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“12 Doors and More” — Valley Interfaith Action (VIA)

Submitted by Kelly Marciales (Executive Director, Valley Interfaith Action)

Two of the doors for Valley Interfaith Action

Valley Interfaith Action (VIA) has 12 “doors” in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. We are Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic congregations who utilize a community organizing model to address the quality-of-life issues which affect residents in the Mat-Su. We were originally Valley Christian Conference, a collection of churches who birthed new nonprofit agencies to fill service gaps. Out of Valley Christian Conference sprung Valley Residential Services which provides low-income housing and Day Break which provides mental health services, among many other nonprofits over twenty years. In 2015, Valley Christian Conference relaunched under a new vision and mission of faith-based community organizing to develop and empower leaders to advocate on their own behalf. Since launching as VIA, the organization has developed six local organizing ministry teams from Palmer to Willow and held public meetings yielding notable improvements to the lives of Mat-Su residents. 

VIA is currently working with Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together (AFACT) to establish an organization on the Kenai Peninsula which would broaden our connection of congregations who are engaged in this transformational outreach work. VIA leaders are excited for this expansion.

Currently Christ First UMC in Wasilla is working with VIA’s organizer, Gretchen Clayton, to establish VIA’s seventh local organizing ministry team. Gretchen has worked alongside Rev. Daniel Wilcox to do dozens of one-to-one visits with families, hear their concerns and hopes for the community, and engage the faith-based community organizing model based on their desire to build stronger relationships between one another and the between the church and their neighbors.

Clockwise from top-left: 1) Staff and leaders at Friday Fling 2). Pastor Joe- D from Willow UMC leading a faith reflection at a public meeting at Trinity Litheran Church on the budget vetoes. 3.) Caesar Marciales, pastor of Mesa Sagrada ELCA, testifies at Palmer City Council to support an ordinance 4.) Lisa Smayda of St. Michael’s works with a resident of the Palmer Pioneer Home to write a letter to their legislator

When The Doors Open to the Whole Community: Willow UMC

Written by Pastors Christina and Joe-d DowlingSoka.

Front Doors of WIllow UMC

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.   

Willow Community Food Pantry

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.

Selection of food at the Food Pantry

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

Box 182

Willow, AK  99688

907-495-6638

Pastors Christina and Joe-d DowlingSoka,  423-202-5143

Ola Williams, Willow Community Food Pantry Director  907-414-7555

“Finding Newness of Life Through Our Doors” — Ola Toe Fuataina UM Samoan Fellowship

Written by Pastor Faatafa Fulumua of Ola Toe Fuataina United Methodist Samoan Fellowship.

Slideshow from Ola Toe Fuataina United Methodist Samoan Fellowship.

“Ola Toe Fuataina” means “Newness Life” or the “New Beginning.” This congregation was recognized in the Alaska Conference on June 3, 2016, when the East Anchorage United Methodist discontinued. When it started it had around 70 members, and around 25 constituent members and what made it unique is that its Worship Service, Sunday School, and the Youth ministry are all conducted in the Samoan language.

It is truly amazing what God was able to do through this group of believers. People came from different places, villages, and grew up in different denominations; came together to build the body of God’s family. As this body of Christ, they visited at the hospitals, nursing homes, and Church families when members were unable to attend services. Together they strengthened and supported them physically, mentally and especially spiritually. 

Presently Ola Toe Fuataina UM Samoan Fellowship is worshipping at the St Christopher Church in Anchorage on Sunday morning. But youth meet on Thursday evening and choir practice — so important in our culture — is on Saturday evenings. And through these various services our church is welcoming all new members to grow together in spirit. We plant the joy and God will make them grow in spirit.

Our Sunday School and Youth are for everybody. All are invited to attend and participate in our Sunday School and the Youth activities. We pray, study and learn the Bible, memorize memory verses from the Bible, practice songs and evangelism for special Sundays, and special gatherings for the First Samoan UMC or other Churches. The Youth adopted the highway on Fireweed and the 15th Avenue and are witnessing to the community in how they have partnered to keep our city clean. But, at heart, our service and study help us on in our spiritual goal of being rooted in faith and love for each other.

One of our biggest events is our Christmas Ball, which occurs once a year during December. This is the day of the year we celebrate with all our families and friends. We always look forward to this event, thankful for the achievements of the church over the past year and looking ahead to the good work we’ll be doing in the year to come. We play games, fellowship, share meals, dance and sing songs together. The fun of the Christmas Ball creates good relationships with others.     

“Opening The Doors Together”–AK Child and Family

Contributed by Anne Dennis-Choi, President & CEO & Kelli Williams, Director of Spiritual Life of AK Child & Family, A UMW National Mission Institution in the Alaska United Methodist Conference

The front doors of AK Child & Family

AK Child & Family counts on the great cloud of witnesses that surround, support and uplift our students, families, staff and mission! Our work would not be possible without the prayers, gifts, service and financial contributions of our greater community. 

