“Small Church, Big Heart” — Sitka UMC

Submitted by Rev. Bennie Grace P. Nabua of Sitka UMC.

The front doors of Sitka UMC.

Small Church, Big Heart

The United Methodist Church is blessed to be able to minister and serve in this beautiful island of Sitka in South East Alaska.  This is a town with a population of about 9,000 people, a 14 mile road system, and a rich history of Russian influence. It is home to Tlingit and Haida Alaska Native groups, was the site of the Alaska Purchase, and was formerly the capital of Alaska.

Life in this “rock” as locals say,  is serene and simple but  it is not without challenges as Sitka is only accessible by plane or boat.  High cost of living, difficult access to low cost housing, growing senior population, and substance abuse are also realities that Sitkans face in varying degrees. But being the Alaskans that we are, resilience and community help people cope and thrive. The strong and close-knit community fosters a  “we make it happen” spirit that is evident in arts, education, sports, recreation and even mission.

Manna Lunch

The breath-taking beauty of the mountains and the islands cannot hide the other side of  the city that shows a growing number of people who live in the margins. The Salvation Army has their Monday to Friday lunches that we support in cash and in kind. Saturday lunch is initiated by St Gregory’s Roman Catholic Church and Sundays is Manna Lunch where five churches take turns in providing hot soup and brown bag lunches.

We serve on first Sundays of the month and the hustle and bustle begins when volunteers come to prepare sandwiches followed by our Sunday school kids packing them. After service at 12:30, volunteers serve at the site and converse with our unsheltered friends.  

Children and youth ministry are of central importance in this congregation.

Children and Youth Ministry

Our young families in the congregation tell of how child-friendly the church is and take note of the love our Sunday school teachers have for kids. Aside from Sunday School, our Vacation Bible School, Advent and Lenten workshops continue to draw kids in the community.  

We are excited  to have opened The Journey, our Middle School Class and continue on with our BeTween, our pre-teen ministry to provide a safe space for them to explore their growing faith and ready them to face the challenges of teen life. 

Sacred Spaces

We have our Choir and Bells ministry that meets on Wednesday nights and  two offerings for adults on Thursdays that provide opportunities to carve out sacred spaces in their busy schedules. In the morning, we have an ecumenical group that attends the Contemplative Reading of Scriptures (now in Luke) and, in the evening, a Bible Study (now in the Gospel of Mark).  We also have our Choir and Bells ministry that meet on Wednesday nights. 

Dream and Work

We dream  and work big for our youth ministry and we pray that God will continue to raise adult leaders who will invest in walking along side our young in life and faith.  We dream and work  to be more rooted in the Word and invested in lives of those who are in the margins.  We dream and work  to be in connection with God and others to grow our community of faith called to worship and serve this community we love.

The sanctuary where we dream together and work together.

“Neighbors Out the Front Door” — Aldersgate UMC

Submitted by Rev. Karen Dammann, Aldersgate UMC

The doors of Aldersgate UMC in Juneau, Alaska.

Aldersgate United Methodist Church was founded just 33 years ago in 1986. The congregation was intentionally planted in the midst of a low income housing area, to better serve those who live on the margins in the Mendenhall Valley. This setting sees a very high level of transition in and out of the neighborhood, with a high number of people moving in and out on a monthly basis. The congregation is a wonderful point of stability here, but it has not always been easy being off of “the beaten” path in such a rapidly changing environment. The immediate neighborhood has not been able to support the congregation financially over the years, and the next circle of housing is difficult to connect with due the configuration of streets in the area. We have had to employ some creativity in reaching out beyond the immediate setting to engage those who want to participate in our ministries and who can offer financial stability.

A new development of condos is going in across the street. The trees have been cleared and ground has been broken, and we anticipate steady construction through the winter. This will bring home owners to our immediate setting and we are excited about the stability that this will offer. We are looking forward to welcoming our new neighbors and offering them our hospitality.

New neighbors will be moving in across the street from Aldersgate UMC.

