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    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Camp Nahshii: Healing the Villages

By Ken Horn
Oct. 21, 2012

Ron Pratt sits at a sturdy, rough-hewn, camp-made picnic table facing a 14-year-old boy from a small village on the Yukon River. A few short years ago, this boy first came to Camp Nahshii, broken in spirit and scarred by a tragic family life.

Today marks a major milestone in his life journey. Pratt, an Assemblies of God evangelist, founded and directs This Generation Ministries (TGM) and Camp Nahshii. He has selected the boy to be considered for the young leaders program. Pratt has a passion not only to see lives like this one turned around by God, but also to empower the young villagers and develop the next generation to lead. It’s the way many of his current leaders began their ministries.

Now this boy wants to make a difference, and he feels called to the ministry. Pratt believes the boy is ready for the next step.

This is Camp Nahshii, a wilderness camp for native Alaskans that recently emerged out of an established, experienced ministry. Nahshii means “healing” in the language of the Gwich’in Athabascans, the dominant people group in this area of eastern Alaska along the upper Yukon River.

And it is indeed more than a word.

Ron Pratt and his wife, Yolanda, were called to Alaska in 1998. With a burden for the youth of Alaska, Pratt eventually found a fertile field for the gospel in the remote villages of the state known as The Last Frontier.

Pratt’s first village outreach was to an Eskimo village in the summer of 1999.

“It just broke my heart for the native people,” he says. “It put a fire in me to create and train teams and raise up people to minister in the villages.”

He’s been doing that ever since. In 2003, he began taking teams to minister on the Yukon River, putting in at Circle, a small village some 90 miles from Fort Yukon, and ministering in villages and fish camps.

They had some hard-won success, but because of the hit-or-miss nature of connecting with kids in the villages, Pratt felt God placed it on his heart to build a camp that would be a gathering place with more reliable connectivity. That vision simmered until 2009.

Through his earlier outreaches, Pratt had built a long-term relationship with Paul Williams Sr., the traditional Gwich’in chief of the region, in Beaver, Alaska. Williams, aware of the need and convinced of Pratt’s motives, offered some of his land for a camp to help native children.

Pratt jumped at the chance, recruited funding and volunteers to clear the land and build the camp, and started with 11 kids in 2009. When 10 of the 11 had powerful encounters with Jesus, he knew they were onto something destined to continue and grow … despite the challenges.

Most villages are hundreds of miles from any road system, so it’s a challenge just to get the word out, and a bigger challenge to transport children to the camp. Some, from Venetie village, are a 6-hour boat ride away.

Still, 23 kids appeared the second year, followed by 53 in 2011.

This year, as AG Native American Fellowship President John Maracle and I arrive, we find more than 60 middle and high school kids in attendance, from villages of a couple dozen people up to 600 — Venetie, Arctic Village, Minto, Beaver, Fort Yukon and others.

The camp is a concentrated dose of Jesus, but it also includes training in hunting, fishing and the outdoors. Many of the young generation of natives are losing these traditional skills, but the practices remain important within their culture. Subsistence is still a fact of life in the villages.

Chief Williams teaches daily survival and subsistence skills. But even these practical sessions have a deeper message. At one session, Williams says to the young campers, “Survival is making sure you go to heaven.”

This emphasis is important because there are few Christians in the villages and many of the kids hear the gospel for the first time here.

And the children are not always receptive, to put it mildly. They are often stubbornly resistant. Reaching them can take time. But TGM is here for the long haul. Leaders are willing to take the time.

Clarence Goward III, a credentialed AG minister, is TGM production manager and leads many of the camp activities. He remembers when one youngster first came. Carl* was extremely quiet. But persistent love eventually won him over.

“Now he’s one of the unofficial leaders among the campers,” Goward says. Goward delights in watching Carl take an active role in worship and drawing other campers into the activities.

Becky*, 16, was another youth who was resistant when she first came. Like most of these young people, she was shouldering a lot of hurt — she had lost her father to suicide — and found it difficult to trust. But her walls were also eventually broken down. When Becky returned to her village she continued to grow in the Lord and exhibit a changed life to the village residents.