Throughout the history of AK Child & Family, caring and the power of community has been front and center. Our mission was originally founded as the Jesse Lee Home in 1890 in Unalaska to care for and provide a home to children. In 1925, the Home moved to Seward until the 1964 earthquake caused another move due to extensive damage and cost prohibitive repairs. Through the power of community, determination and social responsibility, the United Methodist Women purchased 25 acres in south Anchorage to relocate the facility. Fast forward to 1970 when the directors of the Jesse Lee Home, the Lutheran Youth Center and the Anchorage Christian Children’s Home got together to problem solve challenges they were all facing and it was agreed that they could accomplish more together than apart. Building upon the vision of shared resources and the power of community, they merged missions to become Alaska Children’s Services. To this day, we are an ecumenical mission of the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Disciples of Christ and American Baptist Churches USA. In 2013, our agency renamed to become AK Child & Family.  Our founders and those who came before us understood that when a community comes together around something they deeply care about it creates synergy and action. This still holds true today as we offer a full continuum of behavioral health services from Residential, to Home-based to Therapeutic Foster Care.

Every single day we witness how the power of community continues to shape and influence individuals, families, our agency, and our world. The individuals and families served at AK Child & Family are encouraged to discover what they most care about and to identify steps to achieve those goals. For our youth this may mean setting a long term goal like finishing high school or it could mean healing from complex childhood trauma. Or learning safe ways to express emotions rather than through self harming or suicidal ideation. For most it also means recognition of their worth as a human being and improved self esteem. For our families it may mean working to improve communication, conflict resolution skills or strengthening family bonds. Each youth and family brings their own unique story and wishes for treatment but regardless of what each brings to the table, the power of community is a vital piece in achieving their dreams. Caring and support from the community helps those dreams come true. 

Imagine being a young person, away from your family, friends and home; troubled, hurting and lost; abused or neglected; traumatized, forgotten or shunned, and you are offered hope through countless gifts of kindness that come from supporters of the AK Child & Family community. 

You feel God’s warmth and love when you receive a homemade blanket or quilt full of goodies on your first day in treatment. You see that God’s love can come from afar, when a mission team from another state helps build a chapel for you to pray in. Your prayers are answered when hundreds of voices are lifted heavenward through our e-mail prayer chain. You feel God’s blessings when a congregation raises generous amounts of money to support our Spiritual Life Program that helps you hear God’s call. You know that God is good when you smell warm chocolate chip cookies that are given to you before being read a story while lying in the sunshine.

All of these things are possible because caring, generous, willing people have created a caring community that insures that AK Child & Family has an abundant flow of prayers, gifts, help, and financial resources to share God’s Good News. A community that works tirelessly to let the students who come to us know that they are precious, worthy, loved and that they are never alone. They are surrounded by an entire village cheering them onward and upward.

When a community discovers what it cares about and galvanizes around it, change is possible. We’re seeing that with Mental Health Awareness campaigns that help reduce the stigma of mental health issues. We’re watching this as the movement towards trauma informed care best practices continues to unfold. We’re seeing church denominations come together to address physical safety in places of worship. We’ve seen causes gain momentum through social media such as Go Blue Day, when thousands of people wear blue to show their support for children and awareness of child abuse prevention. 

Sometimes in the non-profit behavioral health services world that AK Child & Family is a part of, we are on occasion left wondering what the community at large cares about particularly when facing funding challenges. In Alaska, despite an increased demand for services, we’re gearing up for a 5% reduction in Medicaid rates and a decrease in behavioral health grants. Hearing about cuts is disheartening. It requires us to reconnect to the power of community and to recommit to what we all care about. 

We are reminded that all of us are the advocates, all of us are called upon to be the voice for those who haven’t yet found their voices, all of us are the agents for change and all of us have the power to positively influence our community. 

Every act of caring; every act of community matters. We are stronger together. Together we can meet the needs of Alaska’s children and families; one child, one family at a time. Thank you to all of our supporters who advocate, donate and volunteer. We need you. Our children and families need you. Every single one of you makes a difference in sharing God’s abundant love and grace.

Anne Dennis-Choi, President & CEO

Kelli Williams, Director of Spiritual Life

New Doors in an Old Space: Every Nation UMC

Written by Pastor Murray Crookes of Every Nation UMC.

Going through the front doors of Every Nation UMC.

