A few weeks ago a neighbor, on his way to work up the road, saw me and stopped his truck to let me know that Jeremiah Small had been shot to death by a student while working as a gym teacher in a Christian school in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Although most of the students were Muslim, news reports on the Internet could ascribe no clear motive to the killing.
For a few years, ending about 10 years ago, I was close friends with the Small family---Dan, Becky, Jeremiah, Matt, Caleb and Karen---a caretaker family at the North Star Bible Camp here on Hatcher Pass Road in Willow. It was always a family affair. For a while, eldest son Jeremiah and I shared mutual interests of hiking, photography and science.
I was, no doubt, a source of amusement for the Small family. Once they asked for my advice when the Bible Camp was seeking ways to attract more local neighborhood folks to take part in camp activities.
“Kegger!” was my response.
A decade ago the family left Alaska for Cosmopolis, Washington where Dan became director of the Shiloh Bible Camp.
Jeremiah had, in subsequent years, returned to Alaska to stay with and help out one of our elderly neighbors during a period of illness. But we had lost touch. Different schisms. Nevertheless, the warmth I feel for the Small family remains with me always.
This is one of Jeremiah’s last conversations from Iraq:
“I don’t want to die in my sleep…I want to go out helping my students,” he told his family at Christmas. After seven years of teaching in Iraq Jeremiah Small, age 33, was shot to death by one of his students on March 1.
SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq -- The quarrel at a Christian school was at first easily ignored by other students: a disagreement between a classmate and a teacher that could barely be heard. But it quickly escalated into gunfire Thursday in a murder-suicide marking the rare violent death of an American in Iraq's most peaceful region.
Authorities in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah said 18-year-old Biyar Sarwar shot his gym teacher, U.S. citizen Jeremiah Small, before turning the gun on himself at a private English-speaking school during a morning sports lecture. Sarwar died later at a nearby hospital…
Small, 33, was from Cosmopolis, a town in western Washington state near the coast. His father, J. Dan Small, confirmed the death on his Facebook page. "Our oldest, Jeremiah, was martyred in Kurdistan this a.m.," the elder Small wrote.
I met the Small family back when our little neighborhood was smaller and more close and I used to give slide shows of my backpacking trips for the folks at the Bible Camp---a really appreciative audience. It was an unlikely friendship---myself and a very devout teenager from a very devout Christian family living up the road at the North Star Bible Camp.
A creation-evolution seminar -
One of the more unusual things we did was hold a weekly creation-evolution seminar for an entire Winter. Dan and Becky included even their youngest, then six year-old Karen, in the discussion (they have since had two more girls). Given the controversy over evolution in the religious right community I thought it was extraordinary for the family to expose their kids directly to concepts and beliefs inimical to their own. Though I was the lone representative of the evolution point of view, the weekly forum returned relentlessly to a scientific basis for discussion, making it a unique interchange.
My point is that this family always showed not only a searching curiosity about all aspects of life but also a true courage. They were open not only to scientific knowledge but also to outdoors and wilderness experiences such as skiing, hiking and climbing. I particularly shared these interests with Jeremiah. Eldest daughter, Sarah, worked as an editor and agent to sell my photographic slides.
My other acquaintances often wondered about my friendship with the religious Small family. As a quantum (scientific) animist I have never embraced any aspect of organized religions---and the Smalls are unabashedly Christian. But it was more than mere tolerance---we listened to and were able to respect each other and learn from each other. What I particularly enjoyed was their curiosity, intelligence and zest for life.
There were some surreal events. Through my acquaintance, the Smalls graciously hosted another lovely family of mountaineers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for a slide show about one of their favorite spots, Mint Glacier. Caleb Small gave an impromptu and very competent performance on the harp.
The Small family reminded me so much of my wonderful Navajo and Hopi “families” from Northern Arizona. And, like the Indian families who welcomed me into their homes, the Small family never, ever proselytized me. In fact, during one of our creation-evolution forums, the camp director suddenly turned to me and said, “Rudy, you’ve been coming up here for while now…isn’t it time you accepted Jesus Christ.”
There was the proverbial shocked silence. I closed my eyes, said nothing, and resolved to say nothing lest I embarrass someone. But one of Jeremiah’s younger brothers spoke out in what was an act of courage in this patriarchal setting:
“That’s not why Rudy comes up here. We’re having these meetings to learn about science.”
Afterwards, the father, Dan, spoke proudly of the courage and insight displayed by his Second Son, Matt (full name, “Mattaniah”) while speaking out.
“I hope you let him know,” I said.
“Oh, I told him how proud I was,” said Dan.
Sure, the Smalls did say they would love to have me with them in Heaven when they all reunited there, but that was the extent of any attempts to “convert” me. I thought it was rather sweet. They knew or sensed that proselytizing would drive me away. But judging from their other behaviors I believe this laid-back form of Christianity was just the way they were.
When they prayed I prayed with them with all my mind and heart---just the way I had been shown by my Navajo and Hopi “families.” Just as I do with all devout persons and assemblages who don‘t aggressively proselytize me.
A confluence of circumstances -
Another neighbor just told me that when she saw the report of Jeremiah’s death on TV Channel 2 Anchorage, one of my photos also appeared on the weather segment during the same broadcast. A confluence of circumstances because Jeremiah had become interested in photography after seeing my slide shows---and the photo that appeared on the TV had been shot down in Willow Creek Canyon, distance-wise only a short ways from the Bible Camp.
It tore me up to watch a video of Dan Small speaking about this terrible event and it brought back all my memories of the family. Dan has since stated that he forgives the shooter and expressed a desire for the memory of the event to promote peace and understanding. This terrible killing would be a blow to anyone, but if ever a family could withstand the grief and tragedy it would be my old friends, the Smalls.
- Rudy Wittshirk