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“Helping Hands in a Tiny Church” — Moose Pass UMC

By Pastor Jim Doepken of Moose Pass UMC.

Front Door of Moose Pass UMC

There aren’t many more “Alaskan” sounding town names than “Moose Pass, Alaska.” The story is that this picture-perfect town 30 miles north of Seward got its name when a moose got in the way of a mail carrier’s dog team way back in the early 1900s. For years this tiny town along Trail Lake was a whistle-stop for the Alaska Railroad and every day during the summer you can still see and hear the trains as they pass on through at least twice a day.

While the trains no longer stop here, a little less than 200 people still call this place home. You can see their cabins all along a 20 mile stretch of the Seward Highway. In the summer, US Forest Service Employees work in the surrounding Chugach National Forest and guide services take outdoor enthusiasts on the Kenai River. There they search of the famous Kenai King Salmon or to go “combat fishing” for Red Salmon, elbow to elbow with other anglers.

But, in the winter, it’s a sleepy town where many of the locals play pickup games of hockey on Tern Lake or take their snowmachines (what Alaskans call snowmobiles) out on Trail Lake or into the mountains. The few businesses open in the winter are B&Bs catering to winter sports. Being such a small town, the local school often struggles to keep above the minimum number of students to remain open.

Upper Trail Lake from the back yard of Moose Pass UMC.

By all accounts, Moose Pass United Methodist Church is a tiny church. It may be a church in an amazingly beautiful setting, right on the shore of Upper Trail Lake, but it’s still tiny. The building itself is tiny and can hold about 40 when Easter or Christmas rolls around. But most Sundays there are less than ten people in worship. In fact, many Sundays there are less than five.

Being a tiny church in a tiny town does come with its problems. It is true that committees look pretty similar year after year. When there is something big to be done — a new water pump, decorating for Advent, helping a family in the community — the same people are often the ones who immediately jump in to help. And, on some of those thinner attendance days, the singing can be a little thin as well.

However, there are some plusses with a tiny church. There is a level of intimacy and comfort with each other that just can’t be duplicated in a larger congregation. Oftentimes worship is more like a small-group meeting and the sermon more like a dialogue than you can find in bigger environments. While some visitors might like the anonymity of slipping into the back of a crowded sanctuary, there’s no place to hide in our space, and everyone is welcomed as if they’ve been around forever. And when these congregants congregate, the depth of their relationship with each other and with the place they live is special. They know their neighbors and what they are going through. They rally around local concerns and projects. And they are willing to fight for the well-being of those who live nearby or who are just with us for a season.

In a tiny church people have to help out in ways they might never have anticipated before. Every hand is a helping hand when the pool of available helpers is so small and sometimes you’ll find surprising gifts along the way.

Most weeks this plays out both visibly and audibly in the music at our church. A couple of years ago our pianist moved out of the community. But we have a couple who figured they could step up and play on a regular basis. This is a couple who have raised some kids, weathered some storms in their lives, and have a lot of stories to tell.

And what’s so awesome about this husband and wife team is that they play together at the piano. She plays all of the right hand keys. And he plays the notes for the left hand. So, when it’s time for a hymn or for “The Doxology” they head on up to the front and sit down next to each other and play…together…each providing a helping hand to make the music happen in this small Alaskan church. Oftentimes one of their grandchildren comes along and “helps,” adding the occasional stray note to the tune.

It is exceptionally sweet and truly is a great blessing to the people gathered around. It is a holy thing.

Then there is what often happens at the close of the songs. We use the “new” 1989 United Methodist Hymnal for much of the music. There are no “Amens” in the hymnal anymore. But, if the hymn is in an easy enough key, the husband will look over the piano at the preacher, smile a mischievous smile, and will play out a loud “Amen” for the congregation to belt out. And, in that “Amen” there is great joy. There’s joy from the pianists and there’s joy from the congregants who love each other deeply and share their Alaskan lives with each other.

Some big churches may be gifted with praise bands and hundred-member choirs. The tiny church in Moose Pass is gifted by two helping hands (among others) who offer their gift of music to the church.

“Who Is My Neighbor?” — Christ First UMC

Written by Rev. Daniel Wilcox of Christ First UMC.

“Who is my neighbor?”

When Jesus is asked this question, he replies in a way that challenges the cultural, ethnic, and religious sensibilities of his listeners.  We call the story “The Good Samaritan,” emphasizing the role of the one who helped the man who had been beaten and abused. Jesus ended the story as he asked, “which of these three do you think was a neighbor?”  The response? “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus’ final response is, “Go and do likewise.”

Welcome to Christ First UMC in Wasilla, Alaska

This parable, told in Luke 10, should challenge every congregation to ask who in the neighborhood needs mercy.  This can be difficult in normal time, but after an earthquake, it becomes pretty clear: who are those in our neighborhood who are hurting?  Who has experienced loss of their home? Who is feeling frightened during aftershocks? What are people struggling with as they work to clean up, repair, assess and rebuild?  

After the Cook Inlet Earthquake of November 30, 2018, Christ First UMC in Wasilla started receiving calls:  I need help with a place to stay. I don’t have any firewood, and my oil stove is damaged.  Can I get help with food?

Many of our neighbors further out Knik-Goose Bay Road (KGB), and up through Settlers Bay, Big Lake, and even into Houston found themselves in remote places with little visibility and less services.  While Anchorage, Chugiak, and even Wasilla were seen on the news and on the internet. Some of our more rural locations did not get as much attention.

We have a Pastor’s Discretionary Fund to help people in times of emergency.  We help with rent, gas, food, or whatever people happen to need. With the increased calls after the earthquake, this fund was quickly getting depleted.  We had the need, but not the resources to fill the need.

