Monthly Archives: September 2015

In Anchorage, an ancient order celebrates investiture

Entering Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral last Sunday afternoon, I was greeted by the glorious strains of “Lift High the Cross” being practiced by an accomplished musical group. This was a foretaste of a wonderful experience to come centered around a centuries-old tradition harking back to the crusades in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. This celebration capped three days of ceremonial meetings of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Northwestern Lieutenancy of the United States composed of Northern California and the states of Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Alaska. With 13 council cities in the Lieutenancy, Anchorage hosts meetings approximately every 10 years.

A Vigil at Arms had previously been held on Friday at Holy Family Cathedral, followed by Memorial and Promotions on Saturday at Saint Patrick Church presided over by Archbishop Roger J. Schwietz. The Sunday event was an Investiture and Mass presided over by His Eminence Edwin O’Brien, Cardinal Grand Master of the Order. The cathedral was almost completely filled by Knights and Ladies of the Order, clergy, and choir.

During the First Crusade, Jerusalem was briefly conquered by Christians from Western Europe, in response to a call from Pope Urban. Those conquerors created the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre at this time. According to the Vatican website for the order, “…in 1103 the first King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I, assumed the leadership of this canonical order, and reserved the right for himself and his successors (as agents of the Patriarch of Jerusalem) to appoint Knights to it, should the Patriarch be absent or unable to do so.” Armed knights chosen from the crusader troops were chosen for their valor and dedication, vowing to “obey Augustinian Rule of poverty and obedience and undertook specifically, under the command of the King of Jerusalem, to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the Holy Places.”

Ultimately the goals of the Crusades failed and control of the Holy Land reverted to Muslim rulers, but the Order survived and its role was strengthened over time by Pope’s Pius IX, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. Today its main purpose is to strengthen in its members the practice of Christian life, to sustain the work of the church in the Holy Land, to support the preservation and propagation of the faith there, and to uphold the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. In 2013, Pope Francis called and personally attended a special conclave of the order in Rome to better understand it, its works, and to strengthen it.

The Order’s Grand Master is appointed by the pontiff and reports directly to him. The current Grand Master is Cardinal Edwin O’Brien who presided over Sunday’s investiture ceremony. He is an imposing figure dressed in special ceremonial garb. Anchorage Archbishop Schwietz and Bishop Peter L. Smith, from the Portland, Oregon, archdiocese occupied the main platform, with Cardinal O’Brien officiating on the main level in front of the altar.

Several hundred knights and ladies of the order processed into Our Lady of Guadalupe to the strains of “Let Us Go Rejoicing to the House of the Lord,” followed by the cardinal, archbishop, bishop and other clergy. The number of clergy in attendance, particularly archbishops and bishops, was significantly reduced from Archbishop Schwietz’s 75th birthday and 25th anniversary in the episcopate celebration earlier this year. I was told this was budgetary and also due to so many senior Northwest Catholic clergy convening in Washington, D.C., for Pope Francis’ visit. After all were seated the formal investiture service began. A beautifully bound 40-page program provided the service liturgy.

A new lieutenant, Thompson M. Faller, was invested due to the sudden promotion of the former lieutenant, Mary Currivan O’Brien — the order’s first woman lieutenant in the world — to the board of the grand magesterium in Rome. Ten new knights, and 13 new ladies were invested. Each was robed with new vestments of the order after investiture; black berets and white capes with the red Jerusalem cross for the men; black mantillas and black dresses for the women. Five clergy were invested: two deacons, two priests and one bishop. They received special white stoles containing the red Jerusalem cross. The knights and clergy were dubbed by the Cardinal with a special sword formerly held by lieutenancy treasurer, Mary Ann Molitor’s father-in-law, a 4th degree Knight of Columbus, which subsequently passed to her son, also a 4th degree Knight of Columbus.

Ms. Molitor, who invited me to this occasion, said afterward, “This was such a special joyous occasion. I can’t remember any of our prior Anchorage annual meetings where we have been blessed by the presence of His Eminence.” Cardinal O’Brien’s well-delivered homily encouraged and charged discipleship to those gathered.

The musical portion of the service during the Investiture and following mass was performed by Anchorage Concert Chorus members, led by Grant Cochran, a brass quintet, directed by Linn Weeda, along with organist Janet Carr-Campbell, timpanist Robert Arms and cantor Katy Kerris. The Catholic Church is using some updated musical forms, including the “Mass of Renewal” by Portland composer Curtis Stephan. During the Mass, the liturgy was accompanied by this feast of music.