Our latest project was an attempt to respond to the serious lack of affordable child care in Juneau. Under the leadership of a member of Aldersgate who is passionate about serving the needs of children and families, we have become a Childcare Center licensed by the State of Alaska. We partner with the State and with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska to provide childcare for over 30 children from very low income families.

We have intentionally sought to be a safe place for the LGBTQ community in Juneau. We host family nights, potlucks, game nights, dances, open mics, and other celebrations, including a Celebration of the Saints of the LGBTQ community, who have lost their lives in the fight for equality.

Stability is our greatest challenge as our members and constituents are constantly moving into and out of Juneau. It impacts our ministry at every level, from volunteers who manage our ministries to our finances. Last year all but one of our newly received members moved to the lower 48. Never-the-less, we continue in the work we are called to in our Mission Field of the Mendenhall Valley and Juneau.

Thank you for your prayers and your support!

“Our Doors Are Open!” — The UMC of Chugiak

Submitted by Rev. David Hall, UMC of Chugiak

At first look, it might seem that our doors are not open.  There is caution tape stretched across the main entry to church supporting a sign which reads, “Danger – Use Side Door”.  This is certainly not the way we would like to welcome people into our building for worship or for our community programs.  Yet, this is how our doors look for now; a product of the large earthquake that shook Alaska in November of 2018.  Like many of our neighbors, we spend time working with FEMA and other government agencies to find the funds and the resources to repair what the earthquake damaged.  The sign is only temporary.  The portico will be fixed and a welcoming entry brought back to life.  In the meantime, however, life exists abundantly inside those doors.

Presently, these are the front doors of The United Methodist Church of Chugiak.

The first church building that housed the congregation of the United Methodist Church of Chugiak was built in 1959.  Now, I am new to the church and folks may be pulling the new pastor’s leg, but the story goes that the current position of the church was not the approved layout.  The contractor that was to set the foundation for the church arrived one morning to lay the footers and upon turning onto the property, he noticed he could see Denali towering over the valley from his vantage point.  He thought the church needed to see the view he was seeing as they worshipped each Sunday, so he picked up the markers and rotated them so that the windows of the back of the church would look out at Denali and see the wonder of God’s creation in its full glory as they worshipped.  We are lucky he took the initiative!

The congregation of the UMC Chugiak church has been a steadfast member in the communities of Chugiak, Birchwood, and Eagle River, partnering over time with different organizations in different ways to provide outreach and support.  Early on, CCS Early Learning Services actually operated out of the UMC Chugiak basement, until they built a separate structure about a mile away.  The relationship remained tight and this year UMC Chugiak was nominated by CCS Early Learning to receive an award as “AHSA’s Community Advocate of the Year”.  Some lines of the nomination read, “The church has made it easy for CCS Early Learning to meet the needs of many of our families without having to send them to other agencies. They are very generous and willing to help wherever there is a need with our families.” The help mentioned refers to the basic needs of families such as clothes, food, furniture, school supplies, and even gas cards.  We are happy to be nominated for this award, but joyful to know that our involvement was meaningful to the families and to the organization it supported.  I am pleased to share that we were the recipient of the AHSA Community Advocate of the Year award for 2019 and we look forward to continuing to grow in our support of the local CCS Early Learning facility.

Although the CCS Early Learning school has not met in the walls of our church for a very long time, we still bring the community children through our doors in a different way.  It started out as a program called “Homework Haven” and was designed as an afterschool program with an emphasis on helping children who lived locally near the church with their homework.  Last year, however, the local school decided that homework was not to be assigned.  This allowed the “Homework Haven” program to change its approach and now it offers lessons in “life skills” to the young people who come in from sewing to cooking.  There is also quite a bit of fun to be had and games to be played.  We also make sure the children are given a good meal before going home.

Denali is seen in the distance from The United Methodist Church of Chugiak.

