France Griggs Sloat
The deacon always wore a little bit of a grin on his face, but like most of the Yupik Eskimo people of Toksook Bay on the coast of west central Alaska, he didn’t have much to say. The grin, however, conveyed warmth and friendliness, and Dan Misleh felt comfortable enough around him to finally accept his repeated invitations to join him in the homemade sauna.
“They build these little tiny houses with a wood stove inside and put rocks on top, and they pour water on the rocks, and that’s how they take steam baths,” Misleh says. “He was trying to talk me into going in there for months, and I finally said okay, okay. Well, I went in there one night—now it’s about 10 to 20 degrees below zero outside—and it was so hot that after 30 seconds, I had to leave. But they stayed in there for five to 10 minutes.”
Misleh never returned to the sauna, but in the two years he spent working with two Jesuit priests and a Dominican nun who were forming a Native Alaskan ministry training program of lay leaders and deacons, he returned often to the village and its people who taught him a lot about life—and himself.
The experience reminded Misleh of what he’d learned in Ben Urmston, S.J.’s, theology class on his way to graduating in 1982 with a degree in business management. “My eyes were just opened, and one of the many things Ben said was not right with the world made me think about other people besides myself and the Cincinnati I grew up in,” he says.
Misleh would tag along with the priests as they made trips into the little fishing village on the Bering Sea, visiting the homes of the people of St. Peter’s parish, and for three months he even lived in town. He became familiar with their culture and the enormity of the challenges they faced transitioning from a traditional life of fishing and hunting seal and heating their homes with whale blubber to a modern lifestyle of pre-fabricated homes, heating oil and prepared foods. Most spoke English, though the older folks spoke only Yupik, and the Jesuit priest would say Mass in the native tongue.
“They’re a very generous people with a great sense of humor, though they tend to be quiet and reserved, so it’s hard to get to know folks,” Misleh says. “They really had almost nothing, and yet they were always so hospitable and generous. When we’d go into any village, there would always be this great welcoming dinner. We’d go to someone’s house and they’d have a stew of reindeer or caribou or moose or fish. It was very gamey and very strong, but you never turned it down.
“The experience changed me because it made me want to continue to do this kind of work for justice and peace, and I’ve done that by continuing to work in the church. I’ve worked in the Catholic church really all my life.”
Since his Alaskan experience, Misleh has held administrative positions with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the Franciscans, the Cincinnati Archdiocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Today he’s the executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, formed last year to represent the bishops’ position on Capitol Hill, especially concerning the rights of the poor as solutions are developed. The job was tailor-made for Misleh.
“When you work for the church, you don’t make a ton of money, so you have to figure out compromises, and I’m glad I compromised that part of my life and didn’t go after the big bucks,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to be able to do this work and still make a living.”