When I moved to Iqaluit, I was excited about experiencing the culture of a majority-Inuit territory. But encountering another culture is hard, lonely, and embarrassing; and the other “expats” from the south (qallunaat, in Inuktitut, literally “The people with protruding eyebrows”) were warm, inclusive, and set on making things easy for me. I even passed on the most obvious opportunities, going to coffee hour after church with the English-speaking parishioners instead of staying in my pew for the Inuktitut-language service that followed. And my job was no help; as a data analyst for the Department of Family Services, I had a glimpse of the everyday struggles people were facing, but only through a computer screen
I realized I was going to end up returning to the south having seen some Northern Lights and some beautiful sculptures and not much else. But I did have a foothold, albeit tiny, in the weekly women’s Bible study. This activity, hosted in the living-room of a Filipino woman in my congregation, was attended by Anglicans and Pentecostals, Canadians and arrivals from other countries, qallunaat and inuit. We weren’t particularly diligent about studying, but we did always finish with a prayer.
The experiences in that room could not have been more varied. The Inuit women, who spoke English for our benefit, weren’t particularly old, perhaps in their forties or fifties, but most of them could reminisce about growing up in hunting camps, before the government’s policies to move the Inuit into permanent communities came fully into effect. Their childhoods were at least as dissimilar from mine as the women from China or the Philippines. They laughed at how delighted they’d been by pre-packaged TV dinners, when they’d spent their childhoods eating caribou, maattaq (whale skin), and bannock. A woman from the western Arctic remembered her mother playing the accordion at a family gathering in a sod house. One woman remembered her cousin having to go to Montréal for a broken wrist and bringing back dollar-store souvenirs: a giant pair of plastic glasses and a foot-long pencil. “I thought you people were giants.”
Travelling enormous distances for medical treatment is one of the routine challenges living in the Arctic. They also talked about the severe toll of homesickness that prevents many Inuit from pursuing their educational dreams in the south. We prayed about that, and about a lot of other stuff that would be familiar to most Bible studies: broken marriages, illness, family. To me, coming from the structured Anglican liturgy, this prayer felt endless, and I sat in dread as it circled the living room, waiting to be put on the spot. Praying together with those women was still kind of hard and embarrassing for me, but it absolutely wasn’t lonely.
We don’t have to have the same backgrounds to pray together. We don’t have to experience the same pain, speak the same language, share the same desire or goals, or have the same definition of “Christian”. When we pray, Jesus says, God knows what we need before we even ask him. In that home on the outskirts of Iqaluit, with the immense tundra for a backyard, and a blizzard, more often than not, outside the door, I received something I needed even before I opened my mouth.