A heart for the brokenhearted
Grant Funk has lived the traumatic childhood he now sees every day among young people in Alaska
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Moments before the wedding, Grant Funk turned to his bride and said, “I don’t know if I love you, but I know God wants us to get married.”
It was a rocky start to a marriage that after 35 years is going strong—and a reflection of Funk’s growing pains from a traumatized kid who didn’t know love to a pastor who loves on the traumatized Alaska Native youth. Once a broken-spirited Southern boy, Funk now stands on the shoulders of many individuals who took a chance on him—most of all his wife Lenna, a lifelong optimist who married him despite the red flags.
Grant Funk grew up with his parents and three sisters in a 19th-century, 12-by-16-foot log cabin with no running water in Fairview, N.C., a mountainous, rural town near Asheville. His father earned meager wages at a textile mill, but those early years were the closest to a normal childhood for Funk. They had a regular church life, where Funk memorized Scriptures, professed Christ at age 8, and was baptized. Then debt started stacking up, and the family spiraled into dysfunction. While Funk’s father withdrew from his family by seeing other women and slumping before the TV for hours, his mother sought escape in her heavy-duty lupus medications.
As a teenager, Funk worked at a warehouse until 2 a.m. each day to help pay the bills. Often he returned home to learn his mother was missing, so he would drive out searching for her, usually finding her high and suicidal on prescription drugs. He says he sometimes had to break open a locked door because he spotted her attempting to slice her wrist with a kitchen knife. One day, he became so fed up that he sat beside his overdosed mother with a magazine and waited for her finally to die (she didn’t) instead of calling for help.
While one sister reacted against the family situation by sleeping around and getting pregnant at age 14, Funk stuffed it all in and bore each day with his head down. Not even his best friend knew what was happening because Funk was too ashamed to tell anyone. At age 21, he finally cracked: He stopped communicating beyond answering basic “yes” and “no” questions and became like a zombie, feeling no emotion but deadness.
But God also placed certain men—all strong believers—into his life. His best friend’s father let him dine at their table when he didn’t want to go home, which was often. A carpenter and his son gave him a carpentry apprenticeship that boosted both self-confidence and skills to start his own remodeling business. That carpenter didn’t talk much, but he demonstrated to Funk what a godly, self-sacrificial man looks like. Later, Funk would credit these men for turning his life around: “I was a statistic waiting to happen, but I was rescued by God and others who stepped into my life.”
One day, while remodeling a cabin in Tennessee, alone with his thoughts and the sounds of his tools, a 22-year-old Funk started remembering the old Sunday school stories he used to cherish. He wondered what had happened since: Where was he heading in life? Was Christ part of his life at all? Convicted, Funk plunged a stake into the ground behind the cabin with his hammer and prayed, “I don’t know if I belong to you, Jesus, but from this day forward, it’s no turning back. I’m all for you.” Instantly, an inexplicable joy burbled within him—for the first time in years he felt “all bubbly.” Charged with a desire to know God more, Funk soon applied to a summer mission project in Alaska.
‘This is a devastated youth generation. At best, all we can do is take two pieces together and pour a drop of love into it.’
In the summer of 1980, Funk arrived in Glennallen, Alaska, to spend the summer with a mission agency now known as SEND North. Other than the agonizing promise to abstain from tobacco (which he once considered “native food” and “nourishment” to North Carolinians), Funk thought he had landed in heaven: pretty Christian girls; wholesome, fun fellowship with Christian men; beautiful snow-draped mountains; and best of all, solid Bible teaching. He developed such thirst for spiritual nourishment that he also met an older man every morning for one-on-one discipleship. “I was like a sponge for God’s Word,” Funk recalled. “I was so dry, and suddenly there’s moisture, and I was just soaking it in all the time. I was ecstatic!”
When the summer was over, Funk stayed an extra month to continue helping with the mission project. Because he lived in a tiny trailer parked at a mission hospital, he liked hanging out at the hospital waiting room to read magazines. Soon, he was visiting every evening to chat up a sweet young nurse called Lenna Weaver. Funk started setting his alarm clock for midnight so he could pick her up at the end of her shift and take her for a three-hour walk before he went to work. They married five months later.
God continued to work in Funk. The newlyweds joined a church in Asheville that included many missionaries. Two of them, a 90-year-old missionary couple who served under Hudson Taylor, took special interest in the Funks and taught them about missions and Chinese food. One day, Funk suddenly snapped in a harsh tone to his wife, “I’m not going to be a pastor!” Taken aback, Lenna exclaimed, “I didn’t say anything!” Funk muttered, “Well, I’m not!” His bewildered wife consulted another church lady, who said, “Oh, honey, don’t worry. It’s the Holy Spirit working in him. Just pretend nothing happened, and God will do it.” So Lenna kept quiet, and soon after, the Funks were back in Alaska to do ministry—with no money, no job, no house.
