Alaska Celebrates 125 Years of Ministry

By Stan Friedman

UNALAKLEET, AK (April 2, 2012) – This year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska celebrated the ministry that began 125 years ago in Unalakleet by a Swedish missionary.

That ministry continues today under the leadership of Curtis Ivanoff, who was born in this village of 700 people on the Bering Sea and is the first Alaska Native to serve as the region’s field director.

The meeting and multiple worship services were held March 21-25.

The Alaska Covenant churches date their beginning to 1887, when Swedish missionary Axel Karlson arrived in Unalakleet. Although Karlson was sent by the Swedish Covenant Church, the North American Covenant denomination assumed responsibility for the mission work in 1889 because the United States was situated closer to Alaska.

The past and present were connected during the recent meeting via a letter of congratulations from Bertil Svensson, mission director of the Covenant denomination in Sweden. In response, Ivanoff snapped a photo of the gathering that shows participants waving to Svensson as the letter was being read.

To Ivanoff’s surprise, Svensson posted the photo on the Swedish church’s website. For those visiting the website who cannot read Swedish, the first paragraph reads, “We’ve received a greeting from Unalakleet, Alaska, which last weekend celebrated the 125th anniversary since the Swedish missionaries’ arrival. Receive the traditional greeting “nayyaangaq”!

The dedication of Covenanters in Alaska is evident in their willingness to travel in often-harsh conditions to share the gospel. The same was true of the recent annual meeting, when the 47 delegates and others walked through whipping winds and snow that plunged temperatures to 20 degrees below zero.

The theme for the conference was “Witnesses to all the world,” inspired by Acts 1:8. President Gary Walter addressed the gathering and noted how Covenanters in Alaska had served faithfully throughout the generations.

“The people we have here are sold out for the mission,” says Ivanoff. “As president Walter said, we want to be found faithful. I felt like our faith was spurred on by the faith of those who went before us.”

Unalakleet was chosen as the annual meeting site before Ivanoff was nominated for his new position. The location of the meeting – his first as field director – made the gathering extra special, he said. “Plus I got to enjoy mom’s home cooking,” he added, laughing.

The job has come with a steep learning curve, Ivanoff says. “It’s like when you walk by the cockpit of a plane and you see all those controls and you think, ‘Man, what are all those things for?’ I feel like I’ve been learning the control panel of this job for the last seven months.”

The region has a commitment to develop leaders. Participants in the meeting said they are excited about the new Western Alaska Ministry Training that begins in April in different locations. It is designed in part on the model of Centro Hispano de Estudios Teologicos (CHET) located in Compton, California.

In other business, many of the discussions highlighted new initiatives:

  • The River Covenant Church pastored by Frank Alioto in Kenai/Soldotna was welcomed into the conference.
  • It was announced that Chugach Covenant Church in east Anchorage will hold its first preview service April 22. Planters are pastor Dan Krause and his wife, Kellie. The plant has been a dream of Community Covenant in Eagle River and First Covenant Church in Anchorage.
  • Community Covenant Church in Fairbanks is developing a relationship with the community in Shageluk, which does not have a church, and hopes to start a video teleconferencing worship service that would allow people to interact.
  • The Covenant Youth of Alaska (CYAK), which serves as the region’s department of youth and young adult ministries, launched its first mentoring camps during which they paired men with teen boys who don’t have a strong male presence in their lives. Participants included villagers from White Mountain, Elim, Shaktoolik, and Unalakleet. “Our young men in Alaska ages 14-29 face the highest rate of suicide and incarceration, so it is important that we as a church connect with them early when they are in their formational time of life,” said Byron Bruckner, CYAK executive director.

The recent accreditation of Alaska Christian College was highlighted. Paul Wilson, field director when the school was founded and current pastor at First Covenant in Oakland, California, spoke during two worship services.

KICY radio saved $1,500 in the first month due to the installation of new “green” technology, which is a device that turns down the AM carrier during times of silence.

Lon Swanson, assistant manager is traveling to villages to record SingsPirations and Get-Togethers. These are popular activities in the villages.

Individual churches reported on their various ministries, including members of the Shaktoolik Covenant Church making prayer rides “up and down the only road in the village praying for the village,” Community Covenant Church in Fairbanks starting initiatives to reach out to soldiers and families living on the two nearby military bases, and Hooper Bay running a teen center three days a week that attracts more than 150 youth.

Henry and Hilma Shavings, who have traveled for decades to different villages and led worship music, were selected to receive the Daniel Savetilik Award, given to a layperson for outstanding years of service.

A budget of $479,111 was approved. It is an increase over the current budget of $458,846.

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  1. Wow! 125 Years! That’s amazing! It’s interesting that our church has a longtime connection to ministry in Alaska. A native Alaskan, Constantine Uparazuck, stayed here in Lanyon, Iowa on his way to Chicago during the Number Nine Above court proceedings and again on his way back home to Nome. He died while here and is buried in the Lost Grove Cemetary. Our church was then known as the Lost Grove Swedish Mission Firends.

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