Monthly Archives: June 2016

Local blogger comments on South Africa mission trip column & letters to ADN editor

Last week I discovered a local blogger had articulated his views and responses regarding the South Africa mission trip I wrote about in May.  He did a creditable job in detailing more thoroughly some of my presented material dealing with the problems  these short-term mission trips present.  In his views, he suggests the mother’s letter to the editor may have complicated the issue, especially with regard to her participating son/daughter.

My column was not submitted to discredit this particular church, but to point out these types of short-term mission trips do more for the participant than the people on the other end.  In light of all of the evidence these trips do more harm than good, long-term, I’ve suggested this church present an op-ed regarding their views.

Unfortunately, in Alaska, we’re often more comfortable dealing with issues on the other side of the world rather than providing caring Christian services to those in our own neighborhoods. It is my hope these articles on missions will bring missionary activities into clearer focus here in Alaska.

Have you considered a spiritual retreat?

There is little doubt we Christians in Alaska tend to burn our candle at both ends. So many of us live an entertainment lifestyle. Binge watching, Facebook and Twitter maintenance, rushing around in our cars, constantly surrounding ourselves with all manner of noise, and on and on. For persons of a spiritual nature, these distractions are like the proverbial little foxes eating the grapes. Sooner or later, it all comes apart. There’s no time left to feed our spiritual side because all the other alluring activities have robbed us of the desire to draw closer to God. These other activities have become an end in themselves.

“We live under a weight of demands, real and imagined, that is debilitating,” psychologist Stephanie Brown writes in a recent New York Post article. “We see an alarming increase in stress-related disorders of all kinds for all ages, beginning with elementary school-age children who are struggling with obesity, depression, anxiety, attention disorders and all kinds of learning disabilities, a list of problems for all ages.”

Continuing, she notes, “In a vicious circle, the exhausting fast pace of life promotes overstimulation and overscheduling, which become chronic stressors that lead to behavioral, mood and attention disorders. We cannot see that we are causing our physical, emotional and behavioral health problems as we try harder to go faster, and then turn to medication to treat the unforeseen consequences.”

As I visit churches and hear pastors sharing Christian thoughts, I rarely, if ever, hear this critical issue addressed with parishioners and guests. It should be. Often Jesus needed to get away, as Mark 1:35 records: “Rising very early before dawn, He left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” Clearly he needed to retreat and did it simply. The root of the word retreat refers to the act of withdrawing. Sometimes we literally need to withdraw from our daily routine to rest and refresh, physically and spiritually.

Retreats can be useful on a group basis, such as a church-sponsored men’s or women’s retreat for a few days to refocus, and possibly to focus on a particular topic. They can offer a time of relationship building where you’re able to get to know people in your congregation on a more personal level. Or it could be a time of shared recreation such as camping, fishing or boating but with a particular spiritual emphasis. Sometimes retreats can be an uncomfortable experience. Carefully check out the speaker and topic to be covered prior to participating in church-sponsored retreats before agreeing to participate.

Alternatively, an individual retreat, where one gets away to a place that offers peace and quiet, can be a rewarding experience. There you can refocus your life in a place where you experience living with just the bare necessities. During a church service several years ago, I heard a pastor describe one such retreat he annually takes when going hunting. With just his Bible, and possibly one spiritual book, he hunkers down in his tent and reconnects with God through prayer, reading, meditating and memorizing Scripture.

Retreat centers or sanctuaries are available where individuals or couples can go to reconnect. There are a number of these special places in Alaska. One such place in Anchorage is the Holy Spirit Center on the Hillside. The center’s clergy support individual, couple or group retreats at the beautiful campus.

Many other church organizations offer camps or other facilities as venues for spiritual retreats for individuals, couples or groups. They can easily be found with a web search.

Another method of gaining a retreat is going camping in places where others do not particularly go for activities such as ATV riding, snowmachining, fishing or the like. The noise and hubbub of such activities can interrupt the purposes of a retreat. One solution might be renting a U.S. Forest Service cabin for a day or two to get away. For example, the Chugach National Forest offers 40 cabins for rent at modest fees, and most are suitable for individual retreats.

