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72 years later, a missionary remains part of the village she went to serve

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 30, 2017
  • Published June 21, 2017

Alice Green sits in her room at the Anchorage Pioneer Home in Anchorage, Alaska. Green will turn 100 years old next month. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Alice Green recalls the day the people of Savoonga first tasted Coca-Cola.

The steamer North Star visited the village on St. Lawrence Island after a long absence during World War II. The purser was offering Cokes for $1 a bottle.

The village remains one of the most remote in Alaska. In those days, mail came by dog sled from Gambell in the winter and on the ship with supplies a couple of times a summer.

Green had arrived on an amphibious military plane to be a Presbyterian missionary after a monthlong trip.

A villager came to ask if Coke was all right to drink.

"They thought it was liquor," she said. "So they didn't want to purchase it. Well then, when I bought a bottle of it, everybody else bought bottles of it. They didn't like it though. They thought it was horrible tasting. The fizz caught them by surprise."

Green, who will turn 100 next month, lives in the Anchorage Pioneer Home, but she recalls that past world in detail. I think she remembers so well because she loved it there.

Green grew up in Denver with stories of Alaska from two aunts who had worked at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka in 1914. The first thing she remembers ever wanting was to go to Alaska.

Although her family couldn't afford college, a friend paid for her attendance at seminary to become a Presbyterian Church worker. In those days a woman couldn't be a minister but could be a missionary. (When the rules changed, Green became the first Presbyterian woman ordained in Alaska, in 1972.)

The war was still on when she arrived in Savoonga. Her house was 15-by-16 feet square, too small for her trunk. There was no church, so she held services in the attic of the school and in homes.

She remembers the day the war ended. The men of the Alaska Territorial Guard — exquisitely drilled and disciplined — came to the school and fired their guns. Then the village shared apple dumplings.

The school burned the next year. Green managed construction of a church with volunteer labor. It is still in use 70 years later.

Alice Green, wearing red, stands outside the Savoonga Presbyterian Church, which she helped to build in the 1950s. (Courtesy Alice Green)

Jenny Alowa, now retired and living in Anchorage, remembers Christmas celebrations in that church when she was a child.

Presbyterians around the United States would send used clothes and small gifts such as cards, jacks and hard candy. In November, village women sorted the shipment into packages. After singing in church, each family would receive its Christmas gifts.

Then, the next day, they would go back to the church, sing again, and exchange the same gifts with one another.

Alowa remembers a village without alcohol, sweets or running water, where an adult would walk around ringing a cowbell at 10 p.m. to enforce the children's bedtime. Food came from the sea and the tundra.

Green officiated at funerals, hosted children for games in her little house, traveled by dog sled and skin boat and taught her faith. The church was full every Sunday because almost everyone in the village of 250 attended.

The word "missionary" has become negative for many Alaska Natives raised on elders' stories of forced assimilation. But Alowa said Green wasn't like that. She always had her services translated into Siberian Yupik.

"We shaped her and she shaped us. Both ways. She was part of us. There was no color line, no nothing. Because her heart was in the right place. She was not that type of typical missionary—'shame on you'—you know those things. She made God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus loving and understanding," Alowa said.

Alice Green emerges from her home in Savoonga during the snowy winter of 1945. (Courtesy Alice Green)

A father came to Green one day to ask her to talk to his daughter, who had refused to go through with an arranged marriage to a village boy. Green sat down with the girl privately.

In the village, a dozen extended family members would live in a tiny home like Green's. The girl said she couldn't live with her fiance's mother.

Besides, she loved a boy from Gambell.

Green explained the situation to the girl's father. A few weeks later, he made new arrangements with the father of the boy from Gambell.

Angela Larson, whose parents adopted Green into her family, said she was a strong, hardworking lady who never complained, despite sharing the villagers' hardships.

They're both aging now, but Larson still calls Green to tell her when she is traveling and when she is home safely.

"I was supposed to be helping her. She's helping me," Larson said.

Green stayed in Savoonga until 1955, worked as chaplain at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage until 1970, then returned to Savoonga as a priest until 1982, when she was required to retire at age 65.

She also served Korean and Alaska Native Presbyterian congregations in Anchorage. She only stopped teaching Bible study two years ago at Trinity Presbyterian, when her vision failed.

Carol Combs, a teacher in Savoonga in the 1970s, introduced me to Green.

Green said that second decade she spent in the village was different. Alcohol had arrived with the construction of a runway. With booze came new social problems and gunshot injuries, which had been almost unknown during her first stay.

During that earlier period, when villagers had next to nothing, and no connection to the outside world, they had everything they needed—the rich traditional food they shared and a community that cared for each of them.

That sounds something like paradise to me. And it was for Green.

"The reason I liked it so much was because they were such fine people," she said. "They were wonderful people to be with. Somebody said to me, 'How can you stand to be there alone?' I said, 'I'm not alone.' I said, 'I've got all these people here, and they're very fine people.' "

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