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2-year-old church in Alaskan interior sees teens flock to basketball camp

NENANA, Aka. (BP)–There’s not much to do in the interior Alaskan village of Nenana during the cold winters which begin in October and end as late as May. By mid-winter, the town’s 412 residents see only three to four hours of daylight each day, and with temperatures dipping as low as minus-60, teenagers from both native and Anglo backgrounds often retreat into the darkness of alcohol, drugs, spiritism and hopelessness.

That’s why Nenana Community Church again sponsored a Crossfire basketball camp this year, from Aug. 8-10, aimed at presenting rural teens with the opportunity not only to improve their basketball skills but also to encounter the hope-filled message of the gospel. The church was started two years ago by Virginia natives Russ and Alice Sharrock, who took Nehemiah Project church-planting courses at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

As an indoor winter sport, basketball has a tremendous appeal to youth in this river village located 55 miles from Fairbanks and 300 miles north of Anchorage. Last year, Crossfire Ministries from Asheville, N.C., came to Nenana at the Sharrocks’ invitation for the first time, and coach/evangelists Randy Shepherd and Jamie Johnson were encouraged both by the response and the needs of the youth in the Alaskan interior.

Sixty-one youth — nearly twice as many as last year — participated in this year’s camp, with 10 additional youth from Fairbanks attending the Saturday youth rally. Camp participants came from 11 different cities, towns and villages. Some flew from Barrow, 700 miles away on the Arctic Ocean. Others came by boat from the native village of Minto; still more drove 300-plus miles from Anchorage. Nenana teens walked in along the rough gravel streets, among log homes, drying salmon and sled dog lots.

Once at the camp, they encountered not just sports drills challenging them to reach their sports potential. Through Shepherd and Johnson’s testimonies, they heard the message that Jesus Christ can change lives, giving goals, hope and the necessary discipline to grow beyond the dangerous escapism of alcohol and drugs.

In the end, 41 professions of faith were made by sports campers and parents during the three-day event. But to Alice Sharrock, individual stories from the camp mean far more.

“A mother from another town whispered to me, ‘This is exciting!'” she recalled. “A young Eskimo man asked for prayer for his alcoholic father — and the father came to Christ at the final youth rally. And at the end of the event, the native family from Barrow presented Russ and the coaches with hand-painted strips of whale baleen, complete with Scripture verses — an honored gift from the Eskimo culture.”

Such acceptance into the community is important for the church, and the Sharrocks see the basketball camp as one more way they have been able to meet this goal. During the camp, locals volunteered to counsel, cook and clean up; local and Fairbanks businesses donated food for the daily meals as well as the parent/teen barbecue on Saturday; news of the event went out over radio stations and newspapers; and the Nenana Native Council offered use of their fax machine for incoming registrations.

However, the most overwhelming support came from the local school district. This year, not only was the church again allowed to hold the event in the school gymnasium, the superintendent of schools put at their disposal the newly constructed student living center, a dormitory-type structure built with federal grants to house students from remote villages attending Nenana High School. During the camp, the center was used to house teens from outside the Nenana area.

With the living center available, Nenana Community Church and Crossfire decided to bear the cost themselves and open the camp free of charge to anyone 9 to 18 years of age. The decision proved to be strategic. Despite limited time and advertising, registrations began to pour in.

“Russ’ vision when starting the church was to reach the scattered Alaska interior villages, hundreds of miles from the road system, with the gospel, with Nenana as the central hub,” Alice recounted. “Now God is bringing the village youth to us!”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GIRLS’ ACTION and HOOPS WITH HOPE.

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  • Clinton Wolf