Seward UMC: A Tale of Two Churches

By Rev. Jim Doepken, Seward Memorial UMC.

It’s like those old jokes, “There are only two seasons in Alaska. Winter’s coming and winter’s here.” Or, “Company’s coming and company’s here.” Or, “Snow and construction.” Also, some of our communities are very different between summer and winter. And that shapes our ministry. It shapes what you find when you walk through our doors.

The front doors of Seward Memorial United Methodist Church.

During the summer, the City of Seward is an attractive tourist destination on eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula. It sits at the foot of the mountains holding back the Harding Ice Field, right on the waters of Resurrection Bay. From the first whiff of salmon in the air, the town comes to life and becomes a playground for people from across Alaska and around the world.

There is a hustle and a bustle to the four months of summer that is not unlike what you find in other tourist destinations in Alaska. Cruise ships flood the town with tourists and campgrounds are full of RVs with occupants grilling their catch of the day at campfires and drinking their Alaskan Amber beers. Local businesses pull in hundreds of extra summer workers who call this place home for a season to operate fish processing, the hotels, the restaurants, and the gift shops that line both the waterfront and the picturesque downtown.

While there is excitement in the air in April as “Help Wanted” signs appear and locals get ready for the influx of visitors, the activity of summer can be exhausting. Everyone is trying to make their money. Everyone is trying to enjoy the long days while we have them. Like the fireweed that lines our roads we we soak up as much sunshine as possible.

So, by mid-September, when the cruise ships stop coming, the campgrounds begin to empty, and the fish are packed away in the freezer, a sense of relief settles over the town. Four months of seemingly non-stop action comes to a close and so do many of the shops and restaurants around town. It’s hard to be open in winter. There’s just not enough business to go around.

But it’s during this early-Fall season that the community begins to reconnect. School is in session. The boards and agencies of nonprofits and community groups can get a quorum of locals again. At the grocery store and post office we finally see friends and neighbors and have time to chat and catch up.

It’s a stark difference, this transition from summer to winter and then back again. While the population of Seward-proper is only about 3,000 people we may get an extra 1,000 resident workers in the summer. And that’s not counting the several thousands of tourists that may be in town on a busy weekend. But in the winter we find community once again, we nurture relationships, and we are able to share life. With 90 snow-covered miles to the next biggest town and 120 miles to Anchorage, we become a close-knit group when the days start getting shorter.

A quiet Seward waterfront as the sun rises a cold November morning.

To understand Seward, we need to understand it as almost two very different cities. And to understand the work of Seward United Methodist Church we need to see it as almost two very different churches.

Here, as in some tourist destinations around the Alaska Conference, our summer worship may have more visitors than locals. Many our members and friends need to work on Sunday, which is always “a cruise ship day.” The businesses need all the workers they can get. Therefore, church life focuses on opening our doors to visitors who may only be with us for an hour. We greet them with open arms, with a little gift, eager to share our favorite spots to hike or fish, and we listen to their Alaskan adventures.

Seward Memorial UMC in the summer. Photo by Rev. Peter Perry

During these sunny months we look forward to reconnecting with our regular summer attendees who are a big part of our church community, even if they are only here while their camper is at the waterfront or while they earn their paycheck from Kenai Fjords National Park or other seasonal work.

Frankly, there’s not much church programing during these months for our local folks. It’s hard to get everyone together except for big events— like our Pie Sale on the Fourth of July.

But winter is so very different and Seward UMC lives into this rhythm of the town. During this time we can reach out to the community, partnering with other organizations, and trying to take care of those who call this place home.

For years we had a preschool which occupied much of our small building throughout the off-season. But now we’ve switched to a co-op model that uses less of our facility. That has freed up space to welcome groups through our doors to connect with our community in a new way. We’ve had a bell choir for years and now we are the meeting space for the Community Choir and a rehearsal space for our local community theater, “The Port City Players.” Once a month you’ll find our local “Music Association” meeting in our space and and in our movement to being “arts-friendly” we’ve hosted a Bluegrass Camp for kids, a drama camp for the local, city-run kid’s club, and support our pastor’s involvement with the music program at the high school

During winter we can ask ourselves, “How can we bless our community?”