Order members are encouraged to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and about 80 percent do so. Members fund various projects in the Holy Land. An ongoing Northwest Lieutenancy project is the John McGuckin mentorship program at Bethlehem University, for which $20,000 was most recently given. This program funds selected students to come to the U.S., primarily the West Coast, to devote eight weeks to mentoring in their area of intended study.

What I saw and subsequently learned about this historic order has given me great respect for this tradition in today’s setting.

An interfaith effort takes steps against hunger

As I begin this column, I’m sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. After spending 11 days in France and Germany, I’ve experienced some very filling meals. I’ve also seen incredible levels of homelessness and begging on the streets, especially in Paris. While the immigrant crisis is in full bloom in Europe, we have our own crises in America and Alaska.

Many sources are tracking the problem of food insecurity and data indicate it is a serious problem; World Hunger Education Service says hunger affects one in seven U.S. households.

Alan Budahl, executive director of Lutheran Social Services of Alaska says Alaska has similar levels of food insecurity and hunger as national data shows. “There is a growing demand for food distribution services,” he said. “It’s the easiest opportunity to deal with in our community. September is Hunger Action Month nationally. This is not about those who do not have jobs. Many recipients are working but don’t (earn) enough to pay rent, utilities, and buy food, especially our seniors.”

The Interfaith Council of Anchorage, a voluntary organization composed of several faith traditions is reactivating Crop Hunger Walk after a one-year hiatus. A program of Church World Service, Crop Hunger Walk’s motto is “Ending hunger one step at a time.” This year’s walk starts at First Congregational Church on East Northern Lights Blvd., Sunday, Sept. 27. Registration starts at 12:45 p.m. with the walk beginning at 1:30 p.m. led by the Crow Creek Pipes and Drums. A band of high school musicians will welcome returning walkers. You can sign up at the walk, join a team ahead of time, or create your own team. At the Anchorage Crop Hunger Walk website you can send notes to people asking them to support your personal walk with a donation. It’s easy to do and will produce results. I created a Church Visits team and would welcome your support by joining my team and contributing.

Penny Goldstein is Interfaith’s head. Sharing some details about the walk, she said, “Crop Hunger Walk raises money and awareness of hunger in our community and nationally. People donate money, and cajole friends to donate money, to the cause. Then they walk. It is not a competitive race, but a leisurely stroll.” Discussing the background of the walk, Penny noted, “Church Women United has sponsored the walk locally in the past. When one of their very active members, Mary Jane Landstrom, died, the walk seemed to die with her. Mary Jane was also an active member of the Interfaith Council and was instrumental in starting the food bank. Interfaith Council of Anchorage has several members who loved this walk, and we worked to resurrect it. We had an organizational meeting of everyone we could find that was interested. The resulting committee is active and has arranged to revive the walk.”

Crop Hunger Walk provides 25 percent of the money raised to local charities. The Interfaith Council has chosen F.I.S.H., St. Francis Food Pantry, and the Downtown Soup Kitchen as the local recipients. Organizers encourage participants to bring non-perishable food, and Lutheran Social Services of Alaska  will receive the food. The remainder of the money goes to Church World Service, but participants can donate to one of many national charities if they want the money to go to a specific place. This feature allows faith groups that want to contribute to their own organizations the ability to participate.

As Budhal notes, September is National Hunger Action month. Feeding America has done much to focus attention on the hunger issue. They have a website full of information, resources and ideas to help individuals become more informed about this problem and how to solve it.

Food Bank of Alaska has released a helpful focus sheet about local activities during Hunger Action Month. Although September is half gone this list is full of ideas and activities with which to engage.

The problems of hunger in our society are entrenched and need more attention than can be given in this brief column. It’s all too easy to be critical of those who are food insecure, unless you know the facts. Once you do, you’ll be more prepared to help. identifies the major cause of hunger as poverty. They’ve identified three key causal factors for poverty. First: The operation of the U.S. economic and political system has led to certain people/groups being relatively disenfranchised. Second: The U.S. political system, which should address the major problems of its citizens, is to a great extent not focused on fundamental concerns of poor people, but on other concerns. Third: The culture of inequality.

The Interfaith Council of Anchorage has other programs and activities worth examining. One such program is Meeting Face to Face. It encourages dialogue between members of different faith traditions who are interested in learning more about one another’s beliefs, communities and cultures such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Unitarianism and various Christian traditions. Qualified members of the Interfaith Council will come to your location and facilitate an open discussion with your group and people of faith from the selected tradition in a relaxed and respectful environment.

Mother Teresa, noted Missionaries of Charity founder and worldwide humanitarian used to say, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, you can just feed one.”

Humanitarians currently, and in recent memory, have also raised strident voices to look beyond ourselves to others in need. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a religious leader, philosopher and author, says, “Close to a billion people — one-eighth of the world’s population — still live in hunger. Each year 2 million children die through malnutrition. This is happening at at time when doctors in Britain are warning of the spread of obesity.”

