“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.

Tsunami Hospitality

By Rev. Lisa Talbott, Homer UMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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