The Smiths of Rural Alaska: Lessons from an Outpost


When we removed the For Sale sign from the front lawn of our comfortable home in western Colorado, we had to face a moment of truth. The move we had sometimes talked about, but never really planned for, was to become a reality in just a few short days. We had signed a contract and definitely would be moving to “bush” Alaska.

During the previous six years while spending our summers at the University of Alaska and our winters at our school in Colorado, we had often been drawn to the idea of teaching in rural Alaska. We had always hesitated before taking that final step, however, especially when we considered the growth and development of our two sons in their priesthood quorums, Sunday School classes, and Seminary classes. Few members of the Church live in such places, and we knew that those who do must of necessity assume all responsibility for implementing the gospel in their personal and family lives. But with one son serving a mission in Japan, and another son within a semester of entering Brigham Young University, we felt at last ready to take “the big step.”

Although we knew some things about the community in which we would be living, we knew little of what to expect concerning the state of the Church in that area. We were aware only that any members living there would be in what was then the Alaska Bush Branch. While making telephone connections in Anchorage, we discovered that one LDS family was actually living in Dillingham, our destination in the Bristol Bay area of southwestern Alaska. This information gave us great relief. No doubt we had tended to lean too much on others, for the implications of such a challenge had brought us a good deal of soul-searching as we considered our strengths and weaknesses.

We had no information other than the name of the person to contact in Dillingham, a town of only 1300 people, but we expected no problem in being able to locate this Lyle John Smith, whoever he might be. Curious, we tried to imagine why he and his family might be living in a place so remote from the organized areas of the Church. We reasoned that they were no doubt much like us, drawn by adventure to take an assignment or a job in an isolated area. We wondered how long they had been in Dillingham and how much longer they might be staying.

The first indication that we had not imagined the right background for the “Dillingham Mormons” came soon after we had tried several times to contact them by telephone. Finally enquiring about them from others we learned that the Smiths were probably still at fish camp. All we knew about fish camp was that it was often a part of commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. Because of the state regulation of commercial fishing permits, we knew that most commercial fishermen were either long-time residents of the area or outsiders who had come to fish in the Bay over a period of years.

Quite by accident we met the mother of the Smith family as she returned from fish camp with her two youngest sons. She was busy carrying on a spirited discussion (in German) with a woman who disembarked with them from the small bush plane. We had time for only the briefest of introductions, with a promise of Church services at the Smith home on Sunday after the rest of the family had returned from fish camp.

As we later learned, Silke Smith had been born in Germany and grew up there, coming to Dillingham as a nurse. It was at the hospital that she had met her future husband, the only member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Dillingham at that time. He had spent many years as the only member of the Church in his family and in the community in the years since his conversion during service in the U.S. Army.

Silke did not remember hearing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prior to meeting her future husband. She had no interest in marriage at that time, having already decided that she preferred a life of traveling and working in different places throughout the world. She had felt the stresses and strains of her own family while growing up in war-time Germany, and the responsibility involved in marriage and family was more than she wanted to commit herself to.

But the compelling LDS Alaskan had other ideas for the attractive young nurse. Armed with his testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and fortified with his knowledge of eternal marriage, he lost no time in presenting her with the gospel view of marriage and family life. His own part-native Aleut mother had died while he was very young and he had not enjoyed the advantage of a stable family life during his growing years. Consequently he valued deeply the Church’s teachings on family life. These teachings the young German nurse also found impressive. For the first time, she could see not only the why of family life, but also some very important ways in which it could successfully be accomplished.

So it came to be that the Smiths began their venture into family life. From the start, theirs has been no simple, serene journey. For one thing, bicultural marriages are almost always fraught with complex challenges, and theirs has been no exception. Also, as circumstance would have it, the Smiths began their family in a big way by adopting first one child and then two additional sons. This had been followed by the birth of four more children, the last of which is the only daughter.

For each challenge and problem they have encountered, the Smiths have come to know that in the teachings of the gospel are the best solutions. Over the years they have, of course, been helped and strengthened by the testimony of other Latter-day Saints with whom they have come in contact. Usually, however, those contacts have been relatively brief, since Church members have come to Dillingham for only brief stays, or just for a year or two. For the most part, the Smiths have taught themselves the gospel, making good use of all assistance available from the inspired programs of the Church.

Primary talks and sacrament gems build confidence and gospel background, whether given to a family or to a large congregation. But how many of us would have the dedication to help our children prepare these each week, year after year? Hymns and Primary songs uplift us and bring us closer to God, but how much dedication and ingenuity is required to establish a repertoire of these (in a new language and new culture) by listening to them over and over on tapes, and acquiring enough proficiency to use them in Church service when a piano is not available? Surely, it is understood that priesthood lessons contain important truths needed to assist the priesthood holder in magnifying his calling, but how many priesthood holders go beyond being taught the message in priesthood class to the labor involved in preparing it for themselves by extensive study and meditation week after week without a boost from other class members? The Smiths did all of this and more in their search for ways to build their testimonies and implement the gospel.

