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!”
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!”