50 years of Northern exposure
WASILLA, Alaska — This state known for its natural beauty,…
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Snow-capped mountains rise behind the Anchorage Church of Christ as the sun sets after 9 p.m. on a chilly April night.
Inside the church building this past weekend, Robert Kuenning, longtime minister for the Valley Church of Christ in Wasilla, north of Anchorage, gazed into the eyes of about 350 Christians and beheld a different kind of beauty.
Isaiah 52:7 says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.”
“Beautiful are the feet, but also beautiful are the faces,” Kuenning told the crowd that gathered from throughout Alaska, a vast state one-fifth the total geographic size of the Lower 48 states.
“And to see the love and the unity and the connection in this room is real beauty,” added Kuenning, who has worked with the Valley church for 26 years. “I will try not to get choked up here.”
But he had to pause to regain his composure, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic had kept Alaska’s scattered-but-interconnected faithful apart for three years.
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 27 Churches of Christ.
“It might partly be because we’re crazy Alaskans.”
In all, those congregations count 2,371 men, women and children in the pews, according to the latest figures compiled by 21st Century Christian, a publisher based in Nashville, Tenn. Alaska has a total population of about 733,000.
Despite the distances between them, Alaska congregations maintain familiarity with each other, which surprises Christians in other places, Kuenning said.
“It might partly be because we’re crazy Alaskans,” he said, drawing laughter from the Friday night crowd. “It might partly be because maybe we’re stuck in our home so long (during the harsh winter months), and we’re just desperate to get out and meet somebody.”
The annual event, launched in 1964, rotates among the state’s congregations. It features preaching, singing, fellowship and meals provided by the host church.
However, concern about the possible spread of the coronavirus prompted the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 lectureships.
“Congregations around the state desperately need the encouragement of one another and the body of Christ.”
COVID-19 vaccines and decreased infection rates allowed the 2022 event to proceed with masks optional for attendees.
“Congregations around the state desperately need the encouragement of one another and the body of Christ,” Kuenning said. “How wonderful is it being together?”
James Harris, one of the Anchorage church’s two elders, shared Kuenning’s joy.
It’s “so wonderful to see faces that I haven’t seen in a long time,” Harris said. “So let us be thankful to God for that.”
Besides Kuenning, preachers included Shane Blevins of the Nikiski Church of Christ, Ben Buchanan of the Spring Brook Church of Christ in Eagle River, Tony Cloud of the Anchorage church, Gordon Johnson of the Soldotna Church of Christ, Michael Katkus of the Valley church and Bill Williams of the Juneau Church of Christ.
Speakers for the ladies-only sessions were Kathryn Epperheimer and Maria Cox of the Nikiski church, Liz Hudson of the Anchorage church and Natalie Pirkle and Grace Shellbrack of the Valley church. (Cox now lives in Florida, where her husband, Cy, preaches for the Jupiter-Tequesta Church of Christ, but they previously worked with the Nikiski church for 12 years.)
Voices rang out in praise, singing hymns such as “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “We’re Marching to Zion” and “On Zion’s Glorious Summit Stood.”
Jayly Jackson, the other Anchorage elder, served as the lectureship’s lead organizer.
The retired Air Force senior master sergeant fell in love with Alaska when he, his wife, Jennifer, and their five children were stationed here.
“God is in control, and he always has been,” Jackson said of the three-day event’s emphasis.
“What we believe is true everywhere in the world when it involves the church is that many of us have been shaken in our faith in the Lord and in the church,” the elder wrote in an email before the lectureship. “But we are hoping that we can help strengthen our foundation in Christ by coming back together and encouraging one another.”
Judy Singleton’s late father, Howard Singleton, spoke at the first lectureship just a few months before the largest earthquake in U.S. history struck Alaska on Good Friday 1964.
The crowd that flocked to the 2022 event did not surprise Judy Singleton, an Anchorage church secretary and longtime lectureship attendee.
“People really wanted to get back together and see each other,” she said.
At meal times, the line of men, women and children stretched from the Anchorage church’s fellowship hall to the back of the auditorium.
Engrossed in conversation, nobody seemed to mind.
Curt and Linda Harris, members of the South Anchorage Church of Christ across town, enjoyed catching up with Betty Rogers, who attends the host congregation.
The couple and Rogers first met in the 1970s.
At that time, all three — along with Betty’s late husband, Morris — attended the Ketchikan Church of Christ, nearly 800 miles away on Alaska’s southeastern coast.
In fact, Morris Rogers was the one who suggested that Curt Harris take the test to become an Alaska state trooper. Curt did so and made a career of it.
“I guess that kind of just illustrates the close-knit nature of Christians in Alaska,” Linda Harris said.
Curt Harris said many Alaska Christians travel throughout the state for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. When they do, they visit the local Church of Christ and get to know the people.
“We may be separated by 1,500 miles, but we’re still connected,” he said. “So coming together statewide in the lectureship gives us an opportunity to renew friendships (and) to hear the preachers from the other congregations that we may have visited.”
Originally from Kentucky, Ron and Zona Hogan moved to Alaska to teach school in 1964.
They have lived in Kotzebue, in northern Alaska 26 miles above the Arctic Circle and 550 miles from Anchorage, for most of the last six decades. They were away for three years when they taught in Elim, a tiny Eskimo village.
“It is just so uplifting, and it was a great lesson tonight.”
The parents of two and grandparents of four hold worship services in their home, with attendance ranging from two to 25.
“It is just so uplifting, and it was a great lesson tonight,” Ron Hogan, 84, said after Kuenning’s opening sermon at the lectureship. “That’s where the strength is. It’s coming together with other members here. It’s really a struggle sometimes up there with us.”
Zona Hogan, 82, said they always enjoy time with fellow Alaska church members.
“Any time we came to Anchorage, we always came to church and worshiped here,” she said.
Back home, a couple from the Dominican Republic has joined the Sunday service at the Hogans’ place.
“So that’s been a challenge,” said Zona Hogan, who last studied Spanish in college. “So thank goodness for the app on our phones. We love the translation. … We ordered Spanish hymnals. We can sing it better than we can speak it, too.”
Joined by children and grandchildren, Kevin Henderson and his wife, Cheryl, traveled 170 miles to the lectureship. They are members of the Nikiski church.
“It’s very special to us,” Kevin Henderson said after finishing Friday’s dinner of lasagna and salad. “This is basically my family. The Christians up here, I mean, they pull together. They pull together when it seems like nobody else will help you.”
Alyce McEwen, a member of the Northern Lights Church of Christ in Fairbanks, about 350 miles north of Anchorage, made the six-hour drive with family.
McEwen welcomed the chance to see her granddaughter Leslie Firth, 24.
Firth lives in Homer, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, and attends the Anchor Point Church of Christ.
“Now she’s having twins, so I may have to move to Homer,” the grandmother joked.
Of the lectureship, McEwen said, “I just know that it brings us all together.”
Tom Cote, Sunset’s director of admissions, came from Lubbock, Texas, with his wife, Debby — their first visit to Alaska.
The scenery impressed them, but not as much as the state’s Christians.
“The spirit of the church in Alaska,” Tom Cote said, “is even more beautiful than the surroundings.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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