Being here at the camp gives me an opportunity to see youngsters who are still resistant, and some who are just beginning to change. Many are difficult to control.

Like Jimmy*, one of the campers in Goward’s tent. With little structure from his home life, he was out of control in the camp.

“But just in the few days he’s been here so far,” says Goward, “there’s been a lot of change in him.”

Goward points out two other campers whose barriers fell when they felt genuine love. Both became leaders themselves.

Andrew Sayers, 22, one of seven students ministering here from Master’s Commission in Wasilla, also delights in the changes he sees in the kids. “You see them slowly open up,” he says.

The key to this change? According to Goward it’s “as soon as they begin to feel the love of Jesus.” Campers actually come to the place where they appreciate boundaries, he says.

And they often receive their first Bible here. Every child in attendance receives a Native Book of Hope, the Native American edition of the Scripture book (including testimonies) produced by OneHope and the Assemblies of God Native American Fellowship. It is designed to creatively engage children and youth with the gospel. The ministry has given out thousands of copies.

TGM staff includes native Alaskans as well as those from “outside” — the lower 48 states. The natives (the preferred Alaskan term to describe both Eskimos and Native Americans such as the Athabascans) have an authoritative understanding of the challenges of village life and thus have greater credibility and impact on the kids.

Every year, 30 hard days of advance work precede the arrival of the campers. Church teams come for this labor-intensive “construction phase” of camp — clearing trails, building docks and structures, and performing many other needed tasks.

Volunteers make possible many things the camp wouldn’t otherwise have, thus helping to cut costs radically.

Still, says Pratt, “It’s the most expensive ministry I’ve ever been a part of. Everything we do is expensive.”

Groceries must be flown and/or boated in. The upkeep on the boats and buying fuel alone seem enough to break the bank. But, along with the volunteers who physically contribute, there are donors who help with the high costs of village ministry along the remote Yukon.

The day John Maracle and I flew in from Fairbanks to Beaver on a small plane, we first helped Yolanda Pratt load two small planes with supplies. The planes took all they could hold and preceded us to Beaver, after which the supplies were boated downriver to the camp. Included in the shipment: an indispensible part to keep the camp water purifier functioning.

The entire camp runs on a generator that must be maintained.

“This is an expensive ministry,” Pratt reiterates, “but [these kids] are worth it.”

Worth it indeed. There is more than ample reward on an eternal scale. Because of the sensitivities, not everything that God does can be shared — but much of it can.

One camp service featured a testimony from a junior staff member who came to Christ three years ago at the camp. Like so many, she brought the scars of a tragic life with her. She received a dramatic healing as her life was transformed.

Several such testimonies are shared at the camp.

But usually, the best testimonies are the changed lives witnessed by village residents when the kids return home.

Last year, a young boy who had once attempted suicide came to camp and received Christ. Later, one of the elders asked Pratt, “What did you do to that kid? … I’ve never seen him smile before.”

A girl who was suicidal a few years ago is now a growing leader.

One of the camp’s junior leaders is from a remote village and first came to Nahshii under a spirit of heavy depression. Her life has been transformed.

Keeley Kaveolook has been here all four years and is gratified to see returning youth raised up as leaders, their families changed, and to see them bringing siblings back with them.

Originally from Barrow, an Inupiat village at the top of Alaska, Kaveolook moved to the city at 9 years old and originally hid the fact she was Eskimo because of perceived stigmas. She found who she is in Christ and now holds AG ministerial credentials. Kaveolook delights in helping kids through the same struggles she faced.

The highlight for Kaveolook is seeing kids filled with the Holy Spirit, “receiving not only Christ but the power they need to go back to their villages.”

Indeed, that is what TGM is all about — not just holding a successful camp or even transforming the lives of native teens, but making an impact so deep it will be felt in communities up and down the remote Yukon River.

And that’s exactly what they are doing.

*Names have been changed.

KEN HORN is editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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