If you were to come into the church parking lot around noon on any given day, you would see a large number of vehicles in the lot.  A local Alcoholics Anonymous support group has been utilizing the narthex of the church for its meetings for many years.  The gentleman who leads the group continuously expresses his thanks for the use of the church and we are thankful for his constant support of the folks who come to this gathering.  It is a place of transformation, a place of redemption, and a place of forgiveness.  I am sure these are things found by those who come for the AA services each day.

I do believe that most of the community surrounding the church would identify the UMC of Chugiak congregation with the “Recycle for a Reason” program.  The program was born out of a need many years ago to have a local drop off and purchase place for used items, such as a Goodwill or Salvation Army store.  The UMC of Chugiak congregation stepped into the roll and has been operating this service each month for several years.  The items are collected and organized by volunteers and then placed out for pick up one Saturday a month.  Those who are in need are not asked to provide anything and to take what they need, others are asked to give a donation as they are able.  The money raised by the program is then applied to local missions throughout Alaska.  It may seem that such a model may not be successful but since 2013, the Recycle for a Reason program has donated $66,779 to local and national missions and $33,389 to missions of the UMC Chugiak congregation.

As we kick off the Fall of 2019, we are in full swing with Sunday school classes for all ages, a Wednesday night Bible Study, a Centering Prayer group, and our Choir.  We are also in the early stages of reinvigorating a mission-based youth program that has been well attended in its first two meetings.  Life within the doors of the UMC Chugiak church is growing and we look forward to opening our doors up wide for others to explore our worship services and programs.  We are also well aware that our doors open for us to work outside as well.  We look forward to continued partnerships with local organizations and other churches that help us minister to our community in ways that bring glory to God’s name.  We are not averse to trying new things and finding new ways of connecting to our fellow humans and God’s creation. 

Our doors are open!

“Many Doors” — Jewel Lake Parish

Submitted by Rev. Luke Jones, Jewel Lake Parish.

Jewel Lake Parish was birthed from the remnants of an earlier church plant. A union church of the Alaska United Methodist Conference and the Presbytery of Yukon, our name reflects a planned union of three congregations called the “Tri-Anchor Parish.” Although those plans were eventually discarded, they represent the vision of an earlier generation to become “One Church with Many Doors.”

Jewel Lake Parish’s Worship Center

This new incarnation of JLP began in February of 1971. That first month, we opened our doors to provide space for community programs. Beginning with a scout troop, we have continued to open our doors. Today groups as diverse as Twelve Step programs and the Society for Creative Anachronism make use of our facilities, along with a scout group, quilters, and a Korean Presbyterian congregation.

Keyless entry

With these many users comes an administrative headache: keeping track over time of which group representatives have keys to the building. This spring, a series of disturbances occurred on church premises when parents were picking up children from the preschool that uses some of our facilities during the week. Those incidents were more or less benign, but they prompted a security review of our premises in which several vulnerabilities were identified. After discussions with the preschool’s staff, we decided to put keyless (combination) locks on the exterior doors of our worship and education centers. A key advantage (no pun intended) of the new locks is reducing the administrative burden of giving groups access to our facilities. Each group can have a separate combination, and instead of trying to recover keys from groups, we can simply deactivate that combination.

While it’s been said that “Good fences make good neighbors,” locked doors can make it hard to be neighborly. They even make it hard even to receive deliveries! Once we had the new locks, we realized we would need (for the first time) a doorbell. We installed a video doorbell, which allows us to come to the door if someone from the church is on premises. But when no one is around, we are still able, sometimes, to help the visitor remotely!

Doors are attached, of course, to buildings. This year our doors have required a surprising amount of maintenance. When our education center was built, each classroom was equipped with its own door. Over the years, water and snow began to damage some of the entryways, and this year two doors needed to be repaired.

