When my family and I arrived in Alaska May 15, we played tourist for several days in Anchorage and Seward. We enjoyed the natural beauty of God’s creation – animals, mountains, streams, rivers, ice, snow and glaciers. It was a real treat and I hope to blog about those experiences later.

Today, I want to write about the rest of our trip – where we went, our reason for going and what we found there.

From Anchorage we flew to Bethel, a town of about 6,000 people located on Kuskokwim River. Bethel is only accessible by plane or boat – though I think the boat traffic is mainly reserved for cargo. Aviation is lifeblood of the town. Three Alaska Airlines 737 jets a day link Bethel to Anchorage – carrying passengers and cargo. Bethel serves as a hub for bush planes that connect to more than 50 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. At all times of the day you can hear planes taking off and landing.

According to the statistics I found, Bethel’s population is about 61 percent Native Alaskan (mostly Yup’ik people). Bethel was started by Moravian missionaries sent to share the gospel with the Yup’ik people. It is common to hear the Yup’ik language spoken throughout town. My niece even went to a Yup’ik immersion grade school where she learned the language and the culture along with her studies. Caucasians make up much of the rest of the population, but there are also Koreans and other Asians as well as a sizable Albanian community.

The town infrastructure is of network of several paved roads and many dirt roads. Some neighborhoods are connected to piped water and sewer service (the sewer pipes are above ground to protect the permafrost). In other neighborhoods water trucks deliver water on a weekly basis. Large tanks store the water and residents are careful about their consumption. These homes have another tank for waste water. Pumper trucks come by to remove the sewage.

We came to this remote place in far western Alaska for my niece’s high school graduation from Bethel Regional High School. Watching my niece and nephews from afar, I have been impressed with the opportunities this small school gives its students. Lauren and her brother Mitchell have gone on amazing school trips. It seems they are receiving a great education from school with great community involvement. So Ethan will be in high school too.

The Bethel gym was packed for graduation – 1,200 or more people came to see the 53 graduates receive their diplomas. It was a community-wide event. The service ran almost 2 hours.

Graduation is a big deal in Bethel, and from what I hear, throughout Alaska. Dropout rates are high in the state. For some reason lots of students choose not to finish. Those who do finish celebrate the accomplishment with big parties for family and friends in the days following graduation. Lauren and four other friends had their parties together immediately after graduation.

The party started at 9-9:30 p.m. in the Cultural Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks branch campus in Bethel. What a spread of food. Each of the girls had a memory board with photos and such. Other graduates, teachers, friends, family and people from the community came out to celebrate the milestone. Over the next few days Lauren will attend several other parties hosted by other members of the graduating class.

As we attended Lauren’s awards assembly on Wednesday, drove around town on Thursday and participated in graduation and the graduation party, we found vibrant community. People of this community genuinely care for each other. They rally around the school and its teams. It was fun to watch people connect and enjoy each other.

I traveled to Bethel, Alaska in 1992 and I enjoyed my visit. But I mostly remember the flat, stark scenery. Lanette and Hugh had only lived there a short time. They didn’t have kids yet and they weren’t that connected. After only a year in Bethel, they moved to Anchorage for five years. They have been back in Bethel for 13 years.

When we were planning the visit, Lanette assured me that Bethel had changed. And it has. There are new buildings like the Yup’ik Cultural Center, the new airport terminal and post office. But those aren’t significant changes. I’ve come to the conclusion that they have changed. They have become part of the community. They have embraced Bethel and Bethel has embraced them back. And it is great to be in a place that you love.

I love living in New Orleans. It doesn’t really feel like a big city. We enjoy a sense of community that is not often available in large cities. However, as I watched the people of Bethel come together I missed the special type of community that comes in small towns. Bethel is not the prettiest town in Alaska. It is flat and dusty and run down in a few places, but it certainly has its beauty – beautiful community.

More on life in Bethel in a later post.

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