It’s important to plan your retreat, even if it is only for one day. A well-designed website I discovered has the essentials to help you design a one-day retreat, which could be expanded to multiple days. It can be found at There are a multitude of ideas on the internet about building personal spiritual retreats. Googling a combination of words such as “planning personal spiritual retreat” can yield some really good ideas to consider.

In the journal Ministry, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor named Dan McLafferty describes his own experiences with spiritual retreats in an article titled “Personal spiritual retreat: 24 hours with God.” He describes a harried church life, being on the run and neglecting his children to do it all. When he began to take 24-hour spiritual retreats, he discovered the solutions a retreat can bring to a lacking spiritual life. His article provides a complete template to prepare for and accomplish such a retreat that is suitable for anyone, regardless of their faith.

Sometimes one’s spiritual life can be enhanced by taking a substantive break from social media or the internet altogether. Outside Magazine published Grist blogger David Roberts’ account of his experience with unplugging, for the most part, for an entire year titled “Reboot or Die Trying” and the rewards he reaped. A careful read reveals clear and parallel takeaways for spiritual people addicted to the internet and increasingly draining social media allure.

Monastics such as the desert fathers and desert mothers were involved in longer-term forms of spiritual retreat as a means of obtaining a clearer vision of God. Alaska is full of opportunities to retreat and rebuild connections with God. Many of us could benefit from a spiritual retreat.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at
About the Author
Chris Thompson
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who has been visiting Anchorage and other local area churches for over 15 years. Go to his website,, or follow him on Twitter  at or email at

A trio of events showcases the vitality of the local Catholic community

Last week I attended two local Catholic activities that indicate a growing and moving church. While attending, I heard about a upcoming third activity of local interest. While not all local churches embrace their Catholic neighbors, due to various theological points of disagreements, it’s important we don’t forget the words of Jesus, from John 10:16: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

Alaska Catholic Youth Conference

Last week, 144 Catholic youth from around the state came to Anchorage for the 16th annual Alaska Catholic Youth Conference. The conference theme, “Boundless Mercy,” tied into Pope Francis’ 2015 declaration that this year be a Year of Holy Mercy, a jubilee year to follow the 50th anniversary the Second Vatican Council.

Each day’s theme was on an aspect of mercy: “What is mercy?,” “Living Mercy,” “Spiritual Mercy,” “Mercy is God’s Name.” Out-of-town youth stayed at Lumen Christi High School or with local friends. Youth participated in events that included workshops, social justice service projects, musical entertainment, and masses.

“The service projects were really good,” said Bonnie Bezousek, director of faith formation for the Anchorage Archdiocese.

“The youth painted bowls for Bean’s Café, wrote letters to military personnel in the family, and discovered how social media raised awareness of issues regarding Catholic social teaching and works of mercy. Junior high youth also painted decorations for St. Benedict’s VBS (vacation Bible school).”

All three in-state bishops were present and available to the youth: Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski, and Juneau Bishop Ed Burns. Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was a special guest at the conference. Each bishop celebrated Mass with the youth. Pedro Rubalcava, a musician from Portland, Oregon, performed a concert at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral and provided music throughout the week.

The Tuesday evening program, called the “ACYC Tonight Show,” mimicked its broadcast namesake with spiritual trivia guessing games that included the youth and bishops, youth tweets about embarrassing Catholic moments, and a chance to question any bishop about anything. In all my years visiting churches and attending conferences I’ve not seen anything similar. This was an engaged group.

Raising money for Anchorage seminarians

Later that week I attended a fundraising dinner at St. Patrick’s Parish to create an endowment for seminarian education. The archdiocese is experiencing a renewed interest in the priesthood as evidenced by the recent ordinations of the Revs. Patrick Brosamer and Arthur Roraff, and Deacon Robert Whitney. At the dinner, five new seminarians were introduced. Previously, only one or two seminarians were studying at any given time. Now, it has become a healthy career choice.

Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church pays for seminarian training. Due to the expanding base of local seminarians, the archdiocese felt a stronger financial foundation for this training needed to be developed. Currently seminarian education costs are funded out of the archdiocese budget. An endowment to fund future seminarian education makes great sense.

To help achieve this, Catholic Extension, (a canonical institution reporting directly to the pope), and their donors awarded a 2-to-1 matching grant of up to $50,000. Through leadership dinners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Andrew’s and St. Benedict’s parishes, private and public parish dinners, and the $79,000 raised at the St. Patrick’s Parish event, the archdiocese achieved its initial goal of $100,000 matching money.

This initial $150,000 provides the seed money for an anticipated $3 million to 5 million endowment. Catholic Extension financially supports missions in the church, because all of Alaska’s archdioceses are considered missions.

“It’s nice we have young men leading in discipleship. What we can do as disciples is to support them by giving back,” said Laurie Dinneen, the archdiocese’s stewardship and development director.

At my table, composed mostly of Holy Family Cathedral members, I was fortunate to be seated next to one of the new seminarians, Ed Burke, from Kenai, and a recent high school graduate. As we talked I gained a sense of his deep commitment to the Catholic faith and comfort in the symbols and work of the church.

The tasty dinner, fundraising activities, mingling of friends of faith, and the Rev. Leo Walsh’s humorous remarks as master of ceremonies produced a unity of support I seldom see in church events.

Holy Family Cathedral unveils stained glass window project

Just last month, the stained glass windows project “The Joyful Mysteries,” culminated with the completion of the windows’ installation. Pastor of Holy Family Cathedral, the Rev. Anthony Patalano, is joyful this project came to fruition in his third and final assignment here.

“Our ‘windows project’ has been in the works for more than two years and is the culmination, along with necessary renovations and improvements, of our centennial celebration as a parish. It couldn’t have happened without the prayers and generosity of many Holy Family parishioners,” Patalano said.

The cathedral itself was dedicated in a ceremony earlier this month, along with the new windows, sconces, and restored stations of the cross. Patalano has been retired by his Dominican order, and will be moving to Los Angeles in July where he’ll serve as Resident Chaplain to the Cloistered Dominican Nuns in LA.

Noting their themes, Patalano continued, “The Joyful Mysteries seemed especially appropriate for Holy Family as the Holy Family is represented in four of the five windows. St. Therese of Lisieux is the patron saint of missions and of the State of Alaska whose dioceses are mission dioceses.”

Holy Family invites the community to a special showing of these windows frpm 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. June 25 at the cathedral. Volunteers will provide tours and explanations of the beautiful windows, their history in Germany, and restoration. A reception will be held in the Parish Hall. A beautiful souvenir book will also be available for a slight charge.

Africa is showing Alaska how to do missions

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a large local church youth group going to South Africa for a short-term mission trip. Although I purposely did not name them, they were subsequently identified by a member in a recently published letter to the editor as from St. John United Methodist Church. They and other local churches have participated in a number of such missions the last few years, sending groups to Africa despite widespread information such trips usually do more for the participant than those on the other end. In fact, most of such trips, according to the Africans, do more damage than help.

A popular definition of insanity, often attributed to Albert Einstein is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There has to be a better way to conduct missions and this column describes it.

Recently, I had an opportunity to interview a knowledgeable spokesman from Africa representing a network of churches and nongovernmental organizations that understand the limitations of well-intentioned individuals. That person, Dayo Obaweya, is regional coordinator of West Africa Community Health Evangelism covering an area equivalent to the Lower 48, comprised of 17 countries in which more than 300 million people have a per capita income of $1 to $2 dollars a day.

I was intrigued by a talk he gave at Faith Christian Community’s Sunday service last month in which he said WACHE’s goal was “to bring people out of poverty into the love of Christ.” Contrast that with the goal of so many short-term mission trips we know of. My interview with Dayo was the next day.

WACHE is an affiliate of Community Health Evangelism a Christ-centered educational program used by hundreds of churches and organizations across the globe. Obaweya was visiting U.S. members. Faith Christian Community is a CHE member and has trained over 100 individuals in CHE methods.

