Group ministers to Alaska Bush missionaries

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2003

KENAI - Missionaries stationed in the Alaska Bush face a difficult task, and with the added rigors of isolation and the lack of everyday conveniences the burnout rate can be high.

To combat that, a Kenai-based group has been building a missionary program that ministers to, well, ministers.

Arctic Barnabas Ministries is a nondenominational organization that provides moral support to evangelical Christian missionaries and pastors, and their families working in the Alaska Bush and rural areas of the Canadian Yukon and Russia.

They don't fund the missionaries' operations. They don't provide them with supplies, other than the occasional pizza and fresh produce. But they do provide them with something more valuable - moral support.

"It's a ministry of encouragement and peer counseling," said Garry Harris, director of administrative services for Arctic Barnabas Ministries. "Sometimes in some of these remote areas when nobody is of a like mind in terms of what you're doing and your ministering, and you don't have another friend to talk to, feelings of isolation are kind of prevalent."

That's where Arctic Barnabas Ministries comes in.

Harris and the nine other staff members form relationships with the missionaries and pastors and encourage them in their work.

"We do whatever we can think of to make them aware that somebody knows what they're going through and somebody's really interested in helping them stay in the field long-term," Harris said.

The organization was founded in May 2000 by Joel Caldwell, now its director. Caldwell used to be a pilot for Missionary Aviation Repair Center at Soldotna Municipal Airport. Through his work with the center, he made many stops in Bush villages and began forming relationships with the missionaries and pastors there.

He noticed how difficult it can be for these people to carry out their work in such isolated conditions. So he left the center and started Arctic Barnabas Ministries.

He also heard Native elders lament the fact that their churches weren't growing and people weren't getting the benefit of having a long-term minister, he said.

Since the ministry was formed, it has used borrowed planes to fly to remote areas. Arctic Barnabas staff members fly to remote communities and villages in areas like Bristol Bay, Naknek, Lake Clark, Port Alsworth and the Kuskokwim River.

Though the main point of the ministry is to offer comfort and company to missionaries, staff members try to bring something special to each family they visit.

"We find out what the family's favorite foods are. I've taken with me all of the elements for a great Chinese dinner and cooked them a dinner right there in their own kitchen," Caldwell said.

Once they make a stop, staff members help out in any way they can. Sometimes that means just being a good listener. Other times it means helping to fix a snowmachine, splitting cords of firewood or picking a family up and taking them back to Kenai for a short break from life in the Bush.

Last week, the organization acquired a piece of equipment that will make it much easier for them to fulfill their mission - a plane of their own. The Cessna Seneca III was bought in Boise, Idaho, and flown to Kenai last week.

It is scheduled to make its first missionary run Tuesday.

"It is incredible. It's exactly what we need," Caldwell said.

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