By Pastor Jim Doepken of Moose Pass UMC.
There aren’t many more “Alaskan” sounding town names than “Moose Pass, Alaska.” The story is that this picture-perfect town 30 miles north of Seward got its name when a moose got in the way of a mail carrier’s dog team way back in the early 1900s. For years this tiny town along Trail Lake was a whistle-stop for the Alaska Railroad and every day during the summer you can still see and hear the trains as they pass on through at least twice a day.
While the trains no longer stop here, a little less than 200 people still call this place home. You can see their cabins all along a 20 mile stretch of the Seward Highway. In the summer, US Forest Service Employees work in the surrounding Chugach National Forest and guide services take outdoor enthusiasts on the Kenai River. There they search of the famous Kenai King Salmon or to go “combat fishing” for Red Salmon, elbow to elbow with other anglers.
But, in the winter, it’s a sleepy town where many of the locals play pickup games of hockey on Tern Lake or take their snowmachines (what Alaskans call snowmobiles) out on Trail Lake or into the mountains. The few businesses open in the winter are B&Bs catering to winter sports. Being such a small town, the local school often struggles to keep above the minimum number of students to remain open.
By all accounts, Moose Pass United Methodist Church is a tiny church. It may be a church in an amazingly beautiful setting, right on the shore of Upper Trail Lake, but it’s still tiny. The building itself is tiny and can hold about 40 when Easter or Christmas rolls around. But most Sundays there are less than ten people in worship. In fact, many Sundays there are less than five.
Being a tiny church in a tiny town does come with its problems. It is true that committees look pretty similar year after year. When there is something big to be done — a new water pump, decorating for Advent, helping a family in the community — the same people are often the ones who immediately jump in to help. And, on some of those thinner attendance days, the singing can be a little thin as well.
However, there are some plusses with a tiny church. There is a level of intimacy and comfort with each other that just can’t be duplicated in a larger congregation. Oftentimes worship is more like a small-group meeting and the sermon more like a dialogue than you can find in bigger environments. While some visitors might like the anonymity of slipping into the back of a crowded sanctuary, there’s no place to hide in our space, and everyone is welcomed as if they’ve been around forever. And when these congregants congregate, the depth of their relationship with each other and with the place they live is special. They know their neighbors and what they are going through. They rally around local concerns and projects. And they are willing to fight for the well-being of those who live nearby or who are just with us for a season.
In a tiny church people have to help out in ways they might never have anticipated before. Every hand is a helping hand when the pool of available helpers is so small and sometimes you’ll find surprising gifts along the way.
Most weeks this plays out both visibly and audibly in the music at our church. A couple of years ago our pianist moved out of the community. But we have a couple who figured they could step up and play on a regular basis. This is a couple who have raised some kids, weathered some storms in their lives, and have a lot of stories to tell.
And what’s so awesome about this husband and wife team is that they play together at the piano. She plays all of the right hand keys. And he plays the notes for the left hand. So, when it’s time for a hymn or for “The Doxology” they head on up to the front and sit down next to each other and play…together…each providing a helping hand to make the music happen in this small Alaskan church. Oftentimes one of their grandchildren comes along and “helps,” adding the occasional stray note to the tune.
It is exceptionally sweet and truly is a great blessing to the people gathered around. It is a holy thing.
Then there is what often happens at the close of the songs. We use the “new” 1989 United Methodist Hymnal for much of the music. There are no “Amens” in the hymnal anymore. But, if the hymn is in an easy enough key, the husband will look over the piano at the preacher, smile a mischievous smile, and will play out a loud “Amen” for the congregation to belt out. And, in that “Amen” there is great joy. There’s joy from the pianists and there’s joy from the congregants who love each other deeply and share their Alaskan lives with each other.
Some big churches may be gifted with praise bands and hundred-member choirs. The tiny church in Moose Pass is gifted by two helping hands (among others) who offer their gift of music to the church.