And then at the beginning of February, we got a phone call.  The earthquake was just declared a federal disaster by FEMA, and they were looking for locations to set up Disaster Recovery Centers.  Soon a couple of dozen FEMA employees descended on Christ First UMC to inspect it for safety, for space availability, to check cell reception, and the other qualifications of our space.  While our financial resources helped a few of our neighbors, our greatest resource ended up being our building and our location.

The Disaster Recovery Center inside Christ First UMC. (Picture by of The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper)

Within a few days, FEMA had moved in – setting up the Disaster Recovery Center for Matanuska-Sustina Valley.  They occupied our entire Fellowship Hall, and the largest classroom. We had to make some adjustments. While our normally ministry schedule did not change, we had to shift locations a few times.  When the center was open on Sundays for the first few weeks, we enjoyed our regular greeters, plus the FEMA security guard, who welcomed everyone with a smile and helped several people on the ice.

But these minor adjustments were worth it!  As the months have gone on, FEMA has had over seven hundred clients come through this center.  These individuals, couples, or families have come to the church because they understood it as a location to get help.  Neighbors from near the church, and throughout the Mat-Su Borough have been by to register for grants, loans, and other assistance offered by FEMA.  

In the midst of hosting this service to the community, people have stopped and chatted.  One woman mentioned how much she appreciated being able to access the services without having to drive too far.  Another thanked the congregation for being willing to be there for our community. Others have expresses similar sentiment.

This has allowed the congregation to see our neighbors in a new way.  Not just the folks driving by, but the friends right here with us. Shaken, but not going anywhere.  Desiring mercy and looking for hope. As the focus of the earthquake recovery shifts from FEMA’s work to the long-term recovery and rebuild, the congregation will begin to ask the question again, “Who is My Neighbor?”

“Welcome to St John” — St John UMC

Written by Rev. Andy Bartel of St John UMC.

Welcome to St John. We’re so glad you’re here!” These are the words you will hear when you walk through one of the many front doors to the building that is home to the largest United Methodist Congregation in Alaska. This congregation began over 60 years ago because God had told a layman, Bob Smay, that he was supposed to plant a church. “You’re crazy!” they told him. “Nobody will ever come to a church way out there!

Out on the lawn at St John UMC

But with the help and support of the Rev. David Fison and others, they began inviting folks to worship on the hillside in the quonset hut with their little fellowship known as the “Church of the Beloved Disciple.” Bob invited a man by the name of John Cox to join their fellowship. John was resistant at first, wondering if his family would really be welcome in this new church. It was the 1960’s, and John had adopted a number of children, Alaska Native and African American. Being a mixed-race family, they were shunned from every other church they attempted to associate with in Anchorage. Bob assured him, “There will always be room for your family in this church, and for ANY family that might look differently.” (Incidentally, the church’s name change many years later to St John was in honor of John Cox.)

From our very beginnings, St John has been a welcoming and inclusive fellowship. We are white and we are black. We are Japanese and we are Filipino. We are Chinese and we are Taiwanese. We are Yupik, Inuit, Athabascan, Tsimshian, and so much more. We reflect the diversity that is the image of God.

For over a decade, St John has reached out to the LGBTQ+ community of Anchorage. We have over three dozen people who openly identify as LGBTQ+ among our fellowship and leadership and annually host the city-wide PRIDE worship.

We actively partner with our neighborhood elementary school providing adult mentors for at-risk children through KIDS HOPE, USA, as well as providing gloves, hats, coats, and food for families in need through the school.

We are engaged in mission and relationship building beyond our community. For years, St John has sent teams to South Africa, Cameroon, and Guatemala, building clean water wells, distributing washable feminine hygiene kits through the DAYS FOR GIRLS program, and building life-long sustaining relationships.

St John has put an emphasis on children’s and youth discipleship and have invested in a paid children’s director and youth director for decades. As a result, there are generally 60-70 youth present for youth group each Wednesday night, with and equal number of younger children participating in the various children’s programs. We’ve learned our children and youth are some of our best evangelists!

New Horizons Preschool is one of our longest running ministries, with hundreds of children making their first academic steps with us, and learning about God’s love for them. Many families have found their way to membership at St John through enrollment at New Horizons.

After the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in late 2018, Karluk Manor, a housing-first model for helping homeless persons who struggle with chronic alcoholism became uninhabitable. St John hosted the 50 residents for the first few days, with many community members pitching in to help feed, entertain, and let our guests know how welcome and loved they are. As you can see, St John doesn’t exist for the sake of ourselves. We believe that we only exist to be a blessing to God, by being a blessing to our neighborhood, our community, our conference, and our world, which John Wesley taught us, is our parish. “Welcome to St John. We’re so glad you’re here!”

Betty Sanchez Sopcak (l), her husband Daniel (bottom), and her uncle James Sugar (r) take shelter with other residents of Karluk Manor at St. John United Methodist Church after the Nov. 30 earthquake. Photo by Anne Hillman, courtesy of Alaska Public Media.

Revolving Doors — Kenai UMC

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.

The front entrance and door to Kenai United Methodist Church with our “God is Love” bench.

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.

Our altar cloth with hands ready to serve.

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 to serve.

“Hands and Feet” — North Star UMC in Nikiski

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.

Pastor Bailey Brawner at the front door of North Star UMC in Nikiski.

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.

Welcome to North Star UMC. Come experience the “hands and feet” of Christ.

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.

Knitting is another way we serve our community.

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.

“Away from it All” — The Hope Retreat Center

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.

Front door at the Hope Retreat Center

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.”

Four of the journals documenting visits over the last 30+ years.

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.

Sign at the front

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.

This is a view down Main Street in late March 2019

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.

Hope Retreat Center looking good in the sunshine.