Repairing doors on the Education Center

Another door is attached to the shed built by a VIM team in the early 2000s. In the past year, for whatever reason, this shed became a magnet to thieves. Each time the shed was broken in to, we installed a stronger, more secure lock — which only led to more comprehensive vandalism as part of the next break-in. After our lawnmower disappeared, we realized we would no longer be able to store property in the shed. We are currently discussing whether there is any way we could secure the building so it could be used again, and if not, what we should do with it.

A final door provides access to our elevator. JLP’s worship center has a split-level design: the upstairs part is where our worship gatherings take place. Last year, we renovated the downstairs so we could have our Cafe fellowship there. In the 1960s this design wasn’t unusual, but in the intervening decades, our leaders realized it wasn’t very accessible either, and added a lift alongside the stairs. It’s slow, but serviceable, and allows us to accommodate people with mobility challenges. However, the electrical controls are delicate. Periodically, a malfunction takes the lift out of service until a new part can be installed. Service calls can run from $300 to over $1200, so a handful of such breakdowns can be a significant burden for a small church.

But doors don’t define buildings, and buildings don’t define churches. Two ministries illustrate how we have looked outward beyond our own doors to engage our community. One was the Vacation Bible School we offered this summer. It had been several years since the last time we were able to offer a VBS to the community. We weren’t sure we would be able to do so this year, and if so, if there would be any need in the community for it to address. We were surprised and delighted that the answer to both questions was “Yes!”

This year’s VBS was a surprising and welcome success.

The other ministry is a mobile food pantry operated by the Alaska Food Bank at another church in our neighborhood. For years, JLP had its own food pantry on our own premises behind our own doors. People came to it very rarely, and our few volunteers were burned out. Four years ago, however, we were asked to supply volunteers at the mobile food pantry. First one agreed to serve, then two, and today, six or eight JLP folks regularly participate. They join volunteers from other churches each Saturday, rain or shine, year round, to serve 140-50 of our neighbors.

JLP volunteers at the Mobile Food Pantry

“When Your Doors Are Like Hatches” — Unalaska UMC

The front of Unalaska UMC. This church serves as a vital lifeline to the community over 800 miles away from the mainland.

Submitted by Pastor Matt Reinders, Unalaska United Methodist Church 

Unalaska

Fishing boats have holds. After they pull nets or long lines or pots from the Bering Sea onto the deck and sort the catch, the abundant resources of the sea fall through a hatch into the hold. The front doors of the Unalaska United Methodist Church are like a hatch to a hold. Nearly everyday, as people transition off the island, household goods, clothes, beds and cribs, appliances and furniture make their way to the arctic entry of the church. Volunteers sort and organize the materials and store them in sections of the church like reuse/recycle holds. 

People transition onto the island nearly everyday, too. Oftentimes they move with only the most essential of items, such as a week’s worth of clothes, lawn furniture, a pot and a pan, and sleeping bags. I know because that is what my family and I did! The good news is that Unalaska United Methodist Church has holds full of stuff to help set up a home. 

Most Alaskans are comfortable living in The Last Frontier. Less may be comfortable in remote communities. Travel delays, isolation, phone and internet services frequently disrupted, all push people to the limits of coping at some point. 

The front doors of Unalaska UMC serve the community as a holding place for items and resources for households in the community.

Some Unalaskans have begun to describe the community as “resource insecure” to help communicate the ebb and flow between resource abundance and bust. Logistics count for a lot, and mistakes or accidents can cost a high price. Unalaska is an 800 plus mile flight to the nearest hospital, discount wholesale store, or fast food restaurant. Many folks get off the island only once each year. Communities of faith like the Unalaska United Methodist Church can make all the difference to someone who feels isolated, misunderstood or misplaced. It is a community that fully understands and stays prepared to assist in anyway we can. 

Unalaska is a generous community where God works through us to engage in service with others. Through this service, God’s grace and peace become the living word for a stressed out world. We keep our holds ready for all kinds of people with many kinds of needs. In the meantime, our hatches are open.