Our faith community is actively involved in addressing hunger, and Crop Hunger Walk is a fun and easy way to contribute to a well-identified issue. It only takes one person to make a difference.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

Thomas Merton in Alaska

Once upon a time, there was a contemplative monk named Thomas Merton. Born in France, he converted to Catholicism during his studies at Columbia University. In 1941 he joined a community of Trappist monks in Kentucky who belonged to an ascetic and contemplative order. Merton spent 27 years there developing spiritually, and gaining a keen understanding of politics, becoming a peace activist, something that displeased many Roman Catholics.

A prolific writer, Merton wrote his life’s story in a best-selling autobiography titled “The Seven Storey Mountain.” In all he penned more than 60 books on a variety of topics: poetry, social justice, spirituality, and political activism. Ordained in 1949, he was given the name of Father Louis. “The Seven Storey Mountain” had a tremendous impact after World War II, awakening spiritual questing in many young men who sought out monasteries. His dialogue and writings reveal a keen interest in mysticism and other religions.

Fast forward to 1968. The Rev. Merton was given permission to search for another site for his order’s contemplatives, who were rapidly becoming overwhelmed by numbers of people seeking to visit the Kentucky monastery. He visited several sites across the U.S. including New Mexico, California, and Alaska in search of new potential contemplative sites. Merton was keenly interested in Asian religions and had planned a trip to Thailand in the fall of 1968. The purpose of the Asian trip was to further his interest in Asian religions with the possibility of finding a suitable place for contemplatives.

Merton arrived in Alaska on Sept. 17 that year and departed for San Francisco Oct. 2. In a brief two weeks, he saw an interesting cross section of Alaska including Eagle River, Anchorage, Palmer, Cordova, Valdez, Yakutat, Juneau, and Dillingham. Initially he stayed at the Convent of the Precious Blood in Eagle River, now the site of St. John Orthodox Cathedral’s campus. Given a trailer for lodging, he stayed for close to a week where, during that stay, he presented a workshop for the sisters at the monastery. He also gave a workshop for the priests at the monastery, plus one for the Sisters of Providence at the hospital. Both the presentations were sermons for a Day of Recollection.

His Alaskan journeys were supported financially and in many other ways by Archbishop Ryan in Anchorage, and Bishop O’Flanagan in Juneau. Merton indicated, through his many letters during this stay, various options that might prove fruitful for a new contemplative site. In one letter, he spoke favorably of the Cordova area and a possible return trip there after Asia. Another letter mentioned he’d found “enough lonely spots here … to last any hermit until Judgment Day. It is quite possible that if and whenever I get back from Asia I may end up here.” In a letter to his abbot, he wrote “This would be the obvious place to settle for real solitude in the United States.” Merton was amazed at the land, the people and its potential. Many of his letters contained requests to associates to send various books, and materials to people with which he came in contact.

Merton’s workshops, and sermons while in Alaska were recorded and transcriptions made of them. They were quite frank, covering many topics including prayer, the Eucharist, God’s work, politics, and building community.

In one of his Alaska talks regarding community and politics, Merton, addressing Catholic activism, said, “I personally think that we should be in between; we shouldn’t be on the conservative side and we shouldn’t be on the radical side — we should be Christians.” He further invoked a number of references to Gandhi during this talk saying, “But the basic thing Gandhi said, and it has proved absolutely right, is that you can’t have any real non-violence unless you have faith in God.”

Merton sought connections between various faiths to gain further knowledge about his own faith and practice. Addressing mysticism in a talk with the Providence Sisters, he said “It is even worse if you use the term ‘mystic.’ This causes a great deal of consternation. Of all the people who should know what mysticism is and what a mystic is should be those of us called to be contemplatives, and yet you have to be very careful of how you talk of mysticism in our monastic communities. It is wiser not to talk about it sometimes. Although it is perfectly right that there are mystics in contemplative communities, often it is better that they don’t know it, because real mysticism is something very simple and it should remain simple.”

In a talk with the sisters at the Monastery of the Precious Blood, Merton, talking about prayer, said, “All prayer is communion, not only between Christ and me, but also between everybody in the Church and myself. All prayer takes us into the communion of saints. Perhaps it would be helpful to think that when I am praying I am closely united with everybody who ever prayed and everybody now praying.”

