An Open Letter In Support of Becoming a Mission District

12 February 2020

An open letter to our fellow Alaskan United Methodists:

Greetings in the name of our risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ,

In just a few short days, we will be gathering together for a specially called session of the Alaska Conference of the United Methodist Church to consider one item of business, shall we petition the General Conference to change our status from a Missionary Conference to a Mission District?

Our response to that question is YES.  Four years ago, Thomas Kemper, the General Secretary for the Board of Global Ministries made it clear that his intent was to cease having missionary annual conferences within the bounds of the United States. The year 2020 will be our final year in receiving funds from that General Board.  Moving forward, we are not large enough to become a stand-alone conference. We believe that a Mission District will provide us with a path forward that allows us to continue to organize for ministry in flexible and sustainable ways for years to come.

Some might say we should remain a conference because of our geographic distance from other conferences. Hawaii is a district of the California-Pacific Conference and it has worked well. Some might say we would lose our unique ability to raise funds from outside for our truly missional contexts like Unalaska, or Nome, or Willow, or Ketchikan. We believe this change will better position us to advocate for funding of these truly unique and mission congregations.

While it is difficult to imagine all the ramifications of such a change, we believe that this move is in the best interests of all Alaskan United Methodists for a sustainable way forward in mission and ministry.

We know that this is a time of great uncertainty in the United Methodist Church, but we also know that God has gone before us, and God also hems us in. We are not alone as we bravely make these next steps forward as together we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. May God’s grace be with us always.

Your fellow disciples,

the Rev. Andrew J. Bartel, Lead Pastor St John UMC Anchorage

the Rev. Emily Carroll, Pastor of Discipleship & Justice St John Anchorage

Lonnie Brooks, Lay Member to Annual Conference St John UMC Anchorage

Von Cawvey, Lay Member to Annual Conference St John UMC Anchorage

Tina Racy, Alternate Lay Member to Annual Conference St John UMC Anchorage

“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.