KENAI, Alaska -- Alaska is by far the largest state in the nation and much of it is land where no one can live. There are nearly 225 remote villages in the state, accessible only by boat or plane.
Although missionaries and church planters first traveled to Alaska in the late 1800s, few indigenous evangelical churches exist today. As a result, international Christian organizations continue to send missionaries to reach people in these remote areas.
Unfortunately, these missionaries are often unprepared, under-supported and simply overwhelmed by the challenges of living in the Alaskan bush.
"Coming to Alaska's like coming to a foreign country. It takes two days of travel to get out to the villages and you get there and they keep their old language," said Michael Hassemer, with Arctic Barnabas Ministries.
Helping Those Who Come to Share the Gospel
Arctic Barnabas is a ministry that cares for those who come to share the Gospel. Michael and his wife, Ranada, have been working for the organization since 2008.
"Our mission in two words is 'strengthen' and 'encourage.' We want to strengthen and encourage those pastors and missionaries and ministry families that are out in remote villages so that they can be effective disciplers and evangelists on the front lines," said Hassemer.
Arctic Barnabas offers vital support and encouragement and has the means to reach missionaries even in the most remote villages.
"Our biggest goal is to simply come along side them, strengthen them, encourage them, have fellowship with them -- but sometimes our foot in the door is a project," said Hassemer.
In one of the villages an indigenous pastor was recently scheduled to start, but he said he wouldn't move out to the village until there had been some much-needed renovations done on the parsonage.
Faced with the delay, church elders called Arctic Barnabas. A team worked with elders to identify the repairs needed, addressing mold, poor insulation and other issues often caused by the extreme weather in the bush.
"How do you focus on doing ministry when living conditions are your primary focus? You can't," Hassemer said.
Ed Dehnert and his wife, Barb, moved to Bethel, Alaska four years ago to work with the Alaska Bible Seminary
Appreciating the Little Things
After visiting since 2006, they thought they understood the native culture. However, living there is a bigger challenge than expected.
"My board of directors is all Yupik, my board meetings are in Yupik and then they shift to English when they need information from me or we're in a dialogue back and forth but their discussion is in Yupik," said Ed.
"For me, aside from missing my family, its the inability sometimes to get what I need because I can't just drive down the road to get something," Barb added.
For the Dehnerts, encouragement from Arctic Barnabas, whether it's a card or even a surprise delivery, matters most.
"The watermelon story is special. It was just kind of an aside that we had made a comment to Mike one day, how much we missed that."
In Bethel a watermelon can cost $50, a price the Dehnerts couldn't justify. Michael's next visit answered the need.
"It just shows that when we're talking and sharing and whatever it might be, they're listening," said Ed.
Arctic Barnabas also sends out a women's magazine, a newsletter and hosts retreats for the missionary families.
Offering Respite from 24/7 Ministry
Michael and Ranada recently went even further -- building a home with enough space for missionary families to stay, whether they're recovering from a medical procedure or just needing to rest and re-energize.
"It's just a place where when they come out of the bush, they can find a place to stay and get a little respite from their 24/7 ministry," said Hassemer.
Through these divine connections, pastors and families not only survive, but thrive in Alsaska's remote villages -- and as they thrive, so does the church.