>Della Wagyihi

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It’s almost two weeks ago now, on July 4th, when Della Waghiyi passed away.  She was the Alaska United Methodist Conference’s lone ordained native Alaskan pastor.  I had known Della for 20 years, from when I first went to Nome back in 1990.  And over the years I got to hear more and more of her stories.  I remember her sharing about her childhood among the Siberian Yupic.  I remember her stories of going with my friend Rev. Jim Campbell to meetings in New York and Nashville and other large cities.  One of the things she said that I’ve used in sermons at Advent time is the following:

White people wonder what we do all winter. They wonder if we’re just waiting around for the sun to come out. No! In the winter we are fixing our boats and mending our nets and making our clothes so that we can be ready when the sun comes.

That’s the waiting we have at Advent — waiting, actively, so we’re ready when the “son” comes.


Della was a spiritual giant for Alaskan Methodists.  She lived out her faith in so many remarkable ways and was a great interpreter for us between the United Methodist Conference and, indeed, Native Alaskans.  One of the things I remember is how everyone stopped and listened when Della spoke.  She spoke softly and somewhat haltingly after a stroke from a few years ago.   But when she spoke you could hear a pin drop.  She didn’t command respect.  She had earned it through her faith and life.  And, what’s so awesome is that I think even those who were meeting her for the first time understood it.

I have known some of these great saints throughout my life.  Each of them were people I’ve learned from.  And, as I type this I know that I learned a lot about strength from this small, unassuming, and humble servant.  She was a strong person.  She is, and will continue to be, missed.

The following is a poem written by Rev. Jim Campbell.  He’s a friend who, as he worked with Della on native issues and looking out for the Siberian Yupiks in the Russian Far East, got to spend precious time with her.  Only once do I recall seeing Della create a doll from her cuspuk as she told her stories.  But I do remember it.  You can read on to see what it meant to Jim:  (I first saw this poem on the blog of our Superientendent Dave Beckett.)

“The Cuspuk Doll”
by Jim Campbell
Her hands cast wonder
folding, transforming her cuspuk.
A yard of string
twisting, binding the cloth
until from her garment,
this identity that wrapped her body,
there emerged the likeness of a doll
faces transfixed by the weave of her hands
now melting to a Christmas morning smile.
Over and over it happened.
All across the land it happened.
Each town,
each stop on the agenda of places to be by five o’clock,
each plead for her people that were starving in Chukotka,
each feast attended for those who had no bread,
there came the hope moment,
that transforming moment,
that gospel moment of all things made new,
that moment of the parable of the doll.
Della made other dolls,
hands of an artist given to beading, sewing, carving…..
dolls of the Anchorage museum,
life like dolls of her people,
dolls of worth and beauty and display.
Della bore the standard of craftsman.
She distilled the beautiful,
the colors and foods of the changing seasons,
the rhythm of the beat of the drum,
the telling of stories,
especially stories to the children,
who gathered with her on the floor,
as she made her cuspuk doll
and told of times when that was all she had.
Hands, stilled….. folded,
her blessings complete.
So many lives yet sway in the wake of her Sunday prayers,
heart prayers in this sanctuary,
to the Creator,
to whom, in this moment
We lift up our dear friend…….
daring to notice in the hand of God,
a yard of string,
waiting
waiting to make,
one more new creation.
The picture above is from mcavOy’s photostream on Flickr.
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