Written by Pastor Bailey Brawner of Kenai United Methodist Church.
Before we were Kenai United Methodist Church, we were simply the community church. And actually, we still are…
Right across the street from Wells Fargo
Next to the alternative school.
That church with the red cross out front.
Located on the main road, this ‘door’ of the Alaska
Conference is visible and known by the whole community. People know what we look like, even if they
don’t know our polity or our worship style.
Right before Christmas, I was invited to be on the local radio station with other pastors in the area to talk about our Christmas Eve services. When I told the interviewer the church I was representing, immediately he knew, because we were ‘the church with the bells’. These infamous bells he referenced have been a part of our church forever. They ring all day and can be heard by people passing by, at nearby businesses, and even in the parsonage! The bells will chime and play a few popular hymns. When I learned the rich history of the bells, I knew it was about more than just the bells. Our identity is one which has stood the test of time, and an identity which prioritizes our neighbors, and the needs of our friends.
Ever since we began as a community, we were for the community. Our history reflects that and so does our current ethos as a church. If we talk about Kenai UMC as a door, ours is a revolving door, rich in the many ways we serve and offer presence to the folks of Kenai.
People will remember their kids or grandkids or even they themselves attending the church for preschool, playing in the same outdoor area as the kids attending the daycare do today. We worship on Sunday morning and church continues later in the week as support groups use the library to hold meetings in communion with one another. Our space is used to assemble hygiene kits, knit winter hats, crochet prayer shawls, and coordinate hospital and prison volunteers.
Perhaps the time our door revolves most is on Monday afternoons, as we run our food pantry. Each week, fifteen or so of our Sunday morning worshippers and other friends team up to serve the community, offering hospitality through food and fellowship. We don’t just offer ourselves as a storage space for food boxes or an outlet to hand them out. Our identity is more relational than that. We feed people through food boxes, yes. And we also feed people through hot soup, loud laughs, hearty conversation, and full relationships.
We embody church as something bigger than a place we attend on Sunday mornings. Our church is more expansive than a place with Wesleyan theology or communion once a month. We experience God, the story of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit working around the clock whether our hymnals and bibles are open, or not. The gospel lives and breathes because of the community and we believe in being a church that honors that commitment.
No matter what part of the week our door is used, for so
many in our community, our church has become a part of their routine. Whether
they come weekly to attend AA, or monthly to receive food, or daily as they
walk by at noon on their lunch break to hear the bells, Kenai United Methodist
Church is a church for our community, a community we are proud to belong to and
Pastor Bailey Brawner (Pastor) and Carolyn Lopez (Layperson) share two stories about North Star UMC in Nikiski
Pastor Bailey Brawner — “Welcomed Home”
Whether you’re hearing about Alaska for the first time, or you share a deep passion for it, or you’re somewhere in between, I want you to know this is a special place. We are a community of people who have vastly different stories, and come from all over, and yet, we bond over this place, the fact that each of us find ourselves here today.
I grew up in Anchorage, a cradle United Methodist whose experience of the world and church was birthed at the same time. I was baptized inside one of our many doors, the same place that would raise me and help me understand my call to ordained ministry. Alaska is home for me.
I remember our Annual Conference session this past year, coming back fresh out of seminary, now to serve as a pastor. As I looked around, I saw people who had impacted me, taught me, and formed me. They sent me off to grow more, much like the reality of the itinerancy of Alaskans. I looked around and saw the faces of those who had sent me, my pastors, my mentors, my camp leaders, and those I looked up to. The hands and feet of those who loved me enough to impart their wisdom, stories, and care upon me are the ones I am humbled to come home to.
This past July, myself and two other Alaskans were ‘welcomed home’ by our Alaska Conference. We were commissioned to serve in this unique setting, called to be a part of one or more of the many doors we have here. What a humbling moment. As I serve today, the hands and feet of those who I’ve been impacted by stay with me. Both literally and figuratively, I can sense a presence, that we as Alaskan United Methodists are not only tough and knowledgeable about what to do when moose come near you, but we also know what it means to be family, and to stay beside those we love, walking with one another as we all are led closer to God.
Carolyn Lopez — “Hands and Feet of Christ”
My first experience with this church was through the food pantry. One very difficult winter, finances were at their lowest. We had 3 little girls at home and were quite distraught about how we were going to give them Christmas. I guess I must have been heard by someone listening to God’s command to feed God’s people. Four days before Christmas, I received a phone call asking if I would please come pick up a box of Christmas cheer from North Star United Methodist Church. What a blessing, Christmas dinner with enough for leftovers, a huge bag of clothes, toys, and girly stuff (shampoo, lotion, deodorant). Again, what a blessing! To this day, 10 years later, I do not know who turned our name in for such a blessing.
The Nikiski Food Pantry has been part of the outreach program for this church for many years. This year, in partnership with Nikiski Neighbors, it provided over 75 food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The people that make up this church do indeed feed people. They reflect God’s love and put all they have into helping other in this community.
