KIANA, Alaska (BP)–You can’t drive to Kiana — there’s no road. The only ways in and out of this small Alaskan community in the Arctic Circle are by small charter plane, boat, four-wheeler or snowmobile. But for this one time, in the summer of 2006, more than a million people will visit. Vacation Bible School has put Kiana on the map.
In this year’s VBS –- “Arctic Edge: Where Adventure Meets Courage” by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention — daily excursions start from Big Bear Lodge and have children hiking across the tundra, exploring the seascape by kayak and skimming the backcountry in a floatplane. Based on Joshua 1:9, Arctic Edge helps children find the courage for following Jesus in everyday challenges as they learn that God is always with them.
Even Eskimo children who live above the Arctic Circle in Kiana had a great time with this year’s Vacation Bible School’s theme.
“Bible school is sort of about us,” said J.K., 11. “That is so cool!”
John and Kim Piepmeier, who lead the small mission church in Kiana as Mission Service Corps volunteers with the North American Mission Board, were featured on day three of the VBS missions video. They have ministered in the village of 375 people for seven years.
A team of eight adventurous souls from east Texas trekked up north to join the Piepmeiers in sharing God’s love with the children, youth and adults at VBS. They came at their own expense and brought or shipped everything they’d need — food, supplies, even their beds.
Unlike Vacation Bible School in Texas or anywhere else, the first day of VBS in Kiana in the waning days of June began in the snow, as did the second day and the third day. The children wore coats and boots not to emphasize the Arctic Edge theme, but to stay warm.
While the Texas volunteers came with years of VBS work under their belts, VBS in the snow was a new experience for every one of them. But this was Alaska, so it never occurred to anyone in Kiana that VBS would be cancelled. The children showed up right on time, coming on four-wheelers, bikes and booted feet, happy to have something fun to do.
Two tents set up outside the church held classes and crafts. After two days of snow, however, it was not the cold that sent the children indoors, but the mud.
So, some of the older children had Bible study around the table inside the Piepmeiers’ house. Some of the craft activities were changed to less messy projects since the children had to work on the church’s carpet. “We’ll do whatever we need to do,” volunteer Susan Smith said. “Our saying is ‘be flexible.’”
After plans had changed for about the tenth time that day, volunteer Jan Ouzts laughed when she was caught talking to herself, “Go with the flow. Go with the flow.”
SUN NEVER SETS
While many churches have their VBS in the morning, Kiana hosted theirs from 2-5 p.m. for the children and from 8-11 p.m. for the youth and adults. That’s probably later than most churches, but when the sun never sets, midnight or noon is about the same.
Lee Moore, volunteer youth leader for the VBS, took advantage of the never-ending day, walking down to the village to visit each evening after he taught VBS and playing ball with teenagers in town until about 3 a.m.
On the day the Piepmeiers would be featured on the missions video, the children had been told something special was coming up. So when they saw Pastor John and Kim appear on the screen, they laughed and clapped. When they saw Kiana, their own village, they were doubly excited.
When Irving, 11, heard that millions of people around the country and the world would see the video segment about Kiana this summer, he said, “Are you kidding me? That’s cool!”
“Anywhere you go in the world, children are basically the same,” said Ouzts, who last year did VBS in the Ukraine and at her home church in Texas. “Some are well-behaved, some aren’t. Some pay attention, others don’t. But they all love doing activities, having people love them and hearing that Jesus loves them.
“During the Bible study time, I thought the children weren’t paying attention,” Ouzts continued, “but when I reviewed the lesson with them, they knew everything we’d talked about. They repeated the stories to me almost word for word. They were so smart.”
Susan Smith added, “It is important that we show them love. They all need that. They need more too. They need to know how they can ask Jesus into their hearts and become Christians. We have to do our part to let them know how to be saved.”
Volunteer Sarah Fair said her little ones were literal thinkers. “I told one little girl in my class that Jesus loves her and has a wonderful plan for her life. Her eyes got real big and she said, ‘Oh! What is it?’ She caught me off-guard with that one! I told her that she would discover that as she grew up.”
The class of 4-year-olds through second grade averaged about 24 children each day, by far the largest group. “Sometimes the stories are hard for the little ones to follow, but they loved to sing and they loved making their crafts,” Fair said. “They knew we loved them.”
Most of the children who came to VBS already had made professions of faith, but two 8-year-olds accepted Christ during the week. Michael and Christina both heard the “ABC’s” (Admit, Believe, Confess) on Wednesday and then talked with team leader John Green, who had the privilege of leading both children in a prayer to receive Christ as their Savior.
Eight youth attended the evening VBS. Four of the young women used the time to help prepare for their own three-week VBS mission trip to Urbancrest and Liberty Heights Baptist churches in Lebanon, Ohio, and White’s Memorial Baptist Church in Franklinville, N.C., where they would be teaching children a first-person view of how life is on the edge of the Arctic.
Janelle, 17, said she, her sister, Jacklynne, 16, and friends Sylvia and Clara, both 20, were leaving June 21 with the Piepmeiers. “It will be our first mission trip and we are really excited to be going. None of us have been that far away before.”
Ten adults gathered around the Piepmeiers’ table to study the Book of James. The concept of the security of the believer was foreign to some of the adults. Don Chapin, who led the study, wanted them to understand not only that concept but also that all Christians can and should be assuming leadership in their churches. “They were so hungry for the Bible study and really took hold of the concepts.”
The Texas team’s ministry didn’t stop with the children, youth and adults. The Piepmeiers also benefited from the association.
“It means so much to us not only to have the team come up here and do VBS,” John Piepmeier said, “but just to give Kim and me the personal support. We miss that. I’ve enjoyed having the other men around to discuss theology with!”
Mike Smith, a director of missions and member of Tyler Street Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Texas, said of the Kiana outreach, “I guess I’ve gone on at least one mission trip just about every year since I was an RA. This week has been wonderful. Some great things have happened with the children, the youth and the adults — especially with the two who accepted Christ.
“But, you know, on every mission trip, whether it’s VBS or something else, the team who goes always gets changed,” Smith added. “When we formed this team, most of us didn’t know each other, but it has been life-changing for every one of us.”
During the family night celebration, the parents, grandparents, siblings and friends of the 65 people who attended VBS packed the small sanctuary to hear the children present their memory verses, sing and sign their songs and meet the leaders.
The crowd got to see the missions video highlighting the Piepmeiers and Kiana. “Oohs” and “ahhs” could be heard when they were told how many people across the country would be watching that same video throughout the summer.
The evening’s highlight was a beautiful and moving rendition of “How Great Thou Art” sung in the Inupiaq language by the adult VBS group, then everyone — Eskimos and Caucasians — joined together to sing a verse in English. Many eyes were moist by the last “… how great Thou art,” proving that even at the edge of the Arctic, the fellowship of Christ is strong.
For more information about Vacation Bible School, go to www.lifeway.com/yourvbs. To see more about the church, go to www.kianabaptistmission.com.