From the Subtropics to the Subarctics, Serving God
By Debbonnaire Kovacs, April 15, 2015 It’s a long way from Mississippi steam to Alaskan ice—a lifetime, for Viola Kaiser. She could never have guessed the ways that God would lead her, step by step, through a varied life of experiences to her newest endeavor, working with the Siberian Yupik natives on St. Lawrence Island, which is actually closer to Russia (58 km, 36 mi) than it is to the Alaskan coast.
Kaiser had been doing counseling at the Weimar Institute for eight years when one day, out of the blue, a woman who came to one of their programs asked, “Have you ever thought about going to Alaska?”
Well, it just so happened that Kaiser had begun to feel that it was time to leave. “I always know when I’m supposed to move on. I get very restless, and I start asking God, what do you want me to do?”
She ought to know—she was on Career #4 already at that point. But she never would have thought she’d be living and ministering near the Arctic Circle, using all-terrain vehicles as her daily transportation, taking care of the Gambell, AK Seventh-day Adventist church and all its people, both adults and children.
“What it all means,” Kaiser says, “I’m still trying to find out. It’s a mixed bag. They are telling people this is the new pastor; I’m not a pastor, I’m a chaplain. I maintain the church, I speak every Sabbath unless there’s another speaker, I take care of issues, budgets, interpersonal issues, and so on.”
Most people, this writer included, would call that being a pastor. But Kaiser goes on to explain, “It is evolving and I presume it will continue to evolve. I have been ordained of God as a chaplain and I don’t want to get embroiled in all this ordination stuff. It was not my idea to go into chaplaincy, and I feel I was ordained of God to do it. I am committed to do his work, whatever he specifies. Arguing and playing politics over ordination…I didn’t want the church to get caught up in that.”
It has been a long road so far for Viola Kaiser. After spending the first sixteen years of her life on a subsistence farm in Mississippi, Kaiser went to college in St. Louis, MO, graduating with a degree in biology. She had already decided by tenth grade that she wanted to “study life—I still love it; it’s fascinating!” She then headed for California, with high hopes of working with Jacques Cousteau, famous marine biologist. That didn’t happen, but she did get a job in her field, working for an international chemical corporation. (That’s Career #1—you might want to keep track.)
When the company bought a lab in Portland, Kaiser took the transfer along with others. Here, she first met Seventh-day Adventists. A friend gave her Steps to Christ. Kaiser says, as a biologist, she was struck by the very first line: “Nature and revelation alike testify of God’s love.” Kaiser had always felt closer to the spiritual world through nature. Here was an author who talked a lot about God’s presence in creation. Kaiser devoured Steps to Christ and then The Great Controversy.
She became convicted about the Sabbath, but she worked seven days a week maintaining cultures used to produce medical antigens. She told God, “If you want me to keep Sabbath, you have to take care of my critters.” Her personal test was to simply skip Saturday care and see what happened. The cultures seemed fine, so she began quietly keeping Sabbath, though without telling her employer at the time. She later learned that the company said that particular batch of antigens was the best they’d ever had.
“So,” said Kaiser, “I was convinced that if I obeyed him, he would take care of me.” She joined the church, and was overjoyed when a friend that had left the Adventist church surprised her by being baptized on the same day. From that point, Kaiser believed that her job, though it wasn’t religious, was a ministry. She felt that she was doing something for humankind.
When she married, she left work and stayed home with her children (Career #2), but by the time her children were six and eight years old, she separated from her husband. She was now in eastern Oregon, and had to go back to the workforce. “But while I was playing blocks with my kids, biology was moving forward!” She knew it would be difficult if not impossible to get back into her field after having been out for ten years.
She found employment with the state of Washington (Career #3), working in the Employment Security Department. When the state created a new program called the Family Independence Program, she and another worker took it on. “I tend to be like that; I like to take on a challenge.” The goal was to get families off welfare into non-subsistence employment; that is, employment that is well-paid. Kaiser said she “wore quite a few hats,” but her main job was to bring together employers with prospective employees.
“Welfare,” Kaiser states categorically, “is not a good place to be. People get used to mere subsistence. They lose self-worth. That program is a good one; I heartily endorse it. I threw my heart into it. I was able to see over 100 people get into jobs, and most never returned to welfare, and that thrilled my heart!” Once again, Kaiser’s job was ministering—“doing something for humankind.”
