WASILLA, Alaska — This state known for its natural beauty, midnight sun and independent spirit boasts an estimated 3 million lakes, 100,000 black bears and, oh, about 2,500 adherents of Churches of Christ.
Here in the Last Frontier, hundreds of miles and — in some cases — rugged terrain accessible only by boat or plane separate many of Alaska’s 28 congregations.
Yet Christians in this vast land one-fifth the total geographic size of the Lower 48 states maintain close ties.
For 50 years, the Alaska Statewide Lectureship
has played a major role in helping unite the faithful — along with the Midnight Sun Bible Camp, the annual Alaska Youth Forum and frequent hunting and fishing excursions involving members all over the state.
Daniel Morphew, left, shakes hands with D’Angelo Cloud at the Alaska Statewide Lectureship in Wasilla. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
“The joke is, when you leave your back yard in Alaska, you enter the food chain,” said Robert Kuenning, minister and elder of the Valley Church of Christ
in Wasilla, about 45 minutes north of Anchorage.
“Life and death become a little more obvious up where you can die from exposure and die from bear attacks pretty quickly,” added Kuenning, whose growing congregation of about 250 organized the recent three-day lectureship. “Maybe the issues of faith and of destiny become a little more focused.”
Bible lessons about light and dark resonate, too, in a place where the sun sometimes shines past midnight and other times gleams just a few hours a day, said David Boswell, minister for the Northern Lights Church of Christ
in Fairbanks, about 350 miles north of Anchorage.
“Fairbanks has a really high depression rate, and it’s based on a lack of Vitamin D, a lack of sunlight,” said Boswell, who preaches for the nation’s northernmost Church of Christ, near the Fort Wainwright Army post.
“Now, compare that to when the sun is up: People are happy,” he added, recalling that church members celebrated last year’s summer solstice with an all-night softball game.
A moose grazes beside an Alaska highway, where a sign warns that 243 such creatures have been struck by Mat-Su Valley motorists since last July. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
‘GOOD NEWS FOR A GREAT LAND’
Then — as now — “Good News for a Great Land” was the concept.
“For 50 years, that simple but powerful idea has provided sound Bible lessons, hope, encouragement and fellowship to thousands of Christians,” Valley church elders wrote in the 2014 lectureship program.
Judy Singleton’s late father, Howard Singleton, spoke at that first lectureship, just a few months before the largest earthquake
in U.S. history struck Alaska on Good Friday 1964.
“I remember the excitement of everybody coming and being there,” said Judy Singleton, now the Anchorage church secretary.
Children watch from the bleachers during a session of the Alaska Statewide Lectureship at the Wasilla High School gymnasium. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
A 1964 schedule noted: “If those attending from out of town will let us know in advance we will arrange for you to stay in homes of members.”
Fifty years later, that hospitality remains the same, as the lectureship rotates among larger congregations from Juneau to Homer to Fairbanks.
“Alaska is very unique in that it’s a family,” said Singleton, who has attended most of the lectureships but missed some when she served as a missionary to Europe and later South Korea. “The whole church is a family.
“Newer Christians who move in haven’t caught on to that because communication has become so easy,” she added. “Back in those days, this was the only time we could talk to each other. So lectureship was just like family being able to be together.”
Church members pray during the annual lectureship, which began in 1964 in Anchorage. The 2015 lectureship will be next May in Fairbanks, hosted by the Northern Lights Church of Christ. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
‘RUN UP AND HUG EACH OTHER’
In the shadow of snow-capped mountains and yellow “Moose Crossing” signs, more than 450 Alaska church members representing at least 15 congregations came together for the milestone lectureship.
For three days, Christians young and old gathered in the Wasilla High School gymnasium — amid bright red basketball, hockey and wrestling banners and not far from former Gov. Sarah Palin’s lakeside home — to sing, pray and rekindle their evangelistic fervor.
Glenn and Sally Smith, longtime members of the Valley Church of Christ, enjoy a picturesque view outside their Palmer, Alaska, home. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Many traveled hundreds of miles to attend.
