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Native theologian led by faith, work


10:00 A.M. EST July 23, 2010

Della Waghiyi, an Alaskan Yupik, presents a handmade garment to Bishop Ruediger Minor in June 2001.  The Rev. James Campbell holds a microphone to catch the soft-spoken Waghiyi's words. A UMNS file photo by Tim Tanton.
Della Waghiyi, an Alaskan Yupik, presents a handmade garment to Bishop Ruediger Minor in June 2001. The Rev. James Campbell holds a microphone to catch the soft-spoken Waghiyi's words. A UMNS file photo by Tim Tanton.
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When an elder dies, a village does not just lose a person. When an elder begins a new life, a presence, a memory is taken away. It is not just a piece; it is an enormous portion of corporate, tribal thought that is irreplaceable. When the Rev. Della Waghiyi died, the church lost a credible person of faith, a rare theologian and a Native conscience.

Della Waghiyi saw the Alaskan April snow as a blanket for the birth of baby seals. She was a master skin-sewer, whose Yupik dolls graced museums, and who carved trumpeter swans of walrus ivory while sitting on the floor of her home. She tanned moose and sealskin by hand. When visiting New York, she loved the people of all races and ages, but missed seeing the sky. She told the stories of her people, singing and dancing with her hands, moving like dragonflies in July.

Della never wrote a book on theology. Yet, for many Native scholars, Della Waghiyi was considered a profound Native natural theologian. The formation of ideas, molded across the years of experience, would emerge cohesively after she became an elder. In humble, carefully chosen words, she would speak of God, leaving scholars scrambling to capture all of her words before she quit talking. She believed that her people knew God before missionaries, and sought to remind Native people that Native culture was a gift of God. 

Native people often write and speak in the “passive voice,” preferring the cultural imperative of not asserting self over others. Choosing the passive voice is not being passive. Della would listen seriously to everyone else before speaking. As an elder, she still saw her world as her responsibility and would ask the question, “What must I do with God’s help?”

She saw the role of elders and older people as critical in effecting change, in villages as well as the church. To Della, God’s work was God’s work. It never occurred to Della to make something a denominational project. Behind many Native-related ecumenical projects in Alaska is the influence of Della Waghiyi pulling as many people as possible into ministry.

She reluctantly wrote a simple story of her life, “While I Have My Being.” English words were sometimes difficult. St. Lawrence Island Yupik was not a written language until well into her life, and the Bible is still being translated. Della would often ask, “May I use my tongue?” She would pray in Yupik, the soft, rounded words accented by gentle clicking sounds. She would be released from English, and her spirit lifted. One felt that here was a soul who knew God intimately. 

Presence of God

Yupik, like other Native peoples, live across international borders. Yupik people live in Alaska and Siberia, Russia. Della and her husband, the late Rev. John Waghiyi, had ministered among the Siberian Yupik in Russia. Years later, in her trailer in Anchorage, Della heard of the starvation of the Siberian Yupik. The elders and the very young were suffering. Many were forced to eat their sled dogs. Unable to eat, Della put down her plate and began to pray. She phoned her friend, the Rev. James Campbell, pastoring in Willow, Alaska, and asked for his help. They became the core for the founding of the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry, later Russian Far East Task Force, to help meet the immediate humanitarian needs of the Yupik and Chukchi peoples in Siberia.

Waghiyi was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church in 2007. File photo by David Valera.
Waghiyi was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church in 2007. File photo by David Valera.

With the joint effort of Moravians, Presbyterians and United Methodists, the programs they began provided fishing nets, outboard motors, job development, encouragement of traditional art forms, food, clothing, medical care and training for laypersons engaged in ministry. The Native American Comprehensive Plan gave the largest grant of its history toward the relief in Siberia. The credibility of the work established by Waghiyi and Campbell helped to establish new lines of communication with the Russian government in Siberia, opening avenues for humanitarian aid. 

An elderly woman in a trailer in Anchorage set in motion events that changed history in a part of the world. Wherever Della was invited to speak, she traveled, telling of the needs of her people and sharing her culture and faith. She would speak of the presence of God, saying, “Amazing. Isn’t it amazing?”

The path to ordination

The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church extends to missionary conferences, in the case of indigenous candidates, the same avenues of cultural discretion afforded central conferences. At age 78, Della Waghiyi, was asked if she would consider being a candidate for ordination. Without looking up, she replied, with a quiet voice, “I’ll ask him (God).” Two and a half months later, she said simply, “Yes. It’s OK.”

Others did not see it so simply. Clergy serving in the Alaska Conference of The United Methodist Church are members of other conferences. Many clergy and one layperson opposed the ordination of Native people under the disciplinary discretion. They feared it would set a precedent accepting unqualified Native clergy in non-Native settings and financially obligate them to guaranteed appointments, minimum salaries and clergy benefits. Native people from across the country had attended the annual conference for Dellas’s ordination. They would remember the discussions of that day as some of the most painful in their lives.

On a Friday evening, 2007, Della Singigpaghmi Waghiyi was ordained an elder in The United Methodist Church. She wore a white, hooded cuspuk in the Yupik style, spontaneously translating the liturgy of ordination and Word and Table in Yupik. She knelt on a caribou skin, like those that had covered the floor and walls of her driftwood home as a child. There was a polar bearskin on the floor near the altar. These were signs of the provisions and gifts of God for the Yupik people.

Small, and somewhat frail, she stood with the chalice of Christ, offering the lifeblood of Jesus. Many present had never received the words from a Native voice, and the Eucharist from Native hands. Although a few Alaskan Native people had been ordained in the history of The United Methodist Church, none had been ordained by the conference in Alaska. At 78, the Rev. Della Waghiyi became the first Alaskan Native woman ordained in the denomination. She was ordained and retired in the same service.

Alaska has the highest per capita statistics for abuse against women. The largest percentages of those are Native women, who are often seen as acceptable targets. At 78 years of age, Della Waghiyi, great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, auntie, friend, Yupik woman, wore a red stole.

On July 4, 2010, the Rev. Della Waghiyi, internationally known Yupik artist and cultural scholar, profound thinker and Christian theologian, the first Native person to be ordained in Alaska, the first Alaska Native woman to be ordained in the denomination, crossed over into new life, where drums are beating, relatives are dancing with the movements of hands, and the Great Cloud of Witnesses are speaking Yupik, a language that God loves. 

*Buckley is the interim director of the Center for Native American Spirituality and Christian Study.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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