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Alaska town sees church at work

PETERSBURG, Alaska – You can’t get to Petersburg by accident.

It is equidistant between Juneau to the north and Ketchikan to the south, as well as being 750 miles south of Anchorage and 700 miles north of Seattle. It’s surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, and only accessible via air flight (twice a day) or ferry (once a week or so, a 12-hour ferry ride from either Ketchikan or Juneau).

And getting there is not the only part that’s hard.

“We’re also on very hard ground,” Pastor Lee Corrao told Baptist Press. “Probably only 6 percent of the people here attend church on any given Sunday.

Pastor Lee Corrao

“It takes persistence to reach people here. It takes being in the community, sharing the Gospel. It takes people opening up and sharing their faith.”

Corrao is pastor of Petersburg’s First Baptist Church, which sees about 100 people worship either onsite and online each Sunday. This is in a village of 3,000, most of whom rely on fishing for their livelihood.

It also takes prayer, Corrao said.

“We believe without prayer we’re not going to have revival in our land,” the pastor said. “And we need it, not just here. Our country has become so wicked, calling things good that are evil. We are very concerned.”

In addition to prayer, First Petersburg responds to its concern by getting involved with its community. 

May is a particularly busy month. The first Thursday of the month, which was National Day of Prayer (May 1), the church’s members set up outside of the Federal Building for free coffee and free prayer, with prayer request slips available for people to write their prayer requests on. A First Petersburg group prayed over each request repeatedly as the day went on – and others waited nearby to pray immediately with the requester if desired. This ministry has been going on for three years.

“Those who get directly involved in the various outreach opportunities and in personal evangelism are growing; they are enthusiastic and ready to do what God wants, and it’s catching,” Corrao said. “More and more people are getting involved!”

Two weeks after the National Day of Prayer is the three-day Little Norway Festival, which lasts two days longer in Petersburg than does the festival in Norway that celebrates the signing of Norway’s constitution.

First Petersburg members join with others to help set up and facilitate community events for Little Norway and for the town’s Fourth of July celebration.

Every Monday evening members participate in an interchurch evening outreach dinner at an apartment complex that a clothing giveaway and vouchers for other needs.

“We contribute to the Salvation Army’s food pantry and also a community non-profit for people living on the margins,” Corrao continued. A community-wide Celebrate Recovery group meets Thursday evenings at the church. 

Short-term mission teams, in recent years mostly from Alabama, help with a late summer VBS, community block party, men’s retreat and more.

First Petersburg allocates at least 10 percent of undesignated offerings for missions through the Cooperative Program.

“We believe the vision of the Alaska Baptist Resource Network is a valid one and important to invest in,” Corrao said. “Some of our people serve on boards in the state convention, so we volunteer our time as well. 

“We believe unity among the brethren achieves great things in the Kingdom of God,” he continued. “We are recognizing God’s heart for the Great Commission and are investing in that by supporting the Cooperative Program. We are also involved in other missions endeavors.”

Each Sunday First Petersburg members watch “CP Stories” videos, hosted on SBC.net, and then pray for the missionaries featured, which brings “a greater awareness” of what their investment in the Cooperative Program accomplishes, the pastor said. 

CP Stories show the local, national and global impact of Great Commission missions by those who spread the Gospel through the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and state conventions.

First Petersburg plans to build a parsonage because housing is both scarce and expensive, Corrao explained. He owns his own home – Petersburg is his wife’s hometown – but “we are trying to get everything in place before the church even starts looking for a pastor when I retire.

“When I first came here I asked the congregation, ‘If First Baptist Church ceased to exist, would anyone even notice?’ I believe today they would know. We’re making a difference,” the pastor said. “We’re helping people in their lives. Being a part of the faith community and celebrating that shows our heart to the community at large.”

Corrao said he has come to realize, “I pray for the congregation, whatever needs are coming up. I pray for my family. But I have not been a man with a heart hungry to know God more intimately.

“He has let me know I should seek Him with my whole heart and come to a place of full surrender of my life,” the pastor continued. “So now I get on my face, open my Bible and seek God. I pick up my guitar and worship a lot, and when I do so, I sense the presence of God.”

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.