One of the most effective tools in the early years of their membership was the Primary. In what has been reported to have been the first home Primary in Alaska, Sister Smith gathered her children and the neighborhood children together to share Primary lessons and songs. Her success with this program must surely be a tribute to the inspired nature of the program, and to her own faith and enthusiasm. She faced not only the obstacles that any long-time member of the Church would have faced in conducting such a Primary, but also the challenges involved in leading out in a program for which she had no prior training and which was not part of her cultural background. The gospel of Jesus Christ does cut across cultural boundaries, but only through the efforts of individuals who actually live its teachings.

Because of the depth of their appreciation for the gospel, the Smiths made much more effective use of lesson materials and Church publications than we had ever done. Isolation itself lends a certain glow to such materials. The Church News is really news in Dillingham, even though it usually arrives at least three weeks late. The day the Ensign, the New Era, or the Friend arrives the walk from the post office is an enthusiastic one, no matter how windy, rainy, or icy the walk may be. We discovered that Brother and Sister Smith have two Ensign subscriptions, which allows them a personal copy to underline and mark to suit their individual needs and taste. Anyone who has seen an Ensign after Brother Smith has read and marked it recognizes it as a work of scholarship. This same treatment he and Sister Smith give to lesson manuals. To gain single-handedly from a priesthood or Relief Society lesson what others gain from a group discussion, they underline and jot down questions and comments.

Another approach the Smiths have found to be effective in increasing their understanding of lesson materials is to share insights and ideas. This sharing doesn’t have to be limited to just the husband and wife, or to the family for that matter. Possibly every member who lives on a “frontier” of the Church should have at least two Ensign or New Era subscriptions, which would allow them to loan a copy to friends and neighbors when an article is so good it has to be shared. With an extra subscription, one need not be concerned that a possible nonreturn will leave a missing issue in the vital collection for the year.

The Smiths not only read conference talks in the Ensign, but also listen to them on tape. They use tapes for a great variety of other learning as well. For example, they listen to inspirational talks and songs while attending to other activities.

When business or pleasure made a trip to Anchorage possible, the Smiths always asked themselves whether it could be made during stake conference time in what was then the single stake in Anchorage. Many who have sat on the stand or near either of the Smiths at stake conference in Anchorage have observed the depth of their participation in learning the gospel as taught at these conferences. Theirs is no passive listening, but rather a positive, well-organized approach to learning and remembering all that is taught. They retain the most treasured parts in notes they can later review and discuss. Brother Smith has developed his own procedure for gaining as much as possible from a talk, and this he applies whenever possible, whether at stake conference or on visits to ward meetings in Anchorage. When Church growth in Anchorage made the meeting of more than one ward in a chapel necessary, the Smiths soon realized that if they were in Anchorage on Sunday, they could attend church at more than one ward. Perhaps, if they were lucky, they could even attend church most of the day.

Now several years after our first meeting with the Smiths, we are still awed by the lessons we learned in that first Church service at their home and by the lessons we have continued to learn from them. How exciting to see firsthand the effect that gospel principles can have on individuals and a family isolated from the mainstream of the Church. What a testimony we have gained of the inspired programs of the Church of how well they can teach the gospel, even if utilized by only one family.

Times have changed, and now Dillingham is itself a branch, with several families in attendance at church. We are still on the “frontier” so to speak, still relatively few in numbers. But even such changes as we have seen demonstrate that the development of unity in a group containing many staunch individuals is a challenging process, attended by some difficulties, but filled with fine opportunities for growth.

It can be said that Saints who live in the developing areas of the Church live on the “cutting edge” of the gospel. Of necessity, they often become aware of the tremendous responsibility we have each been given for our own personal growth and testimonies.

An important attribute many such members have is a great appreciation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of their relationship with God. Members with a testimony have this appreciation as a matter of course, but it often seems heightened in those who struggle to remain on a true course when they are surrounded by those who don’t understand or don’t care.

We have been told by a prophet that the time will come when we will no longer be able to live on borrowed light. If we are to stand firm in our own testimonies, we would do well to follow the example of those like the Lyle John Smith family who have served faithfully in the outposts of the Church.

[photo] Photography by Marie Mainz, courtesy Free-Lance Photographers’ Guild

[photo] The Lyle John Smith Family: left to right, top to bottom, Deon, Lyle, Eddy, Kaleb, Niel, Elke, Silke, and Lyle T.

Betty Oba, mother of two, is Relief Society Spiritual Living teacher in the Dillingham Branch, Alaska Anchorage Mission.