It’s during this time that we are more involved in our local food bank and and work on matters related to homelessness. We are located downtown, among businesses, and we use this season to nurture relationships with those who keep shops open all year round. A few times a winter you’ll find us handing out cookies to all of the businesses and their employees, just as a way to love them. We deliver chocolate around town and partner with businesses to make a safe space for Halloween Trick-or-Treating, even if we may have to do so in the snow. In the past we have gone caroling to the local businesses and bars, trying to spread some Christmas joy in what can be a very dark time in the lives of residents. Because of these relationships we were able to assist during the recent government shutdown that affected up to 100 families.

Headed out into the Seward mission field.

And, in church life, this is when our programing happens. This is when our confirmation class takes off. This is when Sunday School happens. This is when we come alongside some of our other churches for Advent and Lenten soup suppers, building relationships, discovering new ministries.

Every community has a rhythm, a flow to it. Seward’s just seems to be from one extreme to the other; from the frenetic, frenzied excitement of summer to the slower-paced, nurturing time of winter. It’s like a tale of two cities. And, because of this, our church has two very different existences as well as we go out of our doors into the world. It’s a tale of two churches.

Tsunami Hospitality

By Rev. Lisa Talbott, Homer UMC

A line of cars evacuating the Homer Spit and other low-lying coastal areas after the November 30, 2018, 7.1 earthquake rocked South Central Alaska.

In Homer, Alaska, a traffic jam is when four cars pull up to the flashing red light at the same time, or when a moose decides to walk down the middle of the road instead of sticking to the sidewalk, or when a float plane is pulled out of Beluga Lake and towed to the airport down the street. These are some of the charms of small town life in Alaska, but on the morning of November 30, 2018, I found myself in a very different kind of traffic jam. As I pulled out of my street with my husband in his truck behind me, we were met with almost a mile of cars lined up heading into town away from the Homer Spit and the coast. A 7.1 earthquake had just hit South Central Alaska, and a tsunami warning had been issued. We were evacuating.

The tsunami warning siren screamed in background as Joe and I threw clothes, electronics, chargers, meds, and toiletries into a suitcase. Joe ran upstairs and started packing food and bottles of water while I put our two parrots in their traveling cages, gathered up spare dishes, and packed their food and water. We loaded a laundry basket with piles of blankets and extra hats, gloves, and coats. We had to get to the church and open it up. Over and over again we heard the announcement interspersed with the tsunami siren, “A tsunami warning has been issued for this area. Tune to your local radio station for more information.” As we dialed up KBBI, we heard, “Evacuate, evacuate. Go to an evacuation shelter at the Homer High School or the Homer United Methodist Church.” Police cars were starting to cruise the neighborhood, checking that everyone was packing up and heading out.

Rev. Lisa Talbott stands at the doorway of the Homer United Methodist Church on the morning of the November 30, 2018, 7.1 earthquake, as the tsunami warning siren blares across town.

Leaving behind so many things – important documents and most of our worldly possessions – we loaded up our vehicles and headed to the church. It’s only a mile away, but most importantly, it’s up hill, away from the danger of the inundation zone.

When we got to church, we leapt into action. People were going to be cold, hungry, and scared. Joe unlocked the building, started the coffee and hot water urns, and filled all the pitchers in the church kitchen with water before setting up tables and chairs around an old boom box with the local radio station playing.

I took the parrots and all our personal belongings to my office. By this time, my phone was blowing up with texts from colleagues, friends, and family from all over Alaska and the Lower 48 wondering if we were safe. Members of the congregation were checking in, letting me know that they had evacuated our church elders from the inundation zone and taken them to their own homes on the ridge. The City Manager’s office called to make sure we were open and ready to receive evacuees. School was in session, and busses which had been dropping kids off at the high school turned right around and took them home as the school parking lot began to fill up with more and more cars as people sought shelter.

