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Couple takes up Alaskan challenge: ‘to reach us, live and die with us’

NENANA, Aka. (BP)–When Russ and Alice Sharrock first came from Toccoa, Ga., to Nenana, Alaska, in 1998 to assist with a Christian radio station, they were deeply burdened by the need for a new church — a church that would be vitally involved in the sometimes troubled local life of this Alaskan interior river village. Naysayers both locally and in the lower 48 states predicted it would take five long years to establish a church in such a hardened mission field, Alice recounts now, two years later. Despite such warnings, and armed with the support of Baptists in Virginia and Missouri, as well as a survey team from Grace Baptist Church in Toccoa, Ga., the Sharrocks returned in 2000 as Nehemiah Project church planters and Nenana Community Church was born.

“We had a church within four weeks of stepping off the plane,” Alice said. “At our first ‘get-acquainted’ meeting in the Civic Center — complete with a catered meal — we had over 120 people from this village of 412 total population. The youth on the Grace-to-Alaska Team [from the Toccoa church] had two very powerful dramas, a songwriter/musician had come along, and [Toccoa] pastor Joel Bradberry offered to give a strong gospel message.” Unable to continue using the Civic Center for worship, they held services at the Sharrocks’ tiny one-room cabin with a core group of 20.

“We now have 30-45 people each Sunday crammed into the great room of our larger log cabin,” Alice said. “Visitors are coming all the time. And we have a vital youth group of 15-20 teens from Nenana as well as from the new Student Living Center.”

Immediately before coming to Nenana, the Sharrocks studied at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the Nehemiah Project for domestic church planting. Their church planting professor at Midwestern, Carrol Fowler, regards the type of work the Sharrocks are doing as crucial to fulfilling the Great Commission. “If we’re going to reach the world, we have to be concerned about both the cities and rural areas. There was no evangelical message from Southern Baptists in the area where Russ and Alice serve,” Fowler said, “and they’ve gone to minister, share their lives and witness in an area where it’s almost impossible to send fulltime people.”

One of Nenana Community’s greatest successes has been the fall Crossfire basketball camp, a cooperative effort with Crossfire Ministries of Asheville, N.C., that sprang out of a partnership with the Asheville-based Buncombe Baptist Association. The camp, now in its second year, was attended by 61 youth from as far as 700 miles north and 300 miles south of Nenana. By the end of the Aug. 8-11 event, 41 professions of faith had been made by sports campers and parents.

The Sharrocks also give credit to others, including Virginia pastor William Gunter and his congregation at Webber Memorial Baptist Church in Chesterfield, Va. Gunter was the Sharrocks’ pastor at First Baptist Church, Hillsville, Va., when Russ was called to ministry, and has continued to serve as a mentor to the Sharrocks during the past six years. He has also led Webber Memorial to continued involvement in the Sharrocks’ ministry.

“Our VBS children usually support a particular mission during their week in late July, and last year [2001] the Sharrocks and Nenana was the missions focus,” Gunter said. “Russ and Alice produced a video of the Lord’s work there that motivated our children to offer prayers, e-mail and financial gifts for the work.”

This year, Webber Memorial also sent one of their members, schoolteacher Vickie Turner, as a summer missions volunteer.

“When the call to have a summer ‘youth’ worker came out, Vickie Turner — a motorcycle riding grandmother — felt a calling from God to respond,” Gunter said. “We all were surprised in the beginning but we listened carefully as God revealed his plans. Vickie led our G.A.s [Girls in Action] and other groups to help with cake decorating kits for the ladies and gifts for the children. God knew that Russ and Alice would need some very special help this summer and he was willing to go all the way to Virginia to find a willing heart in a school-teaching, motorcycle-riding grandmother who said, ‘Yes, Lord, send me!'”

Trinity North Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., has also maintained a vital connection with the Sharrocks and their ministry. Sending the Sharrocks out in 2000, the church has continued to be among their key supporters, said Trinity’s pastor, Scott Flippin.

“The local body needs to be built up to go out,” Flippin emphasized. “I want our members to go out. That’s why it’s important to me that we have folks like Russ and Alice who have gone to a very pioneer area, and whose ministry is flourishing. We feel it’s very important when a person has exhibited that kind of call on their life that we support it.”

This summer, Trinity also sponsored former church member Doug Ledbetter, a sophomore at Oklahoma Baptist University, who joined Turner in Nenana and assisted with youth ministry. “During my time in Alaska I was impressed by the way that the Sharrocks modeled faith,” Ledbetter said, noting the value of the Sharrocks’ example in his own spiritual development. “In every situation, they went to the Lord for help. I was blessed to have the opportunity to work with them.” Ledbetter found Southern Baptists in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas eager to support his short-term missions assignment.

The Sharrocks are quick to note it’s not just involving other Baptists, but also becoming involved in local village life that makes Nenana Community Church different from others. Russ, for example, has participated not only on the local library board but also has served on the public school’s strategic planning committee — the only pastor to do so.

“Our slogan is ‘Serving Christ and our community,'” Alice noted. “It’s easy for churches and believers up here to remain isolated from the people who need them the most — the village people who struggle with alcohol, drugs, etc. Our commitment is to be an integral part of the community, the daily lives of children, families and individuals.”

The Sharrocks hope that Nenana Community Church’s intentional outreach efforts will continue to reap eternal dividends among the cautious and often fiercely independent local peoples. Unfamiliar with the Southern Baptist Convention and sometimes even having been hurt in the past by outside governing bodies that do not understand Alaskan culture and church and community needs, Nenana residents seem more interested in seeing the gospel message lived among them than establishing a strong denominational identity.

Still, both the Sharrocks and their supporters clearly view themselves as Southern Baptist missionaries. Russ and Alice continue to attend Alaska Baptist conferences and events. The Alaska Baptist Convention as well as the Tanana Valley Baptist Association have overwhelmingly supported the work, the Sharrocks said, and Morningstar Baptist Church in neighboring Healy has partnered with Nenana Community for community hymn sings. Meanwhile pastor Russ hopes to continue to educate his congregation by association with Fairbanks and Anchorage Baptists and summer mission teams.

“The often-evangelized peoples of rural Alaska — Athabascans, Tlingit, Yupik and Inupiaq, or Eskimo, and rural whites — are skeptical of a hit-and-run gospel,” Alice said. “One of their leaders said, ‘If you want to reach us, live and die with us.’ That is our intention.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ALASKAN OUTREACH and VEGGIE TALES PARTY.

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  • Clinton Wolf