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Winters in Alaska can be both brutal and beautiful

Reaching the last frontier

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When Nelda and Michael Rico visited the Anchorage Church of Christ a few years ago, they didn’t know anybody. Nelda, a nurse at Providence Alaska Medical Center, had moved here from the southern part of the United States. Neither she nor her husband, Michael, a retired hospital worker, had ever been inside the church.
When the invitation song was sung that morning, a solitary figure walked down the long aisle toward the minister, who sat down with her on the front row. The preacher soon rose to read the woman’s response card. An extramarital relationship was the gist of it.
It wasn’t the word “adultery” that shocked the Ricos. It was the church’s response.
“Suddenly, it seemed like hundreds of people began pouring out of the aisles and rushing toward the woman,” Nelda said. “People stood in long lines to hug her and love her.”
Nelda shook her head in disbelief as she recalled the experience. “The places I went to church before never would have done that,” she said. “They would have shunned her and basically told her to pack her bags and get out.”
From that moment on, Nelda and Michael knew that the Anchorage church was the one for them.
A loving, forgiving spirit, a heart for society’s outcasts, a passion for the lost — church members said these qualities best describe their outpost for Christ in Alaska, a remote part of the world where survival can be a challenge. Yet the Christians at the Anchorage church are not only surviving, they are thriving. With a membership of 400, it is the largest of the state’s 20 congregations.
This state is so remote that those who live here routinely refer to leaving Alaska as “going outside,” said Ken Smith who, along with his wife, Patsy, have been Anchorage church members for 43 years. Members talk about “the church in America” as if they weren’t in America. Even the military counts living in Alaska as a “foreign soil” tour of duty.
That’s because traveling to Alaska requires effort and expense. It is 1,500 miles from Seattle to Anchorage, and getting here takes more than three hours by airplane or 24 hours by car.
Getting around the 49th state is difficult and expensive, too. Alaska is enormous — 570,000 square miles. The road system covers a relatively small area in the south. Much of the remaining parts of the state are accessible only by airplane.
But being far from relatives has created strong bonds among the Anchorage church’s members, many of whom serve in the military.
“As a church family, we’re closer because of our remoteness,” Patsy Smith said. “We get to be the grandma and grandpa for the children whose grandparents are in Texas or Virginia.”
Most Alaskans aren’t neutral about their state — they love it or hate it, she added. “A lot of it depends on whether they embrace Alaska or not. If they fight against the environment — try to stockpile and hibernate — they don’t have a chance. You just have to pretend the snow and dark aren’t here and then go on with your life.”
The church is full of young families. Many members are well-educated, with high-profile jobs in the oil industry and federal government, pulpit minister Mike Shero said. In addition to regular worship services, the church plans events during the winter to keep members active.
Despite an annual average snowfall of 70 inches, leaders have only called off worship services once or twice during the past 40 years, Patsy Smith said.
“Alaska seems to draw people with big imaginations and high energy,” said Connie Webb, who has lived in Alaska for four decades and serves as the church’s administrative secretary.
“The congregation has always attracted people with the attitude, ‘If there’s a job to be done, let’s do it!’”
After supporting mission work in Korea for 30 years, the church has refocused its efforts on Alaska-based evangelism, elder Craig Decker said.
The church provides financial support for several Alaska congregations, including the 34-member church in Homer, about 125 miles south of Anchorage.
“They give us all kinds of moral support, too,” Homer minister Roger Brown said. Members of the Homer church participate in youth forums, a lectureship and a Christian camp sponsored by the Anchorage church.
In addition to financial support, Anchorage mails Shero’s sermon tapes weekly to 17 Alaskan churches. Small groups of Christians — some made up of women only — fellowship in remote areas and listen to the sermons.
In 1959, the Anchorage church launched the Midnight Sun Bible Camp. The camp has become a fundamental tool for developing Christian leadership and uniting the state’s congregations, elder Larry Smith said.
Located 70 miles northeast of Anchorage on Lynx Lake, the 120-acre camp is the hub of summer activities for Alaska’s congregations. In July, kids come together for three-week sessions of Bible study, devotionals, canoe trips and fishing expeditions. Adult groups schedule retreats every weekend until camp closes in late August.
To encourage fellowship among Alaska’s Christians, Anchorage church leaders initiated annual, statewide events including retreats for men, women and youth. When church members expressed regret that distance and expense kept them from attending Christian university lectureships, church leaders started an annual statewide lectureship in 1964, Ken Smith said. Today the lectureship, staffed primarily by Alaskan preachers, draws an attendance of 50 to 100 people. The responsibility and location for the event rotate annually among the other congregations.
