During the period of colonialism and when the Church aligned itself with the State, paternalism became the way of ‘ministering’ to indigenous people. Therefore, rarely did anyone advocate for the needs of the indigenous people who the Church desired to convert. Fortunately, the people had Herman of Alaska. Not only did he bring Christ to the indigenous people of Alaska, but he also brought them protection from the perils of paternalism. Unfortunately, those who protected the indigenous people of the Americas often paid a great price.
When Herman and other monks arrived on Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794, they converted the native Aleuts. As the mission developed, they protected the people from exploitation and abuse of the colonizers. Due to their moral stance in protecting the Aleuts, Herman and his monks were abused, arrested, and physically threatened. In the face of the abuse and the harsh elements in Alaska, many of the monks returned to Russia, suffered martyrdom for their faith, or died of natural causes. However, Herman remained the sole missionary serving the people.
Herman built a small hermitage on Spruce Island along with a guest house and a small chapel, and he founded a school. Herman provided spiritual support for the local people who would visit him for guidance and prayers. He devoted his life to performing all the services he could as a simple monk by feeding the hungry, teaching the curious, and healing the sick. As an example for us today, Herman devoted his life to prayer and service.
We can examine the life of Herman and imitate not only his actions but his attitude toward the people he served. Herman applied the baptismal covenant of respecting the dignity of every human being. He respected the indigenous people of Alaska to the threat of his own safety. He put the needs of others before his own needs. He imitated Christ by giving his own life for the benefit of the people he served. Furthermore, he placed their needs above his own needs. As a result, he avoided the pitfalls of paternalism, in which the colonizers often believed they knew more than the indigenous people.
As Christians, we can look to Herman for inspiration as we serve people during very contentious times. When our world leaders seek division rather than unity, pursue personal agendas rather than communal needs, and leverage power rather than benevolence, we can rely on our saintly heroes to follow. Fortunately, Herman focused on the needs of others and avoided the trap of paternalism.
Even today, many churches and schools when they serve other communities commit different forms of paternalism, which I will enumerate here:
- Knowledge Paternalism: the belief that we have all the answers
- Spiritual Paternalism: the belief that we have the right way to teach about God
- Resource Paternalism: giving resources without knowing the needs of the recipients
- Labor Paternalism: we do the work that people can do themselves, which prevents them to be the stewards of their own ‘home’
- Managerial Paternalism: we believe we know the best way of getting things done without regard of the people we service.
These forms of paternalism are all too common, especially when affluent churches and schools support underserved communities. Following Herman’s example will help us avoid the pitfalls of paternalism.
As Christian leaders, we need to refrain from thinking we have all the answers. We also need to follow Herman’s example and advocate for the dignity of the people we serve. We can respect our partners by giving them space to determine their own needs, to manage their own lives, and to pray according to their own tradition. We must embrace the Gospel, follow the example of Herman, and live into our baptismal covenant while teaching future generations to do the same.