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For native Alaskan collegians, her home is a place of refuge

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2009 Week of Prayer, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $65 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,600 North American missionaries.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (BP)–They make their way through the wilderness seeking refuge from the dark and the cold. Finally it comes into view. On a snow-covered slope sits a house, comfortable and warm. Light spills from the windows. The smell of home cooking hangs in the frosty air. This house is special, purchased with them in mind. It was furnished so they would be comfortable. It was prayed over that the darkness might be dispelled for all who gather there. It’s Friday night at the home of North American Mission Board collegiate missionary Brenda Crim.

Crim is among the 5,600 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and one of eight missionaries featured in this year’s Week of Prayer, March 1-8, with the theme, “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million.

“My house is always full of life, especially when the students are here,” Crim said. “Otherwise, it’s just me, but I made sure I bought a home big enough to share with guests.”

On Friday nights, Crim hosts a discipleship dinner for students from the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA). “I prepare a home-cooked meal, get the students off campus and give them a place to be. I try to give them some options for good clean fun.”

Many of the students who are a part of Baptist Collegiate Ministry at UAA are native Alaskans. Most of them came to BCM as a result of a friendship that blossomed between Crim and Melissa Okitkun, a Y’upik Eskimo student from the small village of Kotlik.

Crim met Melissa through a SonicFlood concert she was promoting on campus. They made an instant connection through their mutual affinity for athletics.

Slowly the friendship turned into a mentoring relationship. Native students are taught to glean wisdom from elders, and Melissa was absorbing all as if Crim were a village elder. “She began to share with me the mental battles she was waging,” Crim said. “And I would use that time to teach her how to fight those battles with the truth. In time, she gave her life to the Lord.”

Melissa is a great influencer of her peers, someone they trust and respect.

Several Native Alaskan students began coming with Melissa, or Mel as she’s known, to the Breakaway student worship on campus. “They began to build bridges of trust with me and I was elated,” Crim said. “Then Melissa began inviting them to my house on Fridays. I knew I was in when they started staying late into the night.”

Friday nights at Crim’s house provide an inviting place for the students to open up. Many of them, like Melissa, are from isolated Alaskan villages where they’ve experienced tragedies and losses that young people should never have to deal with. On occasion, these issues emerge in talking circles in Brenda’s den, unveiling sources of internal struggles or pain that students bring with them to the university in Anchorage.

When the students “share from the depths of their hearts,” Crim said, “They talk about heart-wrenching issues of loss. Tragic deaths often occur — avalanches, hypothermia, snowmobile accidents, boating accidents and fires. In remote areas, villagers have to pull together to render aid to each other. When you dial 911, no one answers.

“Add to that our social issues,” Crim continued, listing Alaska among the states most plagued by child abuse, suicide, rape, incest, teen pregnancy, STDs and alcoholism.

“An alarming percentage of our students have lost their innocence as children,” Crim said. “Despair replaces any hope for change. When bad news comes from home of a loss or a tragedy, they endure the news far away from the support of the village. Airfare to their homes is $500-800.”

One Friday night around 1 a.m. after a talking circle, Brenda had a divinely inspired thought. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could go into a village and have a lock-in where you could serve as peer mentors?'” she recounted.

“An indigenous movement of God, that’s what must happen in villages — natives reaching natives.”

The students suggested targeting Kotlik, Melissa’s home village. And that’s when the hard work began. Putting together a lock-in with music, pizza and all the trimmings in a remote Alaskan village wouldn’t be easy. Kotlik is on the west coast of Alaska where the Yukon River meets the Bering Sea.

“It’s two plane rides from the nearest Wal-Mart,” Crim joked. “Truly, the uttermost end of the USA. It’s hard and expensive to get there from Anchorage, costing about $780 per person.” But God began opening doors that would allow Crim and four other UAA students — Melissa, Leon (her brother), Jessica MacArthur and Drew Shannon — to make the six-hour, 500-mile plane trip to bring the Good News to high school students in Kotlik.

A divine appointment was in the making. The Christian Pilots Association of Alaska agreed to fly the team to Kotlik for just the cost of fuel. A contribution from a close friend of Crim’s enabled her to pay the $2,200 fuel cost — plus ship pizza, breakfast foods and fresh fruit to serve at the lock-in, an unusual treat for villagers whose common fare is what’s in season, whether salmon, moose, caribou, geese or seal.

“The principal of the school has a heart for the students and was happy to accommodate our event in the Kotlik School,” Crim said. Melissa’s father, Jimmy Okitkun, an Assembly of God lay pastor, helped in logistical planning and supervision of the event. The Okitkun family hosted the lock-in team who enjoyed Y’upik hospitality at its best.

Having changed Melissa’s heart, God now was giving her the opportunity to have a hand in changing the hearts of others.

“I think differently now,” Melissa said. “I care more about people than I did before. I choose to be a better role model because a lot of the students back home — most of them are my cousins — really look up to me. They say they want to be like Mel, go to college and become something too.”

Melissa poured her heart and soul into preparing for the lock-in and when it all came together, more than a fourth of the school’s students were there, listening to what she had to say. Melissa came up with the theme from a hip-hop song, “Walk it Out.” The idea was to help students learn that it’s possible to overcome life’s difficulties through a powerful walk with Christ. Brenda and Jimmy Okitkun were speakers, while Melissa shared her testimony.

“We led a prayer of salvation at the end,” Crim said. “And every student stepped forward. It was an amazing event for me to see the power of one student’s changed life draw other students to Christ.”
Jami Becher is editorial assistant for On Mission magazine published by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.

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  • Jami Becher