Written by Pastors Christina and Joe-d DowlingSoka.
You will find us at mile marker 67.5 on the Parks Highway. We are 30 miles from the nearest UMC church south in Wasilla. Going north the next UMC church is some 290 miles away. We are the only mainline Protestant church in the community. Willow covers an area that is large, some 20 to 30 miles, with only 2000 some residents. Willow is known for being the place of the Iditarod re-start most winters. Some have named us the “dog mushing capital” of the world. We have wonderful traditions like our Willow Winter Carnival, when we have a festive community celebration, complete with fireworks over the frozen lake, a community dinner, musical groups, sporting events and contests like the annual Outhouse race, or snowshoe softball. In Willow, poverty and wealth exist side by side. On the one hand we are a place for weekenders from Anchorage and for retirees with means from the lower 48 living in beautiful retirement homes on our many lakes. On the other side there are persons living off gravel roads in tiny dry cabins, in buses, yurts or camper trailers. Many live off the grid. Many are unemployed. Many face food and heat insecurity. We are thankful for the gift of being a United Methodist presence in this place, thankful for opportunities to pour faith into life, to share the light of God’s love in a community that is largely unchurched, to make disciples and meet human needs.
The story as a faith community begins 36 years ago. The Willow ministry was founded in the early 80s as part of the Parks Highway Parish, which also included congregations in Wasilla and Trapper Creek, a span of over 90 miles! For many years the little congregation met in the tiny chapel which was later transformed to house the Willow Community Food Pantry. Eventually Willow UMC became a single station church with its own pastor. And eventually, with the help of many congregations and VIM teams, they built a sanctuary and fellowship hall, and added on to the food pantry. We are thankful for wonderful pastors across the years, some of whom stayed years and became Alaska conference legends, pastors like Jim Campbell and Steve Eldred. We are thankful for pastors who jumped in after community emergencies, pastors like Dan Wilcox, so instrumental in the Willow Community disaster recovery efforts following the Sock-Eye Fire. We are thankful too that over 20 ago, Deaconess Fran Lynch came as a Missionary through the General Board of Global Ministries to be our Church and Community Worker. And we are thankful for Ola Williams, the new director of the Willow Community Food Pantry who took up the mantle for so many ministries when Fran retired.
On a large Sunday we will have 60 in worship, but most weeks we are in the 40’s…not counting the dogs who visit us regularly, or neighborly moose passing by. Each Wednesday the Willow Community Food Pantry is open from 10 to 2. Most months 165 families visit the food pantry. Most years we distribute over 100,000 pounds of food in addition to our holiday boxes, government food and Sr. boxes. Emergency assistance to those living on the edge is granted through gas vouchers, firewood, and limited heating oil assistance. We provide showers and water to those living in dry cabins. We are particularly thankful that many who receive food from the pantry work side by side with other church and community volunteers to staff the pantry, mutuality in ministry ever-important. From the start Willow UMC has sought to be a “transformer” of culture, seeking to make a difference where a difference can be made. We are thankful for church members who believe that love doesn’t just involve looking inward but consists in looking outward with the eyes of Christ. We celebrate those who have sought to bring greater “Shalom” to the entire community, for those who worked to bring transportation to the community, or who worked to bring the Sunshine clinic to life, those who started the community garden, the Willow’s farmer’s market, those on the library board who are currently working hard to raise funds for a new library, those building new trails, those who work through the local Lion’s club to provide skating and pizza nights every month for children at the school.
Partnerships are important at every step of the way. We are thankful to be a member congregation of Valley Interfaith Action. We also partner with Valley Charities in seeking to find better long term solutions for those in need. We partner with the school with our weekend food bag program. It has also been fun to partner with the library and with Kid’s Kupboard to provide lunches to children and their families at the summer library program. Volunteer in Missions team have also partnered with us to do a wide range of projects, from building the church , fellowship hall and parsonage, to building a habitat house, to working on projects in the community. A team is here this week. They are from Parks UMC in Kentucky, and from several churches in the Holston Conference. They will be cutting firewood – so important to so many who are heat insecure in this place which can get to -40 in the Winter, and making the roof of our entryway safer from falling snow.
Though the church and food pantry have grown we remain dependent on mission support from partners and friends near and far. Both the church (931511) and the Willow Community Food Pantry (931520) have advance special numbers. We are tasked with raising close to $100,000 annually above the $72,000 which we receive from local tithes and offerings, and our pastors itinerate each year to visit partnering churches in the lower 48. We are thankful for all here in Alaska who gather food, those who join together to help with Valley Blessing or our Christmas Celebration packages event where we distribute the fixings for Christmas dinner, new clothing, those who help with the parcel post auction those who support us through the Advance. We are particularly thankful for the Alaska Conference for the wonderful mission support across the years, enabling us to share the transforming power of God’s love here in Willow. It is a delight to be your “Outpost of Mission” here in Willow, Alaska.
Willow United Methodist
Willow, AK 99688
Pastors Christina and Joe-d DowlingSoka, 423-202-5143
Ola Williams, Willow Community Food Pantry Director 907-414-7555