Abandoned Churches in Alaska
Home Again to Adventist Ministry
Many buildings in North America mission field sat empty for decades; still hundreds of un-entered villages
BY ANSEL OLIVER, Assistant Director for News, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
The Seventh-day Adventist church buildings in the Arctic region of Alaska are staffed again following years, even decades, of abandonment.
The seven villages where the denomination sent workers and built churches were left after funding froze for replacement ministerial volunteers. Those churches in recent years have been re-staffed one by one. In September, the last of those previously entered villages was entered again when a husband and wife volunteer duo drove from their home in central Alaska to the village of Shungnak to resume Adventist outreach work there.
Though church leaders are pleased to resume work in those areas, there are still more than 220 villages without any Adventist ministry. Most are isolated towns with populations ranging from 200 to 1,000 people.
REMOTE SANCTUARY: This Adventist Church in Shungnak, Alaska, sat empty for at least two decades. In September, two volunteers moved here to restart Adventist ministry in the village. Seven of the denomination's Arctic region churches are functioning again following a halt on ministry after funding dwindled beginning in the 1980s. [photo courtesy Alaska Conference]
"This is a very neglected area of [North America] that not many people know about, but it's a mission field right here," said Ken Crawford, president of the church's Anchorage-based Alaska Conference.
Crawford himself served in the 1970s as a minister in Alaska's Arctic region. The Arctic Circle is a line on the globe about 66 degrees latitude north. The location in the upper northern atmosphere means there is little light in the winter, which health experts say contributes to the state's high percentage of its citizens turning to alcohol, drugs or even suicide to deal with the darkness and isolation. There's also the cold.
"In the winter if it gets up to zero degrees [Fahrenheit] we're pretty warm and toasty," said Warren Downs, a lay Adventist pastor in Selawik, a village of about 850 people just north of the Arctic Circle.
Downs, a 39-year-old computer programmer, moved his family in 2006 from the state's major metropolitan area of Anchorage to minister in Selawik. They live in the parsonage connected to the 20- by 20-foot church, which sat empty for more than 20 years.
Selawik has its ups and downs like any Alaskan village, and the tightly knit community hasn't been without its own tragedies. Downs said there were once two suicides and an alcohol poisoning within a six-week period.
Ministering there has been a struggle -- church attendance is low, public and door-to-door evangelism isn't successful and kids programs were canceled because of rowdy behavior. Still, Downs makes his presence known and people know he and his family are available. He helps with the village food bank and kids will often knock on his door for a family visit.
Church is "low key," Downs said, with attendees wearing casual clothes and many preferring country gospel music. Church attendance was strong his first few weeks in town. "It was maybe 15, but after the novelty of us as new arrivals [wore off], attendance is down to about four, sometimes five," he said.
Downs said the future success of the congregation will hinge on locals taking ownership, not just people like him cycling through. But it's been tough to develop leaders, he said.
The Adventist Church's Arctic village outreach began in the 1930s but fizzled out following the restructuring of church administration several decades ago. The church had previously classified the state as mission territory, but in 1982 the region was reorganized as a conference -- a region of congregations that is self-supporting, both financially and leadership-wise.
Crawford, the current conference president, said funding for the Arctic outreach soon froze after the reorganization and the small churches there have mostly sat empty since. He said the conference is now in the process of re-classifying the Arctic as a mission territory again.
When assessing interested volunteers who contact his office, Crawford says he prefers married couples -- the native population is very family oriented, he says.
Recently married Anthony and Airen Sherman left their home Delta Junction in central Alsaka to reopen the church and its accompanying parsonage in Shungnak. The building needs repairs but neighbors are helping provide insulation so they can stay through the winter.
Anthony Sherman, 24, is still working on certification to become a substance abuse counselor. He left the church in his teens but rejoined after helping with a weeklong children's mission program in Shungnak three years ago. "That impacted me a lot," he said.
Three years later he has returned, this time to work fulltime.
"There are a lot of villages where we don't have people willing to go to," Sherman said. "Someone needs to be doing this."