Winter had settled in with its usual blustery darkness in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. But by December of 2021 the community had been saddened by tragedy and loss far more than usual. The pandemic, crime and depression had claimed more lives than anyone wanted to count.
The Arctic Adventist Church had been impacted as well. Church members wanted to offer empathy and extend support to the community during the Christmas season, as losses are felt more acutely during the holidays.
With the blessing of the North Slope Health department, commitment and technology expertise from KBRW (the local NPR radio station) as well as the larger faith community and many dedicated volunteers, the Arctic Adventist Church broadcasted a 30-minute Blue Christmas program for the entire North Slope, simultaneously with an outdoor candlelight vigil.
The broadcast featured messages from ACC Pastors, Celesta and Zack Babb, as well as other local faith leaders. Their messages expressed the love God has for hurting people and the comfort in knowing that God understands our pain. The event was blessed with performances by young, local musicians on piano and harp that captured the depth of the community's heartfelt prayers for strength to make it through the pain of loss.
The evening was chilly; a blizzard had been raging the past few days. But, remarkably, it let up and allowed 15 hardy community residents to attend the vigil walk from the radio station to Barrow High School. Handheld candles and candles lit in blue ice luminaries sent flickering light into the darkness where it reflected off snow crystals swirling across the tundra.
Laura Thomas, a Behavioral Health Compliance Officer from the North Slope Borough Health & Social Services Department, began the vigil by facilitating a time of sharing and reflection of the numbing losses so many in the community have endured. Braving the weather was well worth this time.
In the high school cafeteria, a Blue Christmas memorial wall offered participants a place to post the names of their missed loved ones. Christmas music played softly in the background while participants visited with each other, warmed up with hot drinks and cookies, then wrote down the names of those who are now just memories. Memories, both beautiful and painful, leave an emptiness in hearts.
The experiences that evening allowed many to understand the ache in the heart of God Himself because of His separation from us — an ache so intense, He left the unimaginable dimension of existence in heaven to become a humble baby and to share in the sufferings and abuses that His beloved creation experience. His deepest desire was to be with us, not just to be our “Father in Heaven,” but to be our Emmanuel, our “God with us!” Even through the darkest Arctic winter nights, He is truly with us in every sense of the word. That is the gospel of Christmas after all.