Merton’s untimely death in Bangkok, on Dec. 10, 1968, was a shock to the religious world. A little more than two months had passed since he’d departed Alaska. His dreams of returning and locating an appropriate site for a contemplative outpost were snuffed out in an instant. I wonder what impact Merton’s presence might have had on Alaska had he returned and established such a place. This year marks the 100th year since his birth, but his influence lingers to this day through his writings, and patterns of thought. Although Merton, the sisters and priests of the Convent of the Precious Blood, and the temporary trailer home Merton occupied are long gone, his memory lives on through a memorial room at St. James House at the Campus of St. John Orthodox in Eagle River. Merton devotees show up to visit the site on a regular basis in a quest to both honor him, and better understand his quest.

AFACT celebrates Medicaid expansion

Last Saturday I attended an interfaith prayer vigil and Medicaid expansion celebration held at St. Anthony Catholic Church. It was a service with much prayer, music, scriptural readings, and a sermonette. It felt like a church service, but with a distinct purpose. I was invited by a friend, a member of a congregation belonging to AFACT, or Anchorage Faith and Action — Congregations Together. AFACT is composed of 14 Christian congregations representing a diverse array of backgrounds working to address quality of life issues in Alaska’s largest city.

AFACT’s statement about Medicaid expansion is here. It’s very straightforward. Based on biblical and Alaska constitutional grounds, it’s an issue of equality and fairness. When Gov. Bill Walker asked the Legislature to address Medicaid expansion, he was rebuffed. AFACT members lobbied in person, and conducted prayer vigils to bring them to their senses, but no action was taken. That’s when Walker stepped in.

I was absolutely riveted by Lutheran Church of Hope pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour’s remarks. She asked how many of us have a junk drawer in our houses. All hands went up.

“Most of us have a ‘junk drawer’ in our houses,” she said. ”It’s a place where we stick the odds and ends that are useful, but never seem to have a home. The Medicaid expansion gap in our state functioned as a societal junk drawer. It was the place where working, single adults fell; those who did not make quite enough to afford to buy into the exchanges and weren’t in dire enough straits to be covered by anything else.”

She was right; I’d just never thought of it that way.

Later, Seymour told me AFACT members were “drawn together through their understanding of Scripture. Again and again, Hebrew Scripture, the Gospels, and the Epistles remind God’s faithful there is no such thing as a social junk drawer. Every person has a place. Every person belongs. When people belong, they should receive the benefits of having a place in society. In our work as communities of faith together, this has meant working toward a medical social safety net that covers all Alaskans.”

She finally observed this was “part of the ongoing joy that is part of being churches working together. For AFACT congregations, a Baptist, a Catholic, and a Quaker walking into a bar together isn’t a joke. We are grateful to God that it is our reality.”

I turned to the Rev. Max Lopez-Cepero, of First Covenant Church of Anchorage, curious about its AFACT involvement. “Our congregation joined AFACT,” he said, “because we found a missing link in the way we were responding to people in need. Churches are often good at compassion ministry; raising money and food for individuals and families who have needs. But most churches pay little attention to the structures and public policies which cause those needs. We realized that compassion and justice are different facets of our call to love our neighbor. Compassion is working to help hurting people. Justice is working to end what hurts people. We wanted to give some balance to our care by addressing justice as well as compassion in our outreach. AFACT has a track record of working with churches to identify justice issues in keeping with our Christian heritage.”

For me, Lopez-Cepero really nailed it when he said, “There is a heresy in some churches that God does not want government to do justice for the poor; that this should be a choice for involvement made by individuals and perhaps churches. Those taking this stand seldom apply this idea to other issues of justice and morality. In King David’s last Psalm he offers a prayer for his son Solomon who is to become the new king. Several stanzas of that prayer refer to the responsibility of the government to bring justice to the poor.” (Lopex-Cepero refers to Psalm 72, sometimes thought to be David’s last. One verse reads,”May the King defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor.”)

I’ve visited some of those churches he refers to, as have some of you.

“AFACT is about people, the people we love,” said the Rev. Fred Bugarin, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church. “If Medicaid expansion serves a need, and in this case, a critical need for the 42,000 uninsured Alaskans, then our faith mandates us to act justly on behalf of these, our people in need.”

To me, Bugarin echoes the voices of so many Christians around the world, and especially the Middle East, who at this time, are dying for their faith. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing from the Middle East to protect their loved ones. Many in Europe today, are refusing aid and comfort to those in dire distress; governments stand idly by as thousands perish on their shores.

Next time you meet with your legislators, ask them if they are satisfied with their health plan. Assuming they’ll say yes, then ask them why they would stand in the way of helping those who are trapped by income and circumstance.

I stand amazed that our legislators continue to pour huge sums of our money into fighting this issue further in the courts.

There is much to criticize in churches today, but not the efforts of AFACT congregations who pursue a truly Christian ideal of social justice for those caught in the “junk drawer.”

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

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