“Doors For Two Seasons”: First UMC of Ketchikan

Front door of First UMC of Ketchikan

Submitted by Pastor Janice Carlton, First UMC of Ketchikan

The First United Methodist Church of Ketchikan, Alaska is located on Revillagigedo Island in a rainforest with a population of a little over 8,000. There has been a Methodist presence since 1901 when the town was a small mining and fishing village. It has the distinction of being the first completed church building in the first incorporated town in Alaska. Ketchikan is a town of two seasons. Even though there is only one main road 34 miles long, the differences between these seasons are extreme in population and activities. Between May and October the population walking its streets in a day can more than double its year round daily population. A tourist disembarking from one of the many cruise ships could easily encounter the missions of the church.

Since the church is located in the historic downtown section it is affected by both on and off-season activities. Three months of the year it hosts people from all over the world in its hostel. The hostel was begun in the 1960s to provide an affordable place to stay while touring the town. It is currently located in the second floor of the church. For $20 a night visitors arriving by plane and ferry can have a safe, clean place to sleep. The guests also have access to a full kitchen and showers. This year the hostel has also been home to several local people. While working seasonal jobs they have affordable housing and amenities. The hostel is staffed by volunteers assigned by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). These volunteers are “faces” for the hostel and their willingness to serve and witness are gifts to all the lives they touch. During the remainder of the year the hostel beds are used by visiting middle and high school students. Traveling teams or groups can stay in the church when competing against or performing with the local school teams and music groups.  

Looking out the front door to the Hostel

The hostel is not the only “safe sanctuary” offered by this church. First City Homeless Shelter and, more recently, the fall and winter Ketchikan Warming Center are located in the basement/fellowship hall of the church. The planning for this shelter began in 1987 during the appointment of Reverend Bob Bowers and came to fruition during the appointments of Evelyn and Teri Erberly. Year-round from 8 AM to 4 PM the basement is open to the homeless and anyone needing a warm, dry place to “hang out.” A light breakfast is available with hot coffee throughout the day and showers and clean clothes are available. Guests utilizing this facility may also receive tutoring on computer skills and job searching. 

In the fall and winter the homeless shelter hours extend to include the Ketchikan Warming Center. In addition to the day shelter, a Warming Shelter is open from 8 PM to 6 AM. During these hours, once again, a warm, dry place is available including an evening meal. 

One of the first things a tourist will notice as they wander uphill on Grant Street from the docks is the Easter totem attached to the corner of the church. Ketchikan is a town with many totems. This storytelling tradition was used by indigenous peoples to preserve history and stories big and small. 

Totem and First City Homeless door.

Reverend David Fison (appointed to Ketchikan from 1961-1966)  embraced this tradition and carved two Christian totems. One explained the Christmas story and the other Easter. In true missionary tradition he spread the “Good News” by incorporating “language” familiar to his listeners. 

These two seasons could be named the Tourist Season and the Season of Daily Living in a Small Community. 

The First United Methodist Church is a church for both.. The question is often asked, “If the doors of your church were closed would the community notice?” The answer to that question for this church is YES. 

Community is a corner stone for this UMC church. It has a passion for locally-based community mission. The church participates in community worship opportunities such as the Sunrise Service and Blessing of the Fleet. It follows Jesus’ request to “Feed my Sheep” by providing meals for 40 to 70 men, women, and children in the communities’ Soup Kitchen and Lord’s Table. The joy of small town living is celebrated in the church parking lot during the “Blueberry Festival” (this year was the 44th). During this festival the church has a food stand which includes selling blueberry pies with several “secret ingredients.” The First United Methodist Church is also a partner with “Love in Action.” Through this  organization people are shown the love of Christ receiving help with food and utilities during the rough seasons of their life. For the last year this church and Ketchikan Presbyterian church have shared a pastor and several worship opportunities including a choir. 

The First United Methodist Church hears and lives John 21:16-17. 

“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, LORD,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, LORD, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “LORD, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

Thank you to Evelyn Valentine (her written history of the church was essential), Roland and Alaire Stanton, and Kathy Early for their help.