On Nov. 29, Archpriest Michael Oleksa of the Orthodox Church in America died from a stroke at age 76, having spent the vast majority of his life in Alaska. It was an abrupt end to the story of a man who loved stories and was skilled at recounting them. The man most Alaskans came to know simply as “Father Oleksa” was one of the state’s foremost proponents and teachers of cross-cultural communication, working for decades to help build bridges of understanding between Alaska’s white and Native communities, between his church and the lay people, and between youth, adults and elders of all kinds.
Father Oleksa was born in Pennsylvania in 1947, and after attending seminary in New York, he came directly to Alaska in 1970. He didn’t know what to expect when he arrived, as he later recounted, so he spent a solid stretch of time mostly listening to the residents of Old Harbor on Kodiak Island. According to Oleksa, he was modeling the approach of some of the first Eastern Orthodox priests who arrived in Alaska, who spent the months after their arrival asking the Native people what they believed rather than simply trying to impose the teachings of their church without regard to the beliefs and culture of the people who lived there. It was a practice that would form the foundation of Oleksa’s focus on communicating across cultures.
What Father Oleksa heard as he listened fascinated him. “That’s one of the reasons I stayed in Alaska so many years,” he said. “I was intrigued to meet older people who were qualitatively superior to almost any people I’d ever met. They were kinder than most people I’d ever met. They were more patient — they were more forgiving, they were more loving, they were more generous. You could make the list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and these elders were all of those things... they hadn’t learned these things from books, they had learned it because this was the wisdom that was passed down through the ages in the stories, myths and legends of the tribe.”
That willingness to recognize and accept the value of other cultures and ways of knowing was Father Oleksa’s trademark, and it was what made him a disarming communicator. He sought out common values and frames of reference, using them as a means to build toward shared understanding. It’s a far cry from the notion we hear in today’s politics (and, distressingly, sometimes in houses of worship) of different cultures competing in a zero-sum game where for one worldview to prevail, all others must be subjugated.
Fortunately for those of us who no longer have Father Oleksa on hand to build those bridges in person, a substantial quantity of his teachings have been captured for posterity in both written and video form — several lectures in a series titled “Communicating Across Cultures” were captured at Juneau TV station KTOO, and a host of interviews with Oleksa exist on YouTube, including a lecture on the Alaska Native cultural legacy hosted by Villanova University. Oleksa also taught for many years at Alaska Pacific University, and his lectures were also used in courses throughout the campuses of the University of Alaska, where thousands of students benefited from his perspective.
Late in his life, Oleksa was key to an effort to bestow sainthood upon Matushka Olga Michael, a Kwethluk elder who in November was canonized by the Orthodox Church as the first woman saint of North America. Matushka Olga, according to the church, “was known for her empathy and care for those who had suffered abuse of all sorts,” giving aid and comfort to the poor and battered in her community.
And for Father Oleksa’s part, in the late 2000s, he was granted an honor he valued among the highest of his life: He was recognized as an elder by the Alaska Federation of Natives, coming full circle to become one of the people who, in Oleksa’s own words, “don’t just know things, they embody them.” The highest gift we can give to his memory is to remember his example and listen first, value the perspective of others as much as our own and seek to make connections between their experience and ours. Throughout his life, Oleksa embodied the understanding he sought to spread, and Alaska is better for it.