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Bridging the ministry gap in Alaska


WORLD Radio - Bridging the ministry gap in Alaska

Churches across denominations work together sharing the gospel and meeting the needs of the Alaskan community

Utqiaġvik Presbyterian Church in Utqiaġvik, Alaska Photo by Grace Snell

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

BROWN: Coming next on The World and Everything in It: bringing the Gospel to the north.

The small town of Barrow, Alaska lies 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It’s the northernmost settlement in the United States, right on the frozen shoreline of the Arctic Ocean. Locals call the town by its indigenous name, Utqiaġvik

REICHARD: No roads lead to Utqiaġvik, so a plane arrives daily from Anchorage with supplies. The town has one post office, one library, one elementary school, but one thing Barrow has a lot of? Churches! Nearly a dozen.

WORLD Feature Reporter Grace Snell recently caught a flight up north to learn more.

SOUND: [Generators humming, snowmobile passing]

GRACE SNELL: A great, white stillness swallows the town of Utqiaġvik, Alaska. It’s a snowy silence broken only by the whirring of generators and the putter of the occasional snowmobile.

Nearby, an old man stands on a sagging, snow-covered porch. It’s minus twenty degrees, but he still tugs off a glove and extends a hand.

BROWER: Come on in.

SOUND: [Stairs squeaking, feet stomping]

The man’s name is Charles Brower, and he’s the new interim pastor of Utqiaġvik Presbyterian Church, the city’s oldest house of worship.

BROWER: This used to be the church, the only church. Now we have the Assembly of God church, we’ve got, across the street, the Seventh Day Adventists, we’ve got the Baptist Church...

But, lots of church buildings doesn’t mean a thriving Christian community. Brower says many houses of worship stand empty across the North Slope region, simply because there’s no one to pastor them.

BROWER: Kaktovik doesn’t have a pastor, Nuiqsut doesn’t have a pastor, Anaktuvuk Pass doesn’t have a pastor, Wainwright doesn’t have a pastor, Atqasuk doesn’t have a pastor.

That shortage is why Brower moved back here to his hometown in March. And it’s the reason Brower—a Methodist—is now pastoring a Presbyterian church.

BROWER: The search committee offered me a half-time position, or position just fill in while they’re looking for a full-time pastor.

It’s a spirit of cooperation—born of necessity—that’s marked Christianity in the region since its earliest days. Believers have to band together for survival here in one of the world’s harshest climates.

Brower says it all started back in 1885, when the Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson set up shop as Alaska’s first general agent of education.

BROWER: He quickly realized there the whole state was open for missionaries. But then he realized very quickly as well that the Presbyterian Church was not big enough to handle all the mission possibilities throughout Alaska.

Jackson set out to recruit missionaries from other denominations. They divvied up Alaska between them.

BROWER: Barrow, Wainwright and Anaktuvuk Pass were selected by by the Presbyterian Church. The Episcopals picked up Point Lay just on the coast. And then other places like Kotzebue region with friends church was there. Kodiak with a Russian Orthodox there, but the Russian Orthodox been here since the 1700s when the fur traders first came.

After that, Brower says, the gospel spread like wildfire. His grandfather told him stories about those days.

BROWER: It was very easy to believe the stories of Jesus, these healings, the casting out of demons…

The shamans of the region, told similar stories…

BROWER: Folks here were kind of familiar with weird things being told, weird things happening. And so I think they were very willing to switch over to Christianity.

SOUND: [Keys jingling, porch creaking, footsteps squeaking]

Brower leads the way outside, across a snowy yard and over to the historic church building. It’s a classic, white-steepled structure marked with a cross.

SOUND: [Snow crunching and squeaking underfoot]

A signpost out front points to far-off destinations like New York and Hawaii—both over three-thousand miles distant. A few feet away, is a sign mimicking the city’s iconic whalebone archway—a classic tourist photo-op. It reads: “Utqiaġvik Presbyterian Church. Established Easter 1899.”

SOUND: [Stairs squeaking, lock clicking, door closing]

Inside, wooden pews and stained glass windows line the sanctuary. It looks pretty much like any other small town church—But a few telltale signs hint this isn’t your average First Presbyterian on Main Street.

SOUND: [Footsteps echoing, snow pants rustling, faint talking]

Things like the long, bristly piece of whale baleen adorning the back wall.

BROWER: So, in the mouth of a bowhead whale, they got 700 of these things in the mouth and they take them off all the water, use their tongue, push it up, trap all the krill…

Whale hunting is an integral part of Iñupiaq culture, and in April the church hosts a blessing service for hunters about to embark in sealskin kayaks.

But not all aspects of local culture meshed so seamlessly with outside influences. Missionaries also introduced boarding schools, which Brower says caused a lot of damage. He attended several of these schools during his own childhood.

BROWER: Many of us did not come away from that experience with good role models for parents. So many of us did not know how to parent very well and that continues on today.

Other problems came with the close of the missionary era…

BROWER: There’s still probably about 100 communities that used to have pastors, but the church building is empty because the missionaries are gone.

It’s hard to get people to stay here. The temperature stays well below freezing most of the year, and the city plunges into “polar night” —where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all—between November and January.

That leaves pastors across the North Slope region scrambling to meet their community’s needs.

BROWER: When somebody dies, there’s nobody there to do the funeral, they call here, the Presbyterian Church, “We need help.”

Brower says that makes it more important than ever for different pastors and churches to work together.

BROWER: How do we do things together, like offering summer camp for kids Vacation Bible School, do it as a group instead of just fighting for small numbers of kids who might be around.

It’s why Brower’s here in one of the most remote corners of the earth, pastoring Utqiaġvik Presbyterian. And it’s why the 125th year of the city’s oldest church won’t be its last.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Grace Snell, in Utqiaġvik, Alaska.

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