CHE’s core strength is in training. The organization describes itself as “a plan for individual and community development through physical and spiritual teaching.” Trained CHE members don’t do development but “teach CHE to local trainers, who teach CHE to their own people in some of the poorest places in the world. These people do development for themselves.”

The CHE website describes how this all happens: “Local people do it for themselves by: Choosing their own people to be in charge; Choosing their own priorities of what to change; Choosing their own people to be trained to teach house to house; Finding their own resources; and accomplishing their own goals when and where they choose. Local people own and manage their CHE plans. We just train their teachers. CHE is big on ownership!” That’s empowerment at its best.

Obaweya described one such venture in West Africa where a village was asking for a multipurpose community center and school. Indigenous CHE trainers went to this village and did a simplified planning process. They asked if the village had sand, stones, gravel, land and water? They were told yes. Would they supply labor to build it? Yes! Wood for the roof? Yes, we’ll cut locally.

Asked if they had concrete, they said they had 10 of the 100 bags needed. The village was encouraged to pool bits of money to buy more concrete, acquiring 10 more bags. CHE asked government officials in to see the progress. Astounded by their initiative, and finding them the 80 bags the project required, they immediately authorized delivery of the needed shortfall. Local financial pooling raised funds for the tin to cover the roof.

The project turned out to be an unqualified success, using the CHE strategy to achieve community transformation, a major goal of CHE leadership. Obaweya said the building is now used as a meeting hall, church and clinic when government medical workers come to give children medical examinations, etc. Obaweya, who visited it recently, said other surrounding villages had asked this village for help planning needed projects.

Health work is an essential part of what CHE does. CHE trainers go into people’s homes and villages teaching proper sanitation and hygiene principles. They address family size issues by training through Women’s Circle of Life and Men’s Matters groups. Larger families in impoverished parts of West Africa sometimes struggle to survive. Individual couples receive training and instruction in family planning.

Another CHE program trains children in practical matters of hygiene, nutrition, gardening and Christianity. Children bring these life-saving principles home, sharing them with their parents.

CHE affiliates also support initiatives that include microfinance and group savings programs.

WACHE tackles water projects but shuns Western technology for drilling and water extraction, instead choosing low-tech approaches that can be made and maintained locally, when repairs are needed. Too many water projects fail when well-meaning groups from developed countries go in and overengineer projects with little local buy-in, and without the knowledge and ability to maintain them.

CHE’s process is holistic, empowering individuals to help themselves, tending to their mind, body, and spiritual needs. It’s transformative. It resurrects people’s lives which have often been destroyed by Western do-gooders with handout methods destroying personal initiative and depersonalizing individuals and families.

When I asked Obaweya his view of short-term mission trips, he responded by saying, “We don’t want to call it short-term missions. We’d rather call them evangelists. I see them as evangelists across the border. The word short-term mission can become a hindrance,” noting that people coming with this label are not thinking of something that is going to last. Rather WACHE involves them in initiating a process such as child or community health screening, an entry exercise. The ongoing process can then be initiated by the local community.

WACHE’s model weans people away from a culture of dependence by teaching people to organize, plan, build, grow food and learn about God’s love.

Anchorage Archdiocese announces series of major clergy changes

Recently, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, who oversees the archdiocese of Anchorage, announced significant changes affecting Roman Catholic clergy and parishes in Alaska. Statewide, about 15 percent of Alaskans identified as Catholic in a recent survey.

The Anchorage archdiocese has needed a canon lawyer since Rev. Tom Brundage, priest at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River and also judicial vicar, returned to Milwaukee a year ago. He had been on loan from the archdiocese of Milwaukee for about nine years. In the interim, canon lawyer the Rev. Pat Travers from the Juneau diocese has been filling in. Schwietz announced the Rev. Leo Walsh, parish priest at St. Benedict’s Catholic Parish would be returning to Rome to study canon law for the local archdiocese tribunal. Walsh has previously studied in Rome, receiving a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum, the pontifical university there.