But in Alaska, distance is relative, said Sally Smith, a longtime Valley church member.
Her husband, Glenn Smith, has been known to fly his 1957 Cessna 180 float plane to Midnight Sun Bible Camp
just to drop off the newspaper and doughnuts.
“Fifty miles to people in the Lower 48 is a long way,” Sally Smith said. “We do that every day, going to Anchorage.”
Still, the miles that separate congregations can become a concern if Christians don’t work hard to stay connected, said Mike Shero, minister for the Anchorage church.
“The best thing I can do evangelistic-wise for the church here in Alaska is to keep the preachers pumped,” said Shero, who regularly chats with fellow ministers via Skype, an online video service.
At the lectureship, participants shared hugs, laughs and meals prepared by church volunteers.
Alaska ministers Robert Kuenning, left, and Gordon Johnson share fellowship over breakfast. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.
“I have never experienced anything like this before,” said Gordon Johnson, minister for the Juneau Church of Christ,
who attended for the first time. “I felt welcomed as a newcomer, and brothers literally wrapped their arms around me. Handshakes were not an option.
“It’s encouraging on a very emotional, very personal level,” added the California transplant, who caught a commercial flight from the isolated state capital in southeast Alaska.
A 50th anniversary cake featured blue frosting in the shape of Alaska and words from 2 Corinthians 4:13: “We also believe, and therefore also we speak.”
“Oh, it’s amazing up here in Alaska how important the lectureship really is,” said Larry Smith, 77, an Anchorage church member who estimated he has made about 30 of the lectureships. “We all get together, and we all know each other. Our kids go away to a Christian college, and they see somebody from a church 500 miles away, and they run up and hug each other.”
Children admire the cake celebrating the lectureship’s 50th anniversary. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
‘A LOVING, UNIFIED BODY’
Almost nine years ago, Jeff and Dana Jaworski packed everything they could fit on a 16-foot trailer and set off — with their two dogs — on a 4,000-plus-mile drive from Texas.
Their destination: Anchor Point, a salmon and halibut fishing community in the Kenai Peninsula, about 200 miles south of Anchorage.
Their mission: work with World Christian Broadcasting,
whose 100,000-watt Alaska transmitters share the Gospel in Chinese, Russian and English and can reach seekers 5,000 miles away.
The Jaworski family (PHOTO VIA FACEBOOK.COM)
As the Jaworskis see it, God has blessed their journey with three children — Leif, 8; Nate, 5; and Kathryn, 2 — and a close-knit, statewide church family.
“Despite conflict and challenges, we seem to work it out and stay tight,” Dana Jaworski said of Alaska church members. “It’s a very loving, unified body of believers.”
It’s a state where Christians choose to focus on what they have in common, such as the “roadkill ministries” offered by at least two congregations, church leaders said.
Although 565 miles separate Anchor Point from Fairbanks, the distance is much shorter relationally, the Jaworskis said.
That’s because Christians make the 12-hour drive down south each year to fish and stay in members’ homes.
Besides fishing, Jeff Jaworski hunts caribou, moose and bears. His partners include Cy Cox, the Nikiski preacher, and Tony Cloud, minister for the Soldotna Church of Christ.
“I won’t hunt with anyone who’s not my brother,” Jeff Jaworski said. “At that time, out there in God’s wild … he’s providing for me, and it is deeply spiritual.”
At the lectureship each spring, the Jaworskis recognize most of the faces.
“It’s like a family reunion once a year,” Jeff Jaworski said.
Church members sing during the lectureship before children and teens are released for special programs geared toward their age groups. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Loren Hollingsworth, a longtime missionary to Thailand and a seasonal member of the Valley Church of Christ in Wasilla, visits with Valley member Sally Smith, right. He spoke at a leadership seminar before the lectureship. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Isaac Kuenning, right, the son of Robert and Carol Kuenning, enjoys fellowship while ice skating with fellow teens from churches all over Alaska. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)