Our own parking lot began to fill up. People were staying warm in their cars, listening to the radio and talking to family on their cellphones. I started delivering cups of coffee and granola bars, chatting with people, reassuring them, offering prayer. Some came inside but many preferred to be poised for further evacuation if necessary.

The worst part were the rumors. Someone heard someone say that the water was being sucked out of a bay on Kodiak Island. Someone else heard someone else say that a 30 foot wave had been spotted from the Alaska Peninsula. Rumor control was a major part of our hospitality ministry as we welcomed scared folks in.

A family with small children arrived, and I got out the crayons. We used different colors to draw what the earthquake felt like. Big red circles for the biggest bounces all the way down to little blue lines for the aftershocks.

A couple of hours later when the all clear was issued, no one was in a hurry to leave. We still had stories to tell – where we were when the earthquake hit, how it felt, what fell down and broke or miraculously survived. What we threw in our cars when the call to evacuate came. The laughter of poking through bags and suitcases to see what was packed and what was left behind. We all wanted to stay just a little bit longer, stay together, with strangers who had become friends because of what we had just been through, who knew the fear that if a tsunami had struck, we would have lost everything except each other.

A few more cups of coffee later, and the church and parking lot emptied out. Joe and I took our tired bodies and squawking parrots home. When we walked in the front door, we said a prayer of thanks that our home was still standing, that we were safe, and that our church had once again been able to minister to people in need in our town through our presence and hospitality.

“One Church / Many Doors” — Introduction

By Superintendent Carlo Rapanut

The front doors of The Alaska United Methodist Conference Office

For the past decade or so, I’ve observed a seemingly growing interest in all things Alaska as evidenced by the number of reality TV shows focusing on some facet of life in the 49th state. Deadliest Catch, Gold Rush, Alaska State Troopers, Alaskan Bush People, Alaska this, Alaska that. I did a quick Google search and it yielded thirty-four (34) reality TV shows about Alaska produced since 2005. That’s a lot of shows about Alaska. Incidentally, one of the first official phone calls I received in my role as Superintendent is from a reality TV outfit supposedly working on a series entitled “Alaskan Pastor” and were looking for a certain type of pastor that fits their storyline.

Now, I am not writing this to debate whether these shows are factual or not. But my reflection is this: Alaska has a story to tell. In fact, many stories to tell. And there is a lot of interest in these stories. There is something about life in the Last Frontier that peeks at peoples’ curiosity. Case in point: In my travels across the United States for denominational work, the moment I introduce myself and where I serve, the conversation almost always goes to: “Wow! Alaska! What’s it like to serve in Alaska?”

So, Alaska has a story to tell. And we in the Alaska United Methodist Conference have stories to tell. Stories of life-giving, life-transforming mission and ministry. One of the things I love about my role as Superintendent is that every Fall and Winter for five years now, I get to travel and witness the great things that God is doing through the people called Methodists in each of our ministry settings across the state. These are ministries that are vital not only to the life of each church but to the life of the greater community from prophetic witness against social ills to providing support to very thin social safety nets. And these are ministries that are done side by side in each of our churches with progressives and conservatives alike; with young and old; queer and straight; native and immigrant; brown, black and white.

And so with this blog we invite you to a story-telling, story-sharing journey with us. The Alaska Conference is a small conference and in many ways we see ourselves as one church with many doors, many expressions of unique ministry. Every week, we will open a door and give you a front row seat to the action. Every door will open you to a different facet of what it means to be a United Methodist disciple of Jesus Christ in Alaska.

This is not a scripted reality show. This is our reality! And we would like to share our stories with you with the hopes of cultivating in your hearts an awareness of what is happening in our part of the United Methodist connection and a prayer that it sparks interest in exploring ways to be in meaningful partnership

Stay tuned! Door number 1 opens next week.

Looking out from the Alaska Conference office — Anchorage