Living and Growing: ‘My name is Ahtowena’

Tanya Renee Ahtowena Rorem at age 17. (Photo provided by Laura Rorem)

Tanya Renee Ahtowena Rorem at age 17. (Photo provided by Laura Rorem)

My precocious two-year old broke loose from my grip and took off toward the road. Panicked, I yelled, “Tanya! Tanya! TANYA!!” Indignantly she stopped, turned around, put her hands on her hips and with great irritation proclaimed, “MY…NAME…IS…AHTOWENA!”

Nineteen months earlier the people of Brevig Mission gathered to celebrate the baptism of Tanya Renee Ahtowena Rorem in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The sign of the cross on her forehead sealed her into the family of God. The waters of baptism washed and nourished her from the waters first pouring to her dying day on Feb. 23, 2018.

“Tanya Renee Ahtowena Rorem: D.O.B 8-7-72; ½ Black; ½ Yupik; Adopted by Laura and Larry Rorem at eight months old. Their goal was give a child love and a home, teach about God, and give them values…What I learned is: forgiveness, respect, kindness, and God are ALL ABOUT LOVE…” — Ahtowena

Tanya’s diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder redefined our lives. Stigma, lack of societal understanding, inappropriate services and broken systems marginalized her life, causing homelessness, incarceration, unimaginable trauma and indignities. Yet through her art, writings and courageous example she taught us that people struggling with behavioral and neurobehavioral disabilities have much to contribute to society. She was seen by most as a “throw away.” To us she was our precious gift from God.

“Why do I believe in God? For strength! Without faith, I would be lost. God is in my soul and he gives me strength. His gift is unconditional love. That’s what is special. I did not work for it. I received it through my baptism. My faith is strong, so am I. God’s gift is free. To remember his gift is faith in God…Confessing your faith is for you to remember what God did for you. To believe in God means the difference between life and death…His gift to me was life. My gift to him is remembering my faith in him.” — Ahtowena

Ahtowena understood that through baptism, she did not have to earn God’s love to experience it. Her “Good Friday” life, marginalized by society living in “the shadow of our steeples,” was one of hope in the promises of the Resurrection. Her baptism and God’s unconditional love and grace were central to her difficult and painful life.

Her brain disorders gave us a new understanding of the abundant love God reveals to the world in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God’s love is Agape love; the highest form of sacrificial love freely given, without expectations of reciprocity, even in the most challenging times.

Ahtowena taught us that baptism calls us, and John 3:16 challenges us to move beyond the “shadow of our steeples,” and merely saying “God is Love,” to live in the fullness of God’s Agape love by expansively, and intentionally loving all humankind unconditionally and selflessly. John 3:16 challenges us to show God’s love by doing justice and caring compassionately for all who are powerless, exploited, deprived, poor, helpless, without rights, outcasts, forgotten, disabled, homeless and imprisoned.

May we be so filled with God’s perfect, unselfish Agape love, that we may love all humankind as God has loved us in John 3:16.

• Laura Rorem is a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church. She writes to honor her husband, Pastor Larry Rorem’s legacy of love, compassion and understanding for all humankind, especially the most vulnerable. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Saturday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

More in Neighbors

Jackie Renninger Park, which is scheduled to receive structural and safety improvements. (City and Borough of Juneau photo)
Neighbors briefs

See design ideas for Jackie Renninger Park at June 24 public meeting… Continue reading

Students from Juneau Community Charter School listen to a story at the Skagway Public Library. (Photo provided by Clint Sullivan)
Neighbors: Letters of thanks

Thanks to the community of Skagway The K/1 class of Juneau Community… Continue reading

Donna Leigh is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Courtesy photo)
Living and Growing: Small things

Have you ever had a small pebble in your shoe? Very irritating,… Continue reading

Matushka Olga Michael, a Yup’ik woman from Kwethluk. (Photo provided by Maxim Gibson)
Living and Growing: A new Alaskan saint

“God is wonderful in His saints: the God of Israel is He… Continue reading

Dining out in Croatia. (Photo by Patty Schied)
Cooking for Pleasure: Almond cake from a trip to Croatia

I should have probably titled this week’s column: “Eating For Pleasure.” My… Continue reading

Nick Hanson of the NBC show “American Ninja Warrior” kicks off the blanket toss at the 2020 Traditional Games in Juneau. (Lyndsey Brollini / Sealaska Heritage Institute)
Neighbors: Celebration begins Wednesday with mix of traditional and new events

Nearly 1,600 dancers from 36 dance groups scheduled to participate in four-day gathering.

“Curiosities of Alaska” by Junnie Chup, which won first place in Kindred Post’s 2024 statewide postcard art contest. (Photo courtesy of Kindred Post)
Neighbors briefs

Kindred Post announces 2024 statewide postcard art contest winners Kindred Post on… Continue reading

Tanya Renee Ahtowena Rorem at age 17. (Photo provided by Laura Rorem)
Living and Growing: ‘My name is Ahtowena’

My precocious two-year old broke loose from my grip and took off… Continue reading

The Pinkas Synagogue, the second-oldest building in Prague. (World Monuments Fund photo)
Living and Growing: Connecting to family ancestors through names of strangers on a wall in Prague

“Prague never lets you go…this dear little mother has sharp claws.” —… Continue reading

Individual eggplant parmesan rounds ready to serve. (Photo by Patty Schied)
Cooking for Pleasure: Individual eggplant parmesan rounds

These flavorful eggplant parmesans are a great side dish, especially served with… Continue reading

An aspiring knight relies on duct tape for his medieval battle gear during the Master’s Faire on July 16, 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Gimme A Smile: Duct tape — an Alaskan’s best friend

Duct tape is an Alaskan tradition. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix… Continue reading