I’ve been asked approximately a hundred times this week: “How was Alaska?” I don’t know why, but every time I try to answer, I get a lump in my throat. I guess writing about it is my best bet, so here goes:
Alaska is a place of extremes: extreme terrain, extreme brokenness, extreme weather, extreme people, extreme lostness, extreme love, and extreme possibility. When I heard that where we were going was the least evangelized place in the nation, many things went through my mind. I imagined stories from our friends who are church-planting in Brooklyn, the look of hatred on people’s faces when we went door-to-door in Spokane, the man cursing my husband at the top of his lungs at a market in the French Quarter. I braced myself for extreme rejection and the heaviness that accompanies the dark places in our country.
But that’s not what I found.
You see, most places in our country have experienced a movement of Christianity, and that movement has started to pass. Some would even say the Bible Belt is “post-Christian.” But Alaska isn’t like that. When you look around, there are a few churches sprinkled here and there, but overwhelmingly the church is just absent. It never came to have the chance to leave. Because of this, I expected extreme rejection. While our trip focused on service, I did notice this: The people of Alaska (generally speaking) are NICE! Many were very appreciative of what we were doing, and one even said, “Forget our differences; I’m just glad you guys are here sharing the love of Christ.”
Now THAT is not what I expected.
While most of our time was in Anchorage, we spent one of our nights doing ministry in a laundry-mat in Girdwood. While there, I had one of the most horrific migraines that I’ve had in years. I was almost an hour away from where I was staying and had no access to a vehicle. A complete stranger offered his van, and being desperate, we took it. When we got in, it was not just his van– it had a mattress and all of his stuff in it. I was overwhelmed that the Lord would provide through His people in such a way that a man would offer all he owned to me just because I was sick. This, for me, spoke volumes about the heart of the people there.
But it wasn’t all roses, and I don’t want to paint any false pictures. There is extreme lostness and extreme spiritual warfare there, too. When we arrived, we learned that the head church planter had unexpectedly resigned, leaving Jason (the Girdwood planter) and a team of interns with a full plate, two mission teams, and one week until Easter. The leadership there was under tremendous stress, and it was incredible to see them work together to stay the course and encourage their congregations to continue in what God had called them to do. With everything that happened, our entire agenda completely changed. We learned that we would not be doing anything that we planned to do. (Gotta love mission trip flexibility!:)
While we didn’t expect service projects, doing them gave us a truthful look at the lostness of the city. We did a block party in the most diverse neighborhood in the entire country and also did some street clean-up. This was a tense time as our team members encountered lots of homeless people and saw firsthand the devastation of particular lifestyles. Likewise, some of our team got the chance to serve lunch to a center with AIDS patients, seeing again the brokenness and destruction of drug addiction and lifestyle choices. Even our donuts ministry (we took donuts to local businesses to invite them to church) provided us with a chance to truly SEE the city. I don’t think it’s an accident that the first coffee shop that we went to was next door to a Buddhist society.
In all of this, we did not get to have many Gospel conversations, but we did get to invite many people to True North Church, and being in those places allowed us to pray and know more specifically HOW to pray for the people and the church.
On our final day there, Danny and I rode with Jason to Wasilla to discuss how he believed the Lord desired to build a church there. As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about how much Wasilla reminded me of home, except my city is called “The City of Churches.” It broke my heart to hear that members of his congregation had to drive an hour just to attend a church service. In fact, later that afternoon, someone from the church said, “I’d love for someone to plant a church in Wasilla! I have coworkers who would LOVE to go to church but can’t drive all the way to Anchorage!”
And that’s where I lost a piece of my heart. You see, many people dismiss Alaska. They imagine this frigid ice-land with some kind of cross between igloos and Sarah Palin, and neither could be farther from the truth. The people of Alaska are as diverse and transient as those of New Orleans. Out of all the people we met throughout the week, only a few were actually from Alaska. That transience makes it hard to plant a stable church but likewise opens the door to many nations. In fact, planting in Alaska provides access to 68 unreached people groups.
Did you hear me? SIXTY EIGHT UNREACHED PEOPLE GROUPS, and that isn’t counting the melting pot of travelers who come to visit and decide to call Alaska home.
Since I’ve returned to Arkansas, I’ve pondered many things about our trip, from the people of True North Church to the need for people to hear the Gospel. I wonder if we could’ve done more? I wonder how God will continue to use the core group. I wonder how the church in Anchorage will move forward after the grief of losing their pastor? I wonder who will plant in Wasilla and bring Light to it?
And then my mind wanders from the crystal blue waters of the inlet to the heights of the majestic mountains, and the picture dissolves into a white field and Jesus calls out:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” Luke 10:2