Kaiser worked for the state for 19 years. [Note: In a recent story about her in the Gleaner, where you can learn more, there is a statement Kaiser felt could be misunderstood: “After working for more than 18 years on Washington’s Yakama reservation…” During this time, one of her responsibilities was to go onto reservations to personnel departments and work on employment issues with the Yakima and Warm Springs Native tribes, but she did not work on the reservation itself.]
Eventually, she relates, “the politics started getting really thick, and I couldn’t handle it.” She left her job in June 2006, and was officially separated from the state in July. By this time, many people would be thinking about retirement. Not Viola Kaiser. Wanting to be back in the field of biology, she considered training for sonography. However, God had a different idea.
She was driving, asking God (as she often did) “What do you want me to do?” and God impressed her to go into chaplaincy. “I put up a fence. I said to God, ‘I am not a minister, and I have no intention of being a minister!’” But when she mentioned it to a friend she was startled when the friend excitedly affirmed that chaplaincy would be the very thing for her. It seemed everyone else agreed…except Kaiser.
She wanted to follow God’s leading, though, so she agreed to apply for training. All programs were full. All but one—Loma Linda University was just starting up their program again, and Kaiser didn’t realize a friend had sent a letter of recommendation for her already.
At this point, the story takes some complicated twists which, for the sake of space, will be glossed over here. Kaiser spent some time at Weimar Institute, doing some temporary work there, and then went on to her chaplaincy training, where she spent one day per week in class and the rest of her time in the hospital. She says that was a high trauma time; in fact, she was put on call at the hospital before she’d had one class. Assuming it was a mistake, she spoke to her supervisor and was told that was correct, she was on call from 8 p.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Monday. Her supervisor later told her she was baptized by fire, because that weekend was overwhelmed with traumas, including a heart-rending story of a mother with three children, whose car had broken down and flipped. One child was killed outright. One was brain dead. The third child as well as the mother were injured…and the mother was charged with vehicular homicide on top of everything else. Kaiser was there for her, listening to her as she poured out her whole life story, praying with her, and later speaking up at the children’s funeral.
And that was only one story—Kaiser says, “With the exception of one on-call period, it was always like that for me—trauma after trauma.”
So she was soon prepared for Career #4 and her eight years counseling at Weimar. And then…
“Have you ever thought about going to Alaska?”
No, Kaiser hadn’t. But when the woman told her about the high suicide rates among the young Native people, her heart was stirred. The woman had no way of knowing that suicide prevention was one of the ways Kaiser had dealt with a lot already. “I tucked that away, but then when I was talking to some friends about what I wanted to do, somebody suggested calling Monte Church.” To her surprise, when she called he said he’d come by that summer to talk to her, but she had been away. She had never received the notice.
Pastor Church, North Pacific Union Conference Native Ministries Director, told her, “This is what I’ve got. We need somebody in Gambell.” Not without a few more glitches and delays, Kaiser ended up telling God, “If you have Pastor Crawford call and ask me to come to Alaska, I’ll go.”
He called. The rest is history. Well, it’s history being written now, that is. Career #5…
So she preaches, and she teaches, and she runs a Children’s Day every Wednesday that includes food, games, perhaps a story, but mostly love. “They’d come every day, but I’m only one person. I don’t have a spouse like they do over at Savoonga [the other Adventist church on St. Lawrence Island]. I asked if they were interested in having prayer meeting. I didn’t want to do it if nobody comes. They were silent. I’ve learned that with Natives, that means No. So, Wednesday became Children’s Day.”
It’s worth noting that Kaiser herself contains blood from at least three of the divisions of humans that we have falsely delineated as “races”—Caucasian, African, and Native American. She says she feels most at home among Native Americans, at least in part because God speaks to her through nature.
Kaiser has learned that one of the concerns when she was called was her age. But she says in her family age is immaterial, and people are active well into their 80s. (She didn’t say how close she might be, but…Career #5…)
God bless your work at the top of the world, Chaplain/Pastor Viola Kaiser! May more of us follow your example, and your God.