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.

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.