“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country.” Hebrews 11:8-9
“I still want to assure you that it is needless to worry over me as I don’t have any intentions of coming back to Finland as I never thought it would be better over there. Things might not turn out well, but if they don’t, I wouldn’t be the first to whom they didn’t. But let me warn you not to spend time in needless worry. The time goes by so fast and I’ve seen a lot of the world, and that’s one reason I started. Since I came, my mind has become more stable and I have left my childhood’s carefree ways. When one goes out into the world, you find your living on your shoulders.”
-Jafet Lukkarila, age 17, in a letter to his brother Johan in Finland, 1885
Jafet Lukkarila was my great-grandfather. He came to the United States from Finland in 1882 at the age of 14. Many left Finland in those years to avoid being forced into the Russian army. From the letters a family member recovered in 1986, there is no indication that he traveled with family. He sought out Finnish community, which took him to Michigan where he built railroads, cut lumber and mined copper. The letters he wrote to his brother Johan are dated from 1884 to 1920.
I am so thankful for the glimpse the letters give me of the great-grandfather I never met. Reading his words, I sense he was a man of honest faith and practicality. He writes about the difficulties of finding work, times of loneliness and uncertainty, and promises that never seem to come to fruition. He never got rich. Even at the age of 52, he writes of needing to once again find work. Yet, in all those years of writing, he remains hopeful. He speaks of being grateful for good food, warm lodging, new jobs, Finnish friends, a church home. Eventually he married a Finnish girl and became the father of eight children, one of whom was my grandfather Julius.
I am grateful for this man who was brave enough to set out at 14 for a new place. He didn’t know where he was going, but I can only believe that he saw America as a type of Promised Land. His sacrifices and courage made it my homeland. That is a rich gift. I am honored to be in the immigrant chorus in Ragtime. It is a chance for me, for all of us, to say thank you to people like Jafet Lukkarila.