I just talked to my friend Vera Penz, who helps her husband Dave run the Kako retreat center for villagers in the vast, lightly populated Yukon-Kuskokwim delta of western Alaska. In summer, the Penzes get their supplies via Yukon River barge or by air. Winter travel is by bush plane or snowmobile.
The Penzes have help from volunteers who come from other areas of Alaska and across the lower forty-eight, but “winter is hard,” Vera says. They are mostly alone then. At age eighty, she is the sole bookkeeper, letter writer and paperwork person for the mission enterprise. Dave is battling a form of leukemia. When I called, he’d been out all day plowing snow from the runway and clearing paths between the buildings. It had “warmed up” to 11 degrees from last night’s 16 below zero. As we talked, I stood at our window, looking out at a light mist falling and rubbing goosebumps. It was 40 degrees outside our house. And I thought I was cold?
Within a radius of 160 miles of Kako there are fifty villages. Many are afflicted with alcoholism and attendant social evils. The subsistence lifestyle is as hard as it ever was, and there are few paying jobs, so many people live below the poverty level. Kako offers hope, through summer camps for children, teacher’s retreats, marriage seminars, men’s and women’s retreats, and short term Bible seminars. Most of the attendees are flown in, as are workers, speakers, and everything needed for their stays.
“In two weeks, we have a speaker from Moody coming to teach about forgiveness,” Vera told me.
Forgiveness is an appropriate topic in a place where abuse goes hand in hand with alcoholism.
“We’re so glad for the warmer weather and plenty of snow. The trails are good for those close enough to come by snowmobile, but we’ll have to fly people in from farther out.”
Dave and Vera both came to Alaska in the early ‘60s. They married after having lost their respective spouses and have since spent the last thirty years at Kako, reaching out to the people of the delta. Did I mention that they are two of my heroes?