Spreading the Word around the state

Posted: Sunday, July 02, 2000

For John Bigelow, missionary and pastor of Juneau's Bethany Baptist Church, his job is its own reward.

``There's a reward in having your obedience to God,'' he said. ``It's a matter of obedience, a matter of obeying his call.''

Bigelow is one of 18 Baptist missionaries working in Alaska, all of whom recently visited Juneau for their annual conference. As missionaries, Bigelow said, their job is to start independent Baptist churches around the state and to ``find other people who need the Lord and need a church like this.''

In all their efforts, Bigelow and his contemporaries look to God -- and to the friendships they've formed around the state -- for strength.

``Wherever you've served, you have close friends,'' missionary Rhea Reeves said.

``In a lot of those places, we have standing invitations,'' missionary Charles Reeves, her husband, added.

The Reeves came to Alaska in 1963 and are currently working on the east side of Anchorage. Over the years they've helped build up churches in towns ranging from Sterling to Juneau.

Like many of their contemporaries, they've seen hard times. In the 1960s, their station wagon was occasionally pressed into service as a hearse, and they lost close friends to the dangers of Alaska. Once during their time in Soldotna, a deacon in their church died in an airplane crash. The Reeves still keep in touch with his family.

``That young man was such a character -- you always remember him,'' Charles said quietly.

``Not just because you ministered to him,'' Virgil Redmond added. Redmond, a retired missionary of emeritus status, remains active in the prison mission and is currently based in Sterling. He has been in Alaska since 1960.

``He ministered to us,'' Charles agreed.

Though they've worked in different places, the experiences of each ring true with the others. Redmond also has stories of tragedy and enduring friendship; he's comforted families after stillborn births and plane crashes -- and received phone calls from people he hasn't seen for 20 years, thanking him for his kindness and guidance.

``It's very rewarding just to know that bond goes on,'' Redmond said.

Bigelow, Juneau's pastor, agreed.

``When the power of Christ changes a life, it's exciting,'' Bigelow said. But, he added, ``the No. 1 (motivation for his work) isn't the change. It's because God's called us.''

Bigelow has spent 30 years as a missionary in Alaska. The traveling hasn't always been easy, he said. Bigelow and his wife, Judy, have five sons who often lived in small towns without many children their age.

``It's difficult for our kids, but they've enjoyed it,'' he said.

The Bigelows' children have even continued to spread the word. While at the University of Alaska Southeast, one of their sons connected with another student. The young man, who Bigelow said was struggling, came and talked with the pastor. The meeting led him to become very involved with the church. He took on a job as a Sunday school teacher for adults and now speaks passionately about the salvation he has found.

``He's a young man that we have met and then, as a result, we have been blessed and the church has been blessed,'' Bigelow said.

Such successes help make the difficulties of the job seem easier. Bigelow has struggled with the transitory nature of life in Alaska, which makes it hard to build a large church. In the course of one year the church lost about 30 people; state job rotations only worsen the problem. However, Bigelow added, of late the church has been able to maintain its congregation.

In smaller towns, the residents often fear the missionaries themselves will drift away and resist getting too close to them.

``It took sometimes months and sometimes years to be able to gain their confidence,'' Charles Reeves said.

After nine years in Soldotna, he was finally asked to serve on the school board, Charles recalled. Unfortunately, he had to turn down the position -- he and Rhea actually were leaving.

Other difficulties vary by location. In Juneau, it's sometimes hard to meet people, said Don Richter, Juneau's associate pastor.

``We're seeing that all across America today,'' Bigelow added. ``No one has porches they go out and sit on anymore.''

However, the common portrayal of missionaries as culture-destroying hasn't really affected work in Alaska.

``You (sometimes) find it quite difficult in trying to reach out to people because they figure you're going to buttonhole them and push them in a corner,'' Charles Reeves said. ``But that's about it.''

``It's not the stereotypical missionary,'' Bigelow added.

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