10 days in the Last Frontier
By Ken Horn
Alaska the Last Frontier. The Aleuts called it Alyeska, the Great Land. And great it is 586,000 square miles. Though it is sparsely populated, Alaska still numbers 620,000 inhabitants, and nearly everywhere in the state there is need for more of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Alaska is still a mission field a spiritual frontier.
The more remote villages have not been untouched by civilization, but they still bear many of the marks of the primitive heritage of the native people groups. Larger cities on the "road system" are more modern and the lifestyles more familiar.
1, 10:55 p.m.
At the Alaska District offices, I meet with Ted Boatsman, superintendent only since July, when he succeeded Roland Peretti. "There are not many easy places in Alaska," he tells me. "Most congregations are small, the work hard, the areas isolated." Thus the challenge of finding workers for these areas. Several existing churches have no pastor; new works are needed in many places.
In the afternoon Superintendent Boatsman officiates at the installation of the new pastor of the Samoan Assembly of God. Tino Saunoa and his wife, Kerisimasi, have come from Hawaii to pastor the church. Samoan works are surprisingly numerous and healthy here.
When the Samoan service ends, Boatsman meets us at Intercultural Assembly, pastored by Terry and Nita Watkins. The Watkinses, veteran missionaries to the native peoples of Alaska, also commute to two villages on the cold North Slope, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik. Both churches are in desperate need of a pastor. It is not unusual for missionaries to work double or triple, like the Watkinses. But they dont complain. They pray for more workers Alaskas greatest need. As Ted Boatsman says in his message tonight, "We need more missionaries up here. There are a lot of people to tell about Jesus."
4, 6 a.m.
Our first stop on the peninsula is Sterling, population 5,400, where Robert Reasner has pastored Abundant Life Assembly of God for 11 years.
A man is just leaving the office as we arrive. He was once an alcoholic, Reasner tells us. Now he is a leader in the church. The testimonies we encounter here include several recovered alcoholics. This is a problem we will find everywhere we go during our 10 days and we will also find many who have been delivered.
Just before noon we arrive in Soldotna. Here some of the people of the church have prepared a meal for us. It is my first taste of moose roast.
Among those at the table are senior pastor James Duncan, youth pastor Beau Hodges and a fascinating man by the name of Ed Hughes.
Hughes, half Aleut and half Russian, was raised in "Auntie Johnsons Home" which later became Juneau Childrens Home. He attended Southwestern College of the Assemblies of God in Waxahachie, Texas, and later married Jean Johnson, "Aunties" daughter. He became a longtime pastor and assistant superintendent in the district.
Our third and final stop of the day finds us with Stephen Brown in Kenai, the town that shares its name with the peninsula and the worlds most famous king salmon river. Pastor Brown, who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall, tells us of the four-year period when Kenai Assembly of God grew dramatically and their new building was erected.
Cold rain is falling as we are met by Pastor Tom Madole. Madole drives us over roads riddled with potholes and casual water, past a shop busy tuning up snowmobiles for the approaching snow season, to the parsonage that stands next to Bethel Community Assembly of God. Tom, 42, and his wife, Luan, have pastored here a mere six months. Their 16-year-old daughter is with them, but a son, 20, stayed in Missouri when God called them here.
Yupik Eskimo is the predominant native group here, as in many of the villages we will visit. People from 56 surrounding villages come to Bethel for supplies, medical treatment, school and more. This is the end of the line for seagoing barges coming up the Kuskokwim River.
At the parsonage we meet Rodney Thomas, 38, an African-American resident, and his Yupik wife, Pepsi. Rodneys son was one of two killed in a shooting at Bethels high school. In an extraordinary display of grace that touched the community, Thomas forgave the killer publicly and gave him a Bible.
There is no school today. Moose season has just opened and for everyone in the villages these are important times. Children are needed to help their parents lay up meat for the harsh winter.
At 1 p.m. our twin-engine 10-seat plane rises above the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. The seemingly endless tundra is a picture of the immensity of the task of reaching Alaskas unsaved.
A bumpy ride at 1,200 feet ends in Alakanuk. They call it the bush these small, predominantly native villages accessible only by plane or boat. Alakanuk is a Yupik village of about 600 people located on one of the sloughs flowing from the Yukon River. Here many inhabitants make their living from commercial salmon fishing. A good year fishing means money for the winter; a bad year makes it difficult. This has been a bad year. One family from the Yupik Assembly of God is away logging, we are told. They have journeyed upstream to the nearest place to get wood and will make a raft from logs, then float downstream to Alakanuk.
The primary ground transportation in the village is the four-wheeler. In the wintertime, snowmobiles dominate, but there are still lots of sled dogs, who will soon be pulling in harness.