Evangelism in the Alaskan “bush” is difficult, said Shero, a former missionary to Uganda who also has served churches in Texas, Kentucky and Arkansas. The absence of any connected roads, the harsh environment and the native Alaskans’ resentment of white people are challenges. As a result, few Churches of Christ have reached out to Alaska’s native communities.
The Anchorage church has experienced greater success reaching out to its city’s large international population.
Before obtaining its own meeting place, a Korean church met in the Anchorage church’s building for 13 years. A group of about 20 Meinhs, refugees of conflicts in southeast Asia, have hosted a separate worship service in the church building since 1998.
In recent years, Anchorage elders have emphasized the importance of ministering to the incarcerated. The church hired David Olson, the only full-time prison minister in Alaska — and one of only a half-dozen in the United States.
Olson and his wife, Marianna, together with 12 to 15 Anchorage volunteers, keep a busy schedule. They host weekly Bible studies in six correctional facilities. They also maintain a robust follow-up program for those who are released — helping them find housing and get a driver’s license and keeping them active in the support group Christians Against Substance Abuse, or CASA.
“To do prison work, you have to have a heart for someone who is undesirable, whom society has cast off,” Olson said. “Some people think once a drunk or sex offender, always a drunk, always an offender. That not true. All things are possible with God.”
Olson calls the church’s acceptance of ex-offenders “exceptional.” At one time, Anchorage had 19 ex-offenders in its worship services.
“That number is so high because this congregation loves them,” Olson said. “They forgive them while at the same time they hold them accountable.”
Andrew Deuschle is the first full-time deaf minister in Alaska. Unable to hear since he was 2, he attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and completed the deaf ministry program at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas. There, he met his wife, Gabriella, who can hear but was also in the program.
Since the Deuschles moved from North Carolina to Anchorage two years ago, the church’s deaf ministry has grown from eight to 25 members.
The effort to reach out to this segment of society enjoys wide congregational support, Deuschle said.
A number of hearing members have learned sign language in order to socialize with deaf members.
Twice each year, the church arranges gospel meetings for the deaf community in Anchorage.
The church provides competent translators for the hearing impaired at all of its special events — including a recent marriage seminar.
“This is such a loving church,” Deuschle said. “They are so concerned about the souls of the deaf in this community.”
Like all churches, Anchorage has had its share of challenges.
In the 1970s, the congregation grew to almost 800 members as workers poured into the state to help build the trans-Alaska pipeline — an 800-mile long conduit connecting oil fields in the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Alaska. To fit everyone in its humble building, the church, then known as l0th and B, had three Sunday morning services.
“Those were exciting times as we grew rapidly,” Webb said.
The church built a larger facility at 2700 DeBarr Road in 1977. Soon after, the pipeline was completed, jobs — and people — left the state.
The church was left with a debt of $720,000 and a reduced membership. But church members continued to contribute, and the congregation finally retired its debt in 1998, Larry Smith said.
Recently, the church experienced a controversy when it let women who sign for the deaf stand in front of the church so they could be seen.
About 25 people left the church because of the issue, said Verneta Wallace, a longtime member.
“We face issues with staffing, personalities, doctrinal issues — some of the same things congregations face everywhere,” Decker said. “It seems to me that Satan always finds some way to bring a challenge … to drain our energies and keep us distracted from focusing on things we ought to do.”
Members say the church has grown through its struggles and continues to be an active, loving family with a passion for the lost.
The Ricos said they have been blessed by the Anchorage church. Nelda Rico works long hours as a nurse, and said worship with the Anchorage church always “lifts us up.”
“This church is always ready to help you in any way — post-op care, home Bible studies, new mothers — it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They just want to love and serve people.”

  • Feedback
    My family moved to Anchorage from Dallas, Texas on June 8, 2011 to be close to our family and be involved with the Deaf Ministry. We are starting a Deaf Ministry and we invite deaf and hard of hearing people to come to Faith at 4240 Wisconsin Street, Anchorage, AK. The service will be interpreted in American Sign Language at 11 p.m. On September 11, we will move to 1 PM service. For more information, contact James Patton at [email protected] or text me at 469-834-2392.
    James Patton
    Faith Christian Community
    Anchorage, AK
    August, 5 2011

Filed under: Churches That Work

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