I've been enjoying the thrill of the Winter Olympics in Sochi along with millions of others around the world. It's stunning though to realise that it's warmer there than the average summer beach holiday in England! Whatever the accomplishments of these winter heroes, their exploits have reminded me of a true winter hero of the faith who has never been decorated with victors medals. I've written and spoken on him at length before, but the opportunity to honour him again is too great to miss.
Archibald Lang Fleming arrived amongst the Eskimos as a missionary in 1909. Ok, he was a hardy Scot from Clydebank, but nothing can have prepared him for the extremes of this kind of living. Remember,these were the days of Empire, when British explorer types set off up a mountain or into the Amazon armed only with a machette, a tweed jacket and a fine handlebar moustache!
Fleming needed more than a tweed jacket as he joined a people group who had maintained their existence for generations through the most precarious balance of hunting, skill and sheer fortune, in a climate which would finish off Europeans in a week.
Acclimatisation? Well, Fleming got straight on with it. That first winter of 1909 he spent living in a small igloo with two other Eskimo families! Stephen Neill in his 'History of Christian Missions' quotes Fleming as follows-
'Life in a crowded hut has many disadvantages. The foetid atmosphere was sickening, and the acrid smoke from the blubber lamps was an aromatic disinfectant, though when it caused us discomfort the hole in the roof was cleared and a better circulation of air was created.......What Commander Peary wrote of Eskimo dwellings was true. 'A night in one of thses igloos, with a family at home, is an offence to every civilised sense.'
Fleming is not famous amongst missionaries or explorers. There is probably a statue to him somewhere, but I don't know where. Even his Wikipedia page is brief! But this man was a giant, the kind who counted his own comfort and even his life nothing, for the sake of seeing distant people reached with the gospel. Jim Elliot rightly gained attention decades later, but Fleming also was 'no fool, who gave the things he could not keep to gain what he would never lose.'
That first, terrible winter of 1909, the whole settlement were only days from starvation, their lives hanging in the delicate climatic balance. At the last, the wind changed, and Eskimo hunters were able to find walrus to eat. Fleming survived, and persevered, discovering a brotherhood with the Eskimos through their shared adversity which drew them together.
By the time of his death in 1953, Fleming was known as 'Archibald the Arctic' with upwards of 80% of the indigenous Eskimo peoples of Canada now faithful Christians. It's a spectacular legacy of faith and perseverance, a winter endurance which sets the physical achievements of our current crop of winter athletes into a true perspective. As we marvel at their resilience in the Sochi games, perhaps we can think and pray too for unreached people groups in inaccessible places, and those who may be called to reach them with the gospel in our generation?