Walking the muddy road, Jim is greeted by children who know him from Camp Agaiutim Nune, the summer camp he directs in a wilderness area for the children of many of these villages. Last year the children had to stay inside for a time when a pack of wolves ventured into this village.
We chat with a young Eskimo who has just beached his kayak after dropping whitefish nets. An older man greets us. "What a beautiful day," he says, beaming. It is cold and overcast, but there have been 30 days of rain, and any break is a blessing.
The rain in these tundra villages is problematic. Water cannot penetrate the permafrost, so the ground stays muddy and soupy.
There is a healthy church here. Its Yupik pastors life was tragically claimed when his snowmobile was swallowed by thin ice on the frozen Yukon River. Though the villagers are accustomed to this way of life, tragedies such as this still hit hard especially for the church. The need for native pastors is great.
Before the service there is a potluck, during which we dine on such delicacies as muktuk (whale blubber) and akutak or Eskimo ice cream made with seal oil, shortening and salmon berries.
Martha, Pastor Sonny Josephs widow, tells us about him. "Sonny was a drinker, a doper, and suffered from depression," she says, "when the Lord saved him." He then became an active witness to the people of the village. God turned the tragedy to good. "After he passed away," Martha says, "we had a revival."
There is still evidence of that revival. It is demonstrated clearly by the many emotional and vibrant testimonies shared this evening in the service.
Joy Sugars testimony includes a plea: "If you want to receive freedom, God can give it to you from drugs, alcohol, anything." This is especially meaningful tonight. A support group, which includes unbelievers, is in attendance.
Art Chikigak, worship leader, both tearful and joyful at the same time, shares his testimony: "Im a blessed man. I used to be a drug dealer. He rescued me. Praise God I went to jail." It was there he repeated the sinners prayer with a visiting minister. "I was so hungry," he says, "I would read every word of the Pentecostal Evangel; it was all I had to read." Today he and his wife, Zita, are planning to attend Far North Bible College in Anchorage.
Paul Kassok, who plays guitar with the praise team, remembers his former life: "I was the town drunk. I drank myself almost to death. Three rehab centers failed. Thats when I turned to the Lord He didnt fail. He never fails." When an evangelist brought a tent meeting to town, Paul went to the tent to burn it down; but God got hold of him instead. "I hated Jesus Christ, His Word, His followers," he says. "Praise the Lord, the One I hated the most is the One Im chasing now."
Marvin Paul, an alumnus of Far North Bible College and American Indian College in Phoenix, Ariz., does not miss his opportunity to speak to the unbelievers present: "We know what it was like to be hopeless. God brought us out."
Indeed, what many of these believers have come from shows how low Satan can bring people. The intelligence, eloquence and anointing I have seen them demonstrate tonight shows what they can be when God has them.
It is past 10 p.m. when people begin filtering out. Some leave by boat, easily navigating the dark river, while others walk or, like Jim and me, take four-wheelers. An icy downpour drenches us before we reach the home where we will sleep. But our spirits are warm.
But our single-engine plane finally does arrive and, after a 10-minute hop to Emmonak, we fly the 20 minutes to Kotlik, where Jim pioneered the church and spent seven years. This village of 500 has no roads, only wooden boardwalks on which people and four-wheelers travel slightly above the soupy tundra.
Kotlik has changed since Jim first came here in 1971, though it is still far from advanced. Running water and sewer are being installed, though they have not yet reached the missionarys house, where water is still hauled in and a "honey bucket" is found in the bathroom.
Harriet Brown, 84, is the pastor here. She has been in Alaska since 1946, ministering in places where few others would go, usually alone. Recently the Assemblies has sent Marian Hartley, a licensed practical nurse for 23 years, to assist Harriet. But Harriet is not yet ready to leave even though she is currently battling cancer. "God called me," she says, "and He hasnt uncalled me yet."
During the time we are with Harriet and Marian, there is a parade of people to their home, adjacent to the church. A major part of bush ministry is gaining the confidence of the people. Once that happens, opportunities are abundant and continual.
At the Assembly of Gods Wednesday service, there is a tremendous anointing. The testimonies again are touching, like that of Dolores Okitkun. Like many, as a child she was the object of domestic violence. But her relationship with Christ has enabled her to forgive even that.
During the service, an elderly Yupik man gives a spontaneous exhortation on Gods healing ability. Many Christians in Alaska fight extreme depression and can be affected by it even after becoming Christians. A powerful move of God tonight grants great joy to many in the congregation.
The service ends at 10:30, but people linger in the parsonage until 11:30.
Ralph Martin, a Yupik, stops to give the ladies some moose meat. The Christians of these villages are generous with what they have.
