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Being Christ to those in need grows urgent in Alaska


Congregation steps up efforts amid pandemic fallout

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today


University Community Presbyterian Church | Fairbanks, Alaska | Approximately 80 members
Matthew 25 focus: Building congregational vitality by sharing God’s Word in the community through various loving actions.


Shelli and Annika Swanson pack hygiene kits during the COVID-19 response to help Fairbanks neighbors. University Community Presbyterian turned its building into a staging area for the assembly of the kits. Courtesy of University Community Presbyterian Church

Alaska’s breathtaking beauty can be deceiving. Just ask anyone who calls the last frontier home. Suicide rates, among the highest in the country, show no signs of abating anytime soon. According to Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, suicides increased by 29% from 2012 to 2017, up 13% from 2007 to 2011. While substance abuse exacerbates these statistics, there are other factors as well. Alaska’s unofficial nickname, “Land of the Midnight Sun,” where the sun disappears during the winter, often leads to a spike in seasonal affective disorder. Then there are the economic repercussions of a weakening oil industry. Add in Alaska’s already isolated lifestyle — the state has been self-isolating long before it became a national pastime this spring — and a slippery slope becomes slicker for its residents.

So, when University Community Presbyterian Church in Fairbanks decided at the start of 2020 to become a Matthew 25 church, responding to an invitation that the PC(USA) extended in April 2019, it just made sense.

“Matthew 25 is a guiding principle in ministry,” the Rev. Neill McKay said of the Scripture passages that frame the PC(USA) invitation, where Jesus reminds his followers that every time they welcome and help a stranger, they are in fact ministering to him. “If we live into Matthew 25, then everything should fall into place.”

Ministry has been falling into place for the 80-member congregation, which actively reaches out to its Fairbanks neighbors, teaming up with other organizations to put together care kits featuring toiletries and food. They have been embracing being a congregation full of vitality — vitality being one of the three focus areas of the Matthew 25 invitation — and have offered alternative ways to get the Word of Christ to more people by livestreaming worship before COVID-19 made it a must-have technology. The congregation has also been stepping up its efforts to eradicate systemic poverty — another Matthew 25 focus — helping the many homeless in the community, something that admittedly surprised McKay, a South Carolina transplant to the Alaskan tundra.

“I had no idea that homelessness would be a major part of the ministry here,” he said. But when McKay arrived in Fairbanks, he was greeted by Philip, who lived on the church porch “all four seasons.” When McKay asked how he could live out in minus 45-degree weather, Philip replied with grin, “I’m Eskimo. I know how to survive.” Survival skills or not, the congregation rented a “dry cabin” — a shelter without running water — for Philip.

University Community Presbyterian did this looking for nothing in return. Philip, McKay says, often worshiped in other churches. Still, the congregation recognized Philip as a brother in Christ who needed their assistance. Yet, McKay wonders who helped whom.

“He taught me much about Alaskan native ways,” McKay said wistfully. Philip passed away last year in “his home, with dignity and with his Bible on the nightstand.”

For McKay, Philip is a beautiful example of what it looks like for a congregation to live into Matthew 25. And while addressing the ongoing issues of hunger, homelessness and racial inequities can seem overwhelming, McKay and his congregation are mindful about helping one “Philip” at a time. Sadly, University Community Presbyterian realizes that there will be more “Philips” in their midst as the economic fallout of the pandemic takes hold of the state.

“Alaska was already a hard-hit state, but it is going to get harder. The oil industry was already struggling, and now this summer Alaska will not have a tourist season,” said McKay.

News reports confirm Alaska’s dire outlook. In late April, just over the course of three weeks, more than 36,000 Alaskans had filed new unemployment claims. McKay’s congregation, though, is ready, explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic “did not stop our spirit,” nor will it.

“We were a fully racially integrated church with a strong community outreach ministry already. We simply adapted, turning our building into a staging area where families came in to build hygiene kits for the local food bank,” said McKay. The members recently sewed more than 200 adult and child masks for the hygiene kits. The kits also included a prayer, underscoring the church’s tagline on its webpage: “Spread the Word, not the virus.”

The congregation also used the time of COVID sheltering in place as an opportunity to take a mental health first-aid class to help them recognize the signs of those struggling. Perhaps, though, one of the hardest challenges in rising up to be a Matthew 25 church amid a pandemic was making the decision when to close the church doors — especially to the five 12-step programs that meet in the building.

“We were the last church to close the meetings during the pandemic because in uncertain times, relapse is a matter of life and death,” said McKay. The church was also the first to reopen meetings, being mindful of necessary precautionary practices.

“When to close and when to open the church for these vital support meetings was not an easy decision,” said McKay. “But in the end, we wanted to support this community. This is the heart of the church. This is part of our Matthew 25 vision.”

In spring, just a few weeks into the pandemic, 33 churches said “yes” to becoming a Matthew 25 congregation. To date, 466 churches have accepted the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

‘A Year with Matthew 25’ resource available for second half of the year

Part 2 of the “A Year with Matthew for a Matthew 25 Church” is available and covers the six months between Trinity Sunday, June 7, and Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 22. Offered by the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, the resource includes:

  • Theological, pastoral and liturgical guidance for the seasons of the Christian year, with a focus on the Matthew 25 themes of vitality, racism and poverty.
  • Sermon prompts and music suggestions that highlight Christ’s call to  righteousness, justice and reconciliation found in Matthew’s Gospel.
  • A nine-week fall series called “Glimpses of God’s Realm,” which runs from Sept. 6 through Nov. 1, featuring Jesus’ teaching through parables about building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.

Download this resource here.

Learn more about Matthew 25.

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