Their hands and feet are in ministry with others in other areas. It was members of North Star UMC in partnership with Lighthouse Community Church, that first brought the Elementary School Breakfast program to our local Elementary school. A group of congregants made up thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, poured hundreds of cups of juice and milk over the course of a couple of years. The children had no idea the work it took to provide this, but what they did now is that breakfast was provided free of charge by elders in our community whose love was seen with every good morning greeting and felt with full tummies. I know, because I saw hands and feet regularly there, feeding children. The children I worked with ate breakfast, and that meal changed how the day progressed. I saw fewer behavior issues, less tiredness, more positive interactions with others, and more school work being done. The school district used this data to gain funding for the breakfast program that currently runs in the schools. Systematic changes were made because of loving hands that made sandwiches and poured juice.
It took years for me to hear my calling to become part of North Star United Methodist Church. Sometimes it takes a lot of water to make seeds grow. As part of this church body, I have learned, heard and felt the love of Christ on many occasions. Led by example, I too have used my hands and feet to share God’s love with community. My favorite ministry is our backpack ministry; giving children all the necessary school supplies to begin the school year with, diminishing the social injustice and bullying that happens when kids go without.
I have learned that when we collectively put all our talents together, as the body of Christ, our feet and hands really move fast.
Written by Rev. Jim Doepken, Pastor at Seward & Moose Pass UMCs.
I know that Alaska might seem far “away from it all” to people in the Lower-48. But even Alaskans sometimes want to “get away from it all” at times. It could be for vacation or different outdoor activities in a new spot. Sometimes it’s for retreats and group-building. Sometimes it’s just because we need a place of quiet.
The Hope Retreat Center is one of those places and it has a long history as a place to “get away” in Alaska.
Hope, on the northern tip of the Kenai Peninsula and about 90 miles from Anchorage, was not always a small town. The area around Hope was once bustling with activity at the the height of the Gold Rush. While there were Alaska Native families that predated the arrival of Euro-Americans, it was the discovery of gold in Resurrection Creek in 1893 that brought people in. Miners needed supplies. They built cabins and warehouses for goods. Families started to settle. And by 1897, Hope was officially “on the map.” At one point, there were literally thousands of people in the area.
While gold diminished and the population dropped, the small community of Hope remained. It was in this community that Bertha McGhee led the process of building a church in the town. Bertha had arrived in Seward, Alaska to serve as a house mother for the Methodist-run Jesse Lee Home. And from 1944-1948 she was lay pastor for the Moose Pass-Hope charge and she worked tirelessly on building the church facility here. A log cabin was moved to the lot and another log cabin was added on as an addition. When it was completed they had a two story building with a “parsonage side” and a small “chapel side.”
But even as as various pastors tried, and ministries were started, Hope was running the same course as many other ex-mining towns. By 1956 there were only 24 adults and 14 children in the town. And yet, even as the community got smaller, the old church remained an attractive site for retreats and camps. Construction continued on the buildings and summer programming carried on. Over the years, youth groups, clergy gatherings, United Methodist Men’s retreats, weddings and family get-aways were held here with many people writing in one of the nine journals that tell the story of their visits. There might not have been regular church services but ministry continued. (You can read all about Hope’s Methodist history in a book by Alaska’s Larry Hayden.)
I first arrived in Alaska in 1997 and, even before I saw the church where I was appointed, the “New Clergy Orientation” group was taken from Anchorage to Hope to meet other Alaskan clergy. It is a stunning drive down the Seward Highway, along Turnagain Arm off of Cook Inlet, and through Turnagain Pass in the mountains. It was at Hope were I met some of the pastors who predated me, heard their stories about ministry in Alaska, and walked around this tiny community.
Four years later, after a pastoral move, I was asked to officiate a wedding at Hope for two Alaskans who loved the setting. It was gorgeous. There were only four of us there. The bride and groom wanted to use the “old” Methodist hymnal and have Holy Communion. Their dog was the ring-bearer. And, as far as any of us were concerned, this small chapel in this tiny town was the perfect place for them.
After seeing the Retreat Center once again, I started looking here for some of my own pastoral needs. I have been here for a family vacation, using the church as a home base as we explored hiking trails and took long walks by the water. But, more, I served churches that were within about a 90 minute drive and found Hope to be a great place for retreats—for youth, women, men, and confirmation classes.
To this day, Hope is an active place in the summer. While a little off the beaten path, it’s a beautiful spot for tourists to take pictures and walk among the old cabins. And, when the salmon are running along Resurrection Creek it is a popular spot to reach your daily limit of fish. During this time the restaurants and bar are open, along with the town museum and coffee shop. You’ll find live music most nights. It can be bustling with activity—for a tiny town.
But that’s not the time I like to come to the Hope Retreat Center. I like coming during the late fall and early spring when it’s quiet and it’s a surprise to see a light on in any of the nearby cabins and homes. It’s during these times that loud youth games don’t disturb anyone and the muddy area along the waterfront is particularly fun to explore. The sanctuary serves as our meeting, worship, and movie-viewing space and we know we have a shower to clean off messy kids and a great place to have a bonfire if the weather is nice.
I’m actually writing this blog post from the kitchen table at the Retreat Center. After a quiet walk around the town last evening, I had a night to myself in this place of sanctuary and retreat. There’s not a soul around…at least anyone I’ve seen. I woke up and wrote in the journal. And I can now look out the window and see the water of Turnagain Arm. I have a cup of hot coffee. Life is good.
So whether you’re by yourself or chaperoning an inquisitive bunch of confirmands the Hope Retreat Center remains a jewel for the Alaska United Methodist Conference in this former gold-mining town. Through the door you’ll find a place of rest, community, and history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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