Since then, they’ve managed an apartment full of prostitutes and trigger-happy drunks in the Wild West of Fairbanks, learned wilderness survival in Anaktuvuk Pass (a village of 200 above the Arctic Circle), and pastored various villages throughout western Alaska, including 15 years in Hooper Bay, a coastal, predominantly Catholic village of about 1,000 Yupik Eskimos. At one point, Funk was juggling several part-time jobs, pastoring two churches, and taking seminary classes all at once.
Finances were always tight, but the Funks’ children didn’t realize how tight because God always provided. One morning after breakfast, the Funks realized they didn’t have anything left for lunch, so the whole family prayed together. Immediately after the “amen,” a stranger knocked on their door with a white pickup truck loaded with canned goods. The Funk children never enjoyed as many sweet treats as the native children did, but they always had enough.
However, everywhere they went, the Funks met people starving for God but foraging in all the wrong places. The Funks’ hearts broke and rebroke as young men and women, once burning with fire for Jesus, one by one fell into abusive relationships, destructive addictions, and suicide. One family Funk visited in Hooper Bay had five children who committed suicide—a case that’s sadly not too shocking in some communities. Funk said these young people are like precious “love cups” chipped down by years of trauma and spiritual darkness—no matter how much love the Funks pour into them, it seems to leak out through the cracks of loneliness, desperation, and despair. “It’s a long process,” he said. “This is a devastated youth generation. At best, all we can do is take two pieces together and pour a drop of love into it.”
That drop of love must have somehow seeped in, because the children love the Funks and call them “mom” and “dad.” Funk’s oldest daughter, Sarah Stewart, said friends would frequently visit her house only to cling around her parents, so starved were they for parental love. Everyone—even the adults who gave the Funks trouble—knew their home was a safe place. When a crisis hit the village, Funk was usually the first person to receive a call, and the first to respond.
Domestic, sexual, and substance abuse haunt many households, so children feared going home. That meant the Funks shared their 700-square-foot living space with a dozen teenagers who ate their food and dominated their couch all day. Come bedtime, Funk had to drag these visitors physically out the door and bolt it. But when he peered out the window, he saw several still loitering outside. Sometimes the kids would sneak into the house through the back window, and the whole huff-and-puff wrestling match would replay itself.
Then one evening, the Funks and their young guests were hanging out in the living room when one teenage boy blurted out, “My parents are drinking again.” That’s when Funk flipped on a revelatory switch: “Oh, it’s not that these kids won’t go home—they can’t!” From then on, every morning a limp, snoring tangle of brown arms and legs greeted Funk on his way to the kitchen.
In 2007, thanks to a million-dollar contribution from Samaritan’s Purse, Funk built a teen center so that the Hooper Bay youth had another safe place for wholesome activities such as pingpong, board games, and foosball. The teen center also doubled as a job-training site that ran a weekly all-you-can-eat restaurant. For $8.50, villagers could feast on pizza, roast beef, hamburgers, and “the world’s best” milkshakes—all under the operation of 20 local teenagers and the Funks.
The restaurant business turned out to be a valuable bonding and character-training experience: The Funks taught the teenagers how to host, serve, cook, show up on time, and resolve conflicts in a healthy way, while the young staff had no problem calling the Funks out on their own mistakes. Many said, “This is like the family I never had.”
Today Funk, 60, and his wife Lenna, 61, live in McGrath, a rural Athabaskan Indian village of 350 people. They have no plans to retire and are in the worst financial state of their lives, having transitioned out of missionary support for a teaching job that Funk later lost due to budget cuts. Funk also used all his funds to launch an online educational program called Av-STEM, which blends aviation courses with science, technology, engineering, and math to get teenagers excited about learning again. The couple has five grown children and 17 grandkids—not all biological—and is currently fostering three: two in their early teens and one 5-year-old, all Alaska Natives.
Every summer, the Funks still rent an RV and invite a select group of Alaska Native young adults on a 10-day road trip across America. For most of these teenagers, it’s the only opportunity they get to visit the Lower 48 states. For the Funks, it’s a chance to reach each individual on a deeper level.
Something about the intimacy of sharing a mobile home in a strange land breaks down all sorts of barriers—the RV erupts with tears and laughter, conflicts and resolutions, resistance and breakthroughs. By the end of the trip, everyone is emotionally exhausted yet oddly renewed. “Every year you want to give up, and each year God gives you the strength to do it again,” Lenna Funk said.
After 31 years of ministry, there are still times when the Funks feel so overwhelmed by the bleak circumstances of these children that they fall on their knees begging God for hope and endurance to carry on. Funk described the ministry as one marked with “excruciating pain”—one that even his deep empathy would not have endured were it not for the prayer that he engraves daily into his heart: “Go ahead, God, break my heart for the people you love.”
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