“Our God is the God of surprises,” Walsh said, when asked about the change. “Such was the case a few weeks ago when Archbishop Schwietz asked me if I would consider returning to Rome to get a degree in canon law with the intent of returning to the Archdiocese in three years to be the judicial vicar and run the marriage tribunal. Before then, the thought had never crossed my mind. Yet after reflection it made a lot of sense. So I agreed.”

Walsh also noted it would provide a change in direction for him. “It is indeed a career change,” he said. “While the tribunal is not a parochial ministry, it is most definitely a pastoral ministry, and a delicate one at that. People do not petition for a declaration of nullity until after they have already experienced the pain of a civil divorce. Therefore the process requires a very delicate, pastoral approach. Pope Francis has said as much in recent times in this regard.”

After three years of study, Walsh will receive a license in canon law or Juris Canonici Licentia, which is somewhat comparable to a J.D.

The Rev. Tom Lilly, who has been parish priest at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish for 11 years, will replace Walsh at St. Benedict’s, where he will also serve as priest for the parish and Lumen Christi Catholic High School. Lilly is currently the vicar general of the Anchorage archdiocese and will continue in this administrative role. When the archbishop is outside of the diocese, Lilly acts in his behalf and stands in as the bishop would in administrative matters.

“For me, the coming transfer to St. Benedict’s is another opportunity to serve,” he said. “Same church; different part of the vineyard! I begin there on July 1.” He’s looking forward to encouraging spiritual well-being of the youth there in navigating the challenges of acceptance, faith and reason, career path, low self-esteem and our sex-saturated culture.

He will be replaced at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton by Rev. Steven Moore, who’d recently been appointed as parish priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral — “at no small personal sacrifice,” noted Schwietz, “as Father Moore will have physically moved four times in the last three years.”

The Rev. Andrew Bellisario has succeeded Moore at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bellisario is a senior Vincentian, who was previously the head of the society’s Los Angeles province, and and his move there represents the beginning of a fresh effort to reach Spanish speakers. With few local Spanish-speaking priests, the archdiocese had long sought better ways to serve Hispanic Catholics, even provided language immersion training for some priests.

Meanwhile, several priests from that society who have served briefly at the co-cathedral have noted a need for more Spanish-speaking priests to serve growing Hispanic population in Anchorage and elsewhere in the state, and forwarded those concerns to the head of their order in Rome. The society now plans to “establish an outreach ministry to the Hispanic community throughout the Archdiocese with the expectation of a third Vincentian priest arriving later this year,” Schwietz said.

When I talked to Bellisario , he told me the Vincentians were founded for the specific mission of evangelizing the poor. Talking about their order founder, Bellisario said, “St. Vincent noted ‘reading the signs of the times,’ he talked about not getting ahead of divine providence.” Noting there were 50,000 Hispanics in Alaska, he said the Vincentians’ mandate was of outreach to Hispanics in the archdiocese.

“The Vincentians are making a major commitment to the development of Hispanic ministry within the Archdiocese,” Rev. Scott Medlock, priest at St. Patrick’s Parish and the Anchorage archdiocese’s vicar for clergy said.

The Archbishop also announced that the Rev.. Scott Garrett, from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wasilla, would “return to serving the people of Bristol Bay as pastor at Holy Rosary in Dillingham, St. Theresa in Naknek, and the mission in King Salmon where he served prior to going to Sacred Heart five years ago. He is a pilot and will be flying to some of the villages that cannot be reached by commercial airplane.”

Replacing Garrett will be the Rev. Joseph McGilloway who will also serve as canonical pastor for Big Lake, Willow, Talkeetna, and Trapper Creek.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Andrew Lee becomes parochial vicar at Holy Cross Parish, and the Rev. Mark Stronach, a Benedictine monk from Oregon’s Mount Angel Abbey, will move to Our Lady of the Lake, and serve as parochial vicar under McGilloway.

These are significant changes for the archdiocese. which appear to strengthen the Catholic Church in Alaska.

About the Author

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who has been visiting Anchorage and other local area churches for over 15 years. Go to his website,, or follow him on Twitter  at or email at