Dominic Waska, Vincents brother, comes by especially to see Jim. "Im serving the Lord now," he tells him. "Thank you." There are lots of reunions with Jim. You can see the impact his ministry has had.
Our next flight takes us over the north mouth of the Yukon Delta, where it empties into the Bering Sea. Patches of low foliage in the tundra look like giant footprints from the air. We pass over remnants of old stern-wheelers and barges along a channel and touch down in St. Michael, one of two villages on St. Michael Island in a bay off the Bering Sea.
St. Michael, a village of 330 in the shadow of inactive volcanoes called the Three Sisters, is an old deepwater port where seagoing barges from Seattle stop and offload for smaller barges that will take supplies to less accessible villages. Fishing provides much of the subsistence standard for the Yupik and Inupiat Eskimos here, as well as beluga whaling, seal hunting and walrus hunting.
Phyllis Fenstermaker and Jeanne Parke, both from Titusville, Pa., came to Alaska together in 1972, first landing in Nome. They came to St. Michael in 1975 to a vacant work. One man had been praying for a missionary. "God sent two," he said. An old parsonage and a tiny Quonset hut church greeted them.
The first three and a half years were difficult, and Phyllis and Jeanne were tempted to leave. But God sent revival.
Phyllis remembers when a lady interrupted the song service: "This woman came to get saved. Does she have to wait until the end of service?" Soon salvations were numerous.
"For more than a year," Phyllis says, "I just stood back and watched God do it."
And God is still moving here. In August, seven people were baptized in St. Michael Bay.
In the evening, the Stebbins congregation joins us for a combined service. One recent convert is so excited she has filled three vehicles with friends. The testimonies are dramatic, like that of Leonard Kobuk, 50, a former alcoholic, bootlegger, dope addict and pusher who almost succeeded in a suicide attempt. In jail it was God who arrested him.
Late after the service, Jim and I drive the 11 miles with Jeanne in her pickup to Stebbins. Jeanne pastors in this village of 500, regularly driving back and forth to help with the St. Michael Assembly, where Phyllis is pastor. When Jeanne started here in the early 1980s, the church faced significant persecution. Then a key woman in the village was saved. The persecution ceased and the church prospered.
When Jeanne arrives in Stebbins, immediately people flock to the parsonage, which is attached to the church. We share long hours with tearful Eskimos sharing glowing testimonies. It is 1 a.m. before they leave.
The way God has moved in Stebbins is different from St. Michael, Jeanne says. "Here it has been one by one, just enough for me to stay." Every time she felt like quitting, someone would come in, until the church "got over the hump."
The pattern in St. Michael and Stebbins seems to be what it takes in Alaska workers willing to sacrifice and persist through hard years until the harvest begins.
Phelps, 43, was saved in 1991. A "functional alcoholic" and drug dealer, he says, "I became my own best customer." When he felt he had nearly lost everything, including his sanity, he called out to God. Today, everything has turned around. Servicing equipment in 12 villages, he also witnesses, counsels and preaches in them regularly. He is also involved in the local Christian Pilots Association.
Nome is where the 1,100-mile Iditarod finishes, as dog teams pull mushers directly across the frozen Bering Sea to the heart of town. This former gold rush town and "Sin City of the Arctic" still has gold dredges along the beach; old ore buckets are used as decorations. Along Norton Sound native fish camps stretch for miles.
An unmaintained road runs outside town. Along this road, we see caribou, reindeer, even wild musk oxen.
In town they are in the process of leveling the Nome Assembly of God building. The permafrost pushes the pilings up each year, necessitating leveling and repairing of cracks.
Pastor C. Carl Dennis came here in 1998 from Yakutat, Alaska, where he was originally the police chief, then pastor. Several people meet with us in the pastors home to share their testimonies. Among them is Dorcas Bloom, a Siberian Yupik and former bartender, who goes to villages to minister, taking a 75-year-old prayer warrior lady friend with her. "Even after I became a Christian," she says, "I hated Eskimos and I hated white preachers, but God set me free from both." God convicted her of this and she stood in church to publicly ask forgiveness. A remarkable outpouring of the Spirit followed.
Since 1994 Terry has led this school which exists to raise up native ministers. Such a school is significant, because, as Dianne says, "It takes two years for villagers to accept outsiders, but natives can go right in and be accepted." Terry also pastors Crossroads Assembly of God in Anchorage.
First Assembly of
The Last Frontier is aptly named. It is still a spiritual frontier offering riches to those hardy enough to be numbered among the spiritual pioneers. Where once gold was the promise of Alaska, today the promise is souls. And the need for workers to mine those souls is great. The sacrificial, unsung heroes I have been with all have one prayer in common that the Lord of the harvest would send the needed laborers into the fields of the Great Land.
Ken Horn is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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