Speaking God's Language(s)

Koreans, Alaska Natives, ‘Norwegians’ come together in new presbytery; celebrate David Dobler’s retirement

Ketchikan, Alaska
Presbyterian News Service
Jerry Van Marter

The Rev. David Dobler remembers when – early in his ministry in Alaska – presbytery meetings were fraught with multicultural complications.

Rev. David Dobler - Photo by Jerry Van Marter

Rev. David Dobler - Photo by Jerry Van Marter

“When we came to Alaska, we went to a presbytery where no one spoke all the languages", Dobler tells the new Presbytery of the Northwest Coast at its second stated meeting here. “Anyone could call for a language caucus, go off, figure it out, and then come back together,” he notes of the Tlinglit, Inupiat, Aleut, Tsimshian and other Native Alaska tribes whose members comprised the congregations of the Presbyteries of Yukon and Alaska when he started in ministry 30 years ago.

“One blessing is learning the faith from Presbyterians whose culture is very different from ours,” he tells this multicultural crowd of Presbyterians, somewhat new to each other as a result of the merger of the former Presbyteries of Alaska and North Puget Sound a year ago. “What a blessing to learn to follow Jesus from a very different context than our own.”

A tangible reflection of this focus on diversity: a number of this meeting’s events are intentionally held at neighboring Catholic and Nazarene churches.

The centerpiece of this second stated meeting of the Presbytery of the Northwest Coast is a celebration of Dobler’s retirement. After a career that included serving an ecumenical congregation in Anchorage, as executive for Yukon and Alaska Presbyteries and as president of Sheldon Jackson College, Dobler retired Sept. 30 (his birthday) after spending the last 18 months alongside Corey Schlosser-Hall knitting together the new presbytery.

Schlosser-Hall, who continues as Northwest Coast’s executive after having served as executive presbyter for North Puget Sound prior to the merger.

Along the way, Dobler also served on the PC(USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and as moderator of the General Assembly in 1993, a heart-wrenching Assembly that is perhaps best remembered for large, lengthy floor demonstrations by gay and lesbian Presbyterians and their supporters seeking full inclusion in the denomination.

The celebrations here Sept. 26-27 were joyous and poignantly multicultural. Highlighting the two-day meeting was a performance by the Metlakatla Youth Dancers – a troupe of Tsimshian young people who sang, danced and provided rich testimony in their native language – a practice once banned by missionaries and other officials who were attempting to “Christianize” Alaska Native peoples.

The dancers, who have revitalized the Metlakatla Presbyterian Church – which sits on a neighboring island accessible only by boat or float plane – recently toured northern California churches entertaining and educating “Norwegians” (the term Alaska Presbyterians laughingly use to describe their Anglo brothers and sisters) about the rich multicultural diversity of Alaska and its Presbyterian churches.

The Presbytery of the Northwest Coast is one of the most diverse in the PC(USA). Thirty percent of its churches are Korean; a sizable portion are Alaska or Northwest Native; much of the presbytery’s outreach in northwest Washington is to Hispanic families, there to work in the agricultural fields that stretch from just north of Seattle to the Canadian border; and collegiate ministries in the region reach out to students of many cultures, including Muslims.

Prior to this meeting of Northwest Coast, a large group of Korean Presbyterian leaders from the former North Puget Sound, traveled to Metlakatla to compare notes on ministry in dominant cultures with their new Tsimshian brothers and sisters. Indeed, this gathering of Northwest Coast Presbytery was not called a “meeting” but a “leadership summit.”

Leaders of the new presbytery seem determined to put leadership development above programmatic and administrative work. “We can come together as a human strategy and people will feel good and encouraged,” Schlosser-Hall tells the summit, “but they have short-term energy and excitement -- a little gas for a little while.”

Reliance on Jesus Christ is the key, Schlosser-Hall tells the presbytery. “Good will and good strategy will not get us through – only God’s purpose and will get us through.”

And so at this meeting, the 100 or so presbyters spend much of their time in small groups discussing such questions as:

What is remarkable about your congregation’s ministry and how do you bless your community?
Why and how do you currently partner with other congregations in ministry?
What opportunities do you see for others to partner with you and your congregation?

This focus on relationship over program and reliance upon God’s will over human planning is a large part of Dobler’s legacy here. Fellow executives from all but one of the other presbyteries of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest traveled here for the meeting (Curtis Karns of Yukon Presbytery was on a previously scheduled environmental justice tour of Alaska).

Dobler gave a copy of The Reformed Pastor, written by 17th-century minister Richard Baxter, to each attendee. “He took very seriously the call of pastors to take care of their own and their parishioners’ souls. There is nothing more important than the care of your people’s souls,” Dobler says. 

Schlosser-Hall tells Dobler, the book is “a providential choice that demonstrates your presence among us these years – gentle, sagacious, wise -- thank you for your care for the rest of us.”

And Dobler’s typically curmudgeonly response to Schlosser-Hall? “Don’t mess it up.”