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Alaska pastor unites ethnic groups around common culture of Christ

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (BP)–In the land of extremes that is modern Alaska, the cultural diversity is often as rich as the reasons people have for winding up here. Nowhere is that more true than at Friendship Baptist Mission, where Anglos, native Alaskans (Eskimos and American Indians), Koreans, Hispanics, African Americans and others together celebrate the universal culture of Jesus Christ.

For Paul Wells, the missionary pastor of the congregation, the concept was something of a revelation — and, now, a defining point for the work of the church and his ministry.

“What I see God wanting to do here is he wants to have his church, one that’s not based on culture at all but is based on the Spirit of God,” said Wells, a North Carolina native who has served 17 years as a home missionary in Alaska. “It isn’t about culture, it’s about Christ.”

Wells and his wife, Sharon, are featured missionaries in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 5-12.

The Wellses, like most of the pastors in Alaska, came out of a sense of missionary calling from the southern United States, where snow itself is a rarity — not to mention mid-winter days consisting of just a few hours of twilight and temperatures that dip regularly to 40 degrees below zero.

His first call was to a small church near Palmer, Alaska, to the south, where they arrived to find a parsonage consisting of two sheds basically put together. But after much work and determination — bolstered by the assurance they were where God wanted them — the couple was able to lead the church and another small congregation nearby to the point where they could each call their own full-time pastor.

They began serving seven years ago at Friendship, a church known for many years for its work among native Alaskans and internationals. It was actually founded during the 1940s as a native mission, was disbanded after the tragic deaths of key leadership and was restarted during the 1960s by missionaries John and Lillian Isaacs. It was Lillian Isaacs who at that time began English-language and citizenship classes that became a model throughout the country.

One of their son’s friends said his mother didn’t speak English, so she started teaching her in the kitchen of the church parsonage — where the Wells family lives today.

“She taught her in the kitchen, and the next week when she showed up she had brought some friends,” Wells said. “Those people started coming to worship services too, and very quickly it became an international kind of work. And that’s pretty much where it is today.”

Today Friendship is actually something of a hybrid of multicultural ministry, meeting some needs of individual groups but not completely separating into separate congregations. While the 11 a.m. worship service in English is for everyone, a Korean-language service meets separately in a newly acquired building across the street. On Sunday evening, the service is led by the church’s native Alaskan pastor, Ray Huff.

Sunday school is offered jointly to help bring the congregation together, and it also addresses one of the problems of single-culture churches — making a place for those from mixed-culture families to feel at home.

“We want to create a place where all children can come and feel like they have a home,” Wells said.

Other efforts to break down cultural barriers include joint services at Easter and Thanksgiving.

“You pray in the language with which you are most comfortable, and you sing in the language you are most comfortable,” Wells said. “We’re all singing the same music, but we all sing a lot of different words. But it sounds good, it really does.”

The work among native Alaskans, which is the church’s heritage, also remains critical. Many have moved in to the city relatively recently from the various small villages far out into the wilderness, and their influence remains strong. The church has helped provide a cultural bridge.

The overall goal is to ensure that everyone feels they are equal partners in the work — and no single group becomes dominant.

“The time that you actually arrive is when native people understand that they are missionaries to white people, just as much as white people are missionaries to them,” Wells said. “Or when Hispanic people realize that I am here to tell a white man about Christ, not just Hispanic people.”

The concept is similar to the philosophy of indigenous missions that Wells has also advocated, in which he tries to help churches reach the point of becoming self-sustaining.

In his first two churches in Alaska, Wells said he knew it was time to leave when the churches were financially able to call their own pastor. And at Friendship, Wells has already let the congregation know that he will be the last North American Mission Board missionary to serve as their pastor. He already led them to officially constitute as a church last year and is now working on training leadership for the future.

“I feel like my calling is not to do the work of the church, but to enable the church to do the work that God has called them to do,” he said.

Sharon Wells has learned her own lessons about helping congregations help themselves. In their first pastorates, she said she was in leadership almost to a fault: contributing to a feeling that the members were not as qualified to do the work.

“It’s good to be involved, but when you try to do everything you don’t give other people a chance to be used by the Lord. You take away their blessing,” she said.

Today, although she still is active in the church and is the pianist, she feels part of her calling is through her work at the Fairbanks Pioneer Home, a local retirement center. She started out as a volunteer and now is on staff.

“My office is right in the center of the home, so I still have a lot of contact with residents,” she said. “I can get up and talk with residents at any time.”

Paul Wells also has extended his personal ministry beyond the church in another sense, through his involvement in weekend drag races at a local military airfield. His interest in clocking fast times in his supercharged 1993 Mustang Cobra is certainly personal, but the hobby has allowed him to get to know many individuals who would have never darkened the door of the church.

“These people are sometimes almost shocked when they find out I’m a minister,” Wells said. “They say, ‘That’s not a preacher’s car’ and ‘You’re not like any preacher I ever saw.’ It really opens the door for me to talk to them about Christ, and what I believe Christ has in store for them.”

It goes back to Wells’ view of how culture — whether based on race or any other factor — has too often defined the church to the point that outsiders do not see themselves fitting in.

In his own life, Wells said he never imagined himself being a pastor, but only because of a lot of the preconceived notions he had about preachers — not all of them positive. For many lost people today, Wells said, similar misconceptions often keep them from coming to faith in Christ.

“The church is about culture a lot, and they see it and we don’t,” he said. “When they see a guy who doesn’t exhibit the normal view of what a preacher is, it makes them stop and think, ‘Well maybe this is different,'” he said.

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  • James Dotson