Every Nation UMC is the new church start that is being planted in Anchorage, nestled in between Muldoon and Nunaka Valley neighborhoods on the East side of town. It’s a beautiful area, across the street from Chester Valley Elementary School in a building that is most commonly associated with the UMC Alaska Conference office, Conference Archives, and formerly East Anchorage UMC. A few historical connections exist with the building and new ones are being forged. For example, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts meet regularly, with Scout leaders who themselves were scouts there as children. Another intergenerational use of the building is as a voting center, when all kinds of wonderful people come around, with their bicycles, pets and children to cast votes. The volunteers that facilitate the voting include one family in their third generation. When meeting with neighbors in the streets, it is clear that much love is shared with the families and the historical memory of the United Methodist Church. Chester Valley Elementary using the parking lot as a safe location for the students in case of fires, earthquakes or other emergency is just one example of that historic trust. 

And yet something new is being born. New organizations have started meeting at the building including a new Girl Scout troop and Free Mom Hugs, which is the local chapter of a movement of parents that support LGBTQ+ children. Every Tuesday since September 18th, people are being fed literally and spiritually at the community meal known as The New Journey. This ministry starts at 6:00 P.M, includes a free meal, and is open to all people, regardless of political or religious affiliation and ability or socioeconomic status. In fact, some of the people who attend include diverse ecumenical pastors and church leaders. As the need develops, there is hope that this feeding ministry will develop ministry partners and expand to other churches, neighborhoods and even into the streets. The most shocking thing so far about this ministry with regular attendance between 12 and 20 people is that, even though the food is quite good, what is attracting new people is primarily the Bible study, which can get very exciting. We sing hymns in multiple languages, depending on who is present and as more musicians attend, opportunity is being created for lively worship and praise.

Since Palm Sunday, weekly traditional worship services have begun meeting at 9:00 A.M. The first two services, including Easter, were shared with Ola Toe Fuataina UM Samoan Fellowship and were truly magnificent. Since then, Sunday services have had fewer regular attendees, but as the ministry is still in its infancy, there is much hope that the intimate services will grow into the dream of multi-ethnic worship that is driven by the diverse families that find hope at Every Nation UMC. A few families are starting to attend regularly, including some folks that have been encountered walking the streets or playing at the Chester Valley Elementary playground. Regularly singing hymns in diverse languages in both services will soon lead to the creation of a song book that anyone could use to sing along with unique expressions of praise not found together anywhere else. In such a diverse neighborhood, there is hope that new expressions of faith can be discovered with worship that is grounded in spirit and in truth, free from colonial expectations of language, culture, or cadence. The freedom to worship this way was the primary motivation to share this information near July 4th, when the United States declared its intention to rid itself from colonial rule. At Every Nation UMC, engagement with such complex themes are encouraged, discussed and practiced in and outside of the building, becoming a part of our identity as a faith community. 

This week, Every Nation UMC will begin its second year of official church planting. As more connections are made in and outside of the immediate community, the vision of what can be will certainly reveal the beauty and hope of God’s kingdom that we are building together.

Finding Community Through the Back Door: Nome Community UMC

Written by Pastor Charles Brower of Community UMC of Nome, Alaska

The “front door” of Community UMC is where the playground is.

Every day, most everyone is actively engaged in all kinds of crowds: work crowds, school crowd, the crowds associated with our children’s activities,  and there is the church crowd. It can be easy to confuse our associations within these crowds with the experience of authentic community. Crowds are drawn together by activities, rather than to seek accountability and deeper meaning in our lives. Every crowd is defined by activities that draw us together.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10: 24-25 New International Version)

Nome’s Community United Methodist Church is not one’s usual United Methodist Church. To start, most congregants enter our church using the back door, then proceed through our fellowship hall to enter the sanctuary. On a good Sunday some two-dozen loving, hardy folks gather as a caring community to worship our creator, our loving God, and encourage one another to love and support one another.

We are THE COMMUNITY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH  for Nome. Our mission happens mostly outside our walls. In our town of some three thousand seven hundred hardy souls, our church stands tall in the care and love we show to Nome and the sixteen other communities in the Norton Sound Region.  Our United Methodist Women operate the only Thrift Store in our region – providing clothing and sundry other items. The newborn babies of our region are welcomed into our community with a layette consisting of clothes, diapers, a blanket, and a toy. Some of our folks are seen daily picking litter off the streets and roads around Nome. We share worship experiences within the Quyana Care Center, an assisted living facility serving the Norton Sound Region.

The “back door” is where people come in and then go out to the world in service.

The Nome Community Center (motto: Serving elders, families, and youth since 1910), a non-profit organization, housed and loosely associated with our church, provide other community services: boys and girls club; XYZ elder meals, transportation, and healthy programs; food bank, homeless shelter during the cold months; youth court; short term training programs in growing healthy families; and a temporary home for children separated from family.

What is the church supposed to look like? It is small groups of people seeking to put the needs of others ahead of their own. They are servants and ministers to one another watching out for one another, caring for one another and encouraging one another. In Nome’s Community United Methodist Church you get to know everyone. You can connect with people to help build one another up and join in an uncommon community for the sake of connecting diverse people to a lifestyle devoted to following our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and loving all our neighbors!