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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Being Christ to those in need grows urgent in Alaska


Congregation steps up efforts amid pandemic fallout

January 14, 2021

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 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.

“I had no idea that homelessness would be a major part of the ministry here,” he said. But when McKay arrived in Fairbanks from South Carolina, 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 in 2019 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.

Before the pandemic, “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 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, with 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.”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Editor, Presbyterians Today

Today’s Focus:  Matthew 25 Ministry in Alaska

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jacqueline Boersema, Board of Pensions
Raymond Bonwell, Board of Pensions

Let us pray:

Lord, please nurture peace and unity in our world and help church leaders and members understand that strength and large size are not required to carry forth your Word in a world in need of knowing your grace, love and compassion. Amen.