Alaska, where daylight is as little as two hours in the winter and is now at 22 hours. From my perch in Fairbanks, the sun sets at 12:45 a.m. and rises at 2:58 a.m. It’s a tad hard to sleep when you get a blast of sunshine (even through closed blinds) at 3 a.m. Last week, I visited Prudhoe Bay, where at 70º latitude, the sun never sets from May 20 to July 22. It’s beyond weird to go to bed there in broad daylight.

So here you have a religion founded in latitudes close to the equator where huge swings in hours of daylight aren’t an issue. But what happens when that religion expands to the north and south? As the story says:

(RNS) When the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan begins later this week, some Muslims around the world will face bigger challenges than others. The Quran is clear that the fast should last from before dawn to after dusk but says nothing about how many hours that might be.
Since Islam has spread from its Arabian heartland to the far reaches of the Earth, Muslims who live farther north must fast several hours longer than those in Mecca. On the year’s longest day, June 21, some could end up fasting for as long as 20 hours.
Usama Hasan, a British Islamic scholar, thinks this makes Ramadan fasting unbearable for many Muslims living in Northern Europe and Canada, especially the old and children just beginning to observe the practice. It also prompts many Muslims to give up fasting altogether during the summer, he said, or sneak a secret snack to help them get through the long days.

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