If you want to study Orthodoxy in Alaska, the best thing to do is to come to Kodiak, where Orthodox missionaries brought the Gospel more than 200 years ago.
And that’s exactly what German pastor Imre Istvan did.
He wanted to see how the Orthodox faith remains vibrant and life-changing among the faithful, so he hung out with lay people, local clergy, monks and nuns on Spruce and Nilus islands; he attended long, drawn-out church services; studied the lives of Orthodox saints in North America; and traveled to villages where traditions have been preserved in a rapidly changing secular society.
After his stay on Kodiak Island, Istvan traveled to the Mainland to visit more churches, interview more priests and immerse himself in Orthodoxy and Native culture at the Kuskokwim diocesan conference in Bethel.
Istvan plans to write a 20-page thesis based on his reading, interviews and experience. He has more material than he knows what to do with. Perhaps a book somewhere down the line?
Istvan is a Lutheran pastor who serves a congregation in Hessen, near Frankfurt, Germany.
Although membership in his church is well over 1,500, average attendance is between 40 and 60 each Sunday. That meager number is “better than many other churches,” he said. The poor turnout is an indication of the spiritual tepidnessin Europe.
Istvan is on a three-month sabbatical, a time of spiritual renewal, academic exploration and career advancement.
While in Kodiak, Istvan was hosted by Bill and Ann Barker, members of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Istvan connected with the Barkers through written correspondence.
Knowing that travel and housing are very expensive in Alaska, Istvan wrote to Lutheran churches, Rotary Clubs, German clubs and other organizations as well as the University of Alaska Fairbanks for help. He offered to host his potential benefactors should they come to his part of the world.
The only responses he received were from a UAF professor and the Barkers.
Shortly after his arrival to Kodiak, Istvan learned that, no matter how far one travels in this world, home is never far away.
At Monk’s Rock Istvan was introduced to a young man from Romania, the country he grew up in. They conversed in the Romanian language.
He ran into monastics who shared mutual acquaintances. Mother Nina, his hostess on Nilus Island, had lived in Romania and could speak its language fluently.
Istvan grew up in the Romanian city of Mediasch. His ancestors were of German and Hungarian descent.
He was baptized Catholic, the faith of his Hungarian father. His mother was a German Lutheran. According to the tradition in Romania, the boy is baptized in the faith of his father and the girl in the denomination of her mother.
When Istvan was 6 years old, his father died. At that point he was raised Lutheran and German.
The Lutheran church, built and designed in the Gothic style, was 600 years old.
“It was a wonderful church. I was impressed by the singing and the liturgy.”
Istvan lived in Romania under the Communist regime, which was overthrown in 1989.
Under Communism, “If you didn’t get in trouble with the system, you could survive,” Istvan said. Romania was the only Communist country that allowed minorities to have their schools in their mother tongue, he said.
Although the schools taught an atheistic point of view, people were allowed to attend church.
The church was “the gathering point of the German people. The church held the community together.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, the Communist government was less restrictive, but “people who were openly against Communism had problems,” he said.
Because of his interest in religion, Istvan decided to study for the ministry.
Entering a Romanian seminary was Istvan’s own way of defying atheistic Communism and preaching the Gospel.
“I was standing straight for a cause.”
Istvan pastored four congregations within four years in Romania.
“I didn’t feel that the Communists were restricting the preaching of the Gospel.”
Representatives of the government were watching, but as long as he stayed clear of politics, he had nothing to worry about. His main goal was to preach about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not against the current regime.
In 1984, six years before the fall of Communism in Romania, Istvan and his family moved to Stuttgart, Germany.
Because of an agreement between the Lutheran churches in Romania and Germany, Istvan was not allowed to work as a minister. He devoted four years to serving in a mission to the blind.
In 1988 the Istvans went to Kitchener, in Ontario, Canada, where he served the congregation of Pilgrim Lutheran for six years. Then he returned to Germany to continue his life as a minister.
Although he is a devout Lutheran who intends to stick with his denomination, Istvan said he has always been intrigued by Orthodoxy. It was all around him in Romania. Most of the native Romanians were Orthodox.
During Istvan’s last sabbatical, 10 years ago, he explored iconography with an emphasis on a particular icon of the Greek Orthodox Church in Romania. It’s an unusual icon, painted on glass instead of wood.
“It was painted by simple people,” he said.
He learned more about the Orthodox faith in Kodiak, Old Harbor, Ouzinkie and Port Lions and on the monasteries of Spruce and Nilus Islands.
Istvan said his brief stay in Kodiak gave him the impression that “the people are hard-working, the community is very involved.”
“On the streets the driving is so nice. In Germany you have six- to eight-kilometers of traffic jams. Here I never saw a car that goes faster than the other one.
“I went on all the streets that are paved north to south.”
Istvan was able to see much of Kodiak by car; but he expected to rough it on the Mainland. He was prepared to hitchhike and live in a tent, just in case no transportation or lodging was provided. Living in a tent is a way of identifying with the first missionaries to Alaska whose lives he had studied.
“It has something to do with the monastic life,” he said. “They lived a very simple life.”