“Opening the Basement Door” — Palmer UM Fellowship

Submitted by Pastor Erin Day, Palmer United Methodist Fellowship

The “front” door to Palmer United Methodist Fellowship in Palmer, Alaska.

Basements are a way of life in Southcentral Alaska: many houses here are built with a foundation well below the ground, as a means of adding square footage and a little extra stability for the earthquakes we experience on a regular basis.  Basements are functional and flexible: they can be places for storage, for entertainment, for extra living space, or for ordinary activities like doing the laundry.

Most Alaskans don’t expect a church to meet in a basement, but that’s just where Palmer United Methodist Fellowship makes its home. And like every other basement, “functional and flexible” are the perfect adjectives to describe our small-and-mighty community. 

Sixteen years have passed since our fellowship first began to gather together in the Matanuska Valley, in the shadow of craggy mountains and ringed by farmland. The face of the small city of Palmer has changed during this time: a growing population and economic shifts have also meant a rise in homelessness, increased need for social services, and more vulnerable children and families in our midst. This reality has demanded a faithful response. As a small congregation we knew we couldn’t do *everything*, but we were certain we could do *something*.

Over this past year, our small-and-mighty church took a good look at our community and ourselves, and asked, “What does our heart burn for? What is God calling us to do beyond our basement? Who is God asking us to love?”

A period of discernment and deep listening taught us that we want to see our community fully nourished in body and spirit, and that we want to make this vision a reality by loving God and neighbor through practical care and inclusive community. How are we doing this, you ask? By embracing our “functional and flexible” basement ethos, of course!

We discovered that there were homeless and in-transition students at two local elementary schools who relied heavily on the breakfasts and lunches provided by their school during the week, yet had no guarantee of food to eat on the weekend… so this spring we packed over 100 bags of non-perishable groceries for our homeless and in-transition elementary-aged neighbors to take with them on Friday afternoons, ensuring that they (and perhaps a sibling or two) had something to eat over the weekend. 

As school begins again this fall we will continue this important work, with the added potential of providing material support to a local bilingual school that currently does not have a school lunch program in place. A few perceptive parents noticed that some students consistently brought very little or nothing to eat for lunch, and decided that something had to be done! We are excited about the potential to partner with our neighbors to ensure that little bodies and hearts are nourished well.

We’ve also discovered that homeless families no longer have a place to wash their laundry, since the local laundromat foreclosed in March. What does a functional and flexible community do? We find resources and partnership! The building that houses our worship space just happens to include a local hair salon, whose generous owner has agreed to allow his salon laundry facilities to be open for use by homeless families. Our church now has the opportunity to open our doors to our neighbors in a brand new way, making our basement a space where community can be built as the laundry gets washed.

Palmer is a place where creativity thrives, and we are excited to see how God leads us to creatively respond to the evolving needs of our neighbors. If the past year is any indication, there is more practical care to offer, more inclusive community to build, more partnership to cultivate, and more love to sow into fertile ground. We will continue to be a functional and flexible cadre of Jesus-followers, living beyond our basement and into the abundant life that Jesus offers.

“Born of Mission” — Fairbanks First UMC

Submitted by Rev. Bob Jones, Fairbanks First UMC

Welcome to Fairbanks First UMC

The missionary work of the superintendent and members of the Visitation-Evangelism team of the Alaska Missionary Conference over 67 years ago birthed the current incarnation of a United Methodist Church in Fairbanks, known as First United Methodist today.

The first worship service was held at Carpenter’s Hall on March 23, 1952. Reverend A. E. Purviance arrived shortly thereafter, in June of 1952. The first hymnals, Sunday School supplies, church envelopes, communion set and altar-ware were supplied through the generosity of churches in Ketchikan, Seward, Anchorage and Juneau. In September 1952, First Methodist Church, known as “America’s Northernmost Methodist Church”, was officially organized with 80 members, and just two years later reported a total of 320 members.

Being born of missions, First UMC of Fairbanks has never wandered far from its roots as a base of missions. From the early years to today, it has provided a family away from family and a home away from home for the many military families that find duty calling them to Alaska’s Interior. Records indicate that as far back as 1959, the Women’s Society of Christian Service at First Methodist was working with the USO in welcoming service members.

In 1964, the Fairbanks church responded generously to those places and people in Alaska that were reeling from the devastating Good Friday earthquake.

In 1967, First Methodist again found itself the recipient of conference support after a flood devastated the city and the church building. Over 25 laypersons and pastors from Anchorage, Nome and Chugiak journeyed to the “Northernmost Church” to help clean up and rebuild.

Just 10 years later, FUMC helped to birth a new congregation, underwriting the first year’s budget of a new church in North Pole, the New Hope United Methodist Church.

In addition, the education wing at FUMC, built in 1959, started providing more than Sunday School lessons when the classrooms became living space for various mission groups and scouting groups visiting Alaska’s Interior. To this day, the classrooms double as housing for United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) during the summer, and as a safe space for homeless families during the school year.

Worship at Fairbanks First UMC.

The Bread Line, a local ministry that addresses the needs of the homeless throughout Fairbanks, started in the basement kitchen at FUMC but eventually outgrew that location. Now, they operate from a separate building and have expanded their ministry to include food service job training and community gardening.

FUMC remains a missionary base of operations. Today’s UMVIM teams work with the Fairbanks Rescue Mission each summer to construct a housing community for chronically homeless adults. Members from the current congregation have participated in missions as far away as Saipan, and as close as fixing meals in the church kitchen for homeless families spending the night.

Born of missions, Fairbanks First remains an active and vital outpost of United Methodist belief and service just south of the Arctic Circle.

“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


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