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He went to Alaska to pound nails, then moved from volunteer to pastor


PALMER, Alaska (BP)–If someone had told Bruce Rowell a couple of years ago that he and his family would be ushering in the millennium in Alaska, he would have wondered what they were talking about.
“Polly and I had always felt a call to what they used to call pioneer missions, but nothing ever materialized,” he says in retrospect. But this time they hit the motherlode.
While serving at First Baptist Church, Oakwood, near Gainesville, Ga., he was among 150 volunteers in a year-long project to build a sanctuary for First Baptist Church in Palmer, Alaska — 3,500 miles away.
“I came as a construction worker and ended up as their pastor,” he says with a laugh. “That’s not exactly what I had in mind when I was driving nails.”
In July 1997 the family was welcomed to the new community about 50 miles north of Anchorage, beginning an adjustment which continues to today.
“The climate hasn’t been that bad and the children seem to enjoy the winter. Twenty below [zero] is average but it can get to minus-50 when the wind blows. You just learn to stay out of the wind,” he says with a laugh.
Polly, who teaches first grade, remembers going to work one day with a temperature of minus-49 degrees.
“There wasn’t even any talk of canceling because of the cold. After 10 below we just keep the children inside for recess,” she says.
Rowell says one of the biggest adjustments he has encountered is the lack of a ministerial support group like he was used to back home.
“I really miss not being able to sit down on Monday morning at the association office and visit with other pastors. There is only one other full-time Southern Baptist pastor in the Matanuska Valley where we are located. That means only nine churches and missions in a 200-mile-wide area, similar in distance from Atlanta to Savannah.
“Though there was a congregation when I arrived, in some ways this is like a church start for me. There is a real freedom to do some new and exciting things even though the church has a long history,” he says.
That kind of spirit is important for the future of the church. The valley’s population is expected to double in the next 15 years to about 100,000, and a strong congregation is needed to reach the environs.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to grow indefinitely. This church has already started two others and there’s no reason for that to stop.”
Members of the church are united in their appreciation to Georgia Baptists for the gift of the building. The materials cost $400,000 and the labor was free, while the church raised $150,000 for the site. The finished property is expected to be appraised at nearly $1 million.
Without the help of the GBC, the congregation would not have been able to build anything near the size and quality of the new structure, if they had built anything at all, several members said.
Some of Rowell’s friends couldn’t quite understand why he would accept a church 3,500 miles away.
“I was just finishing my doctorate and that’s when you’re ‘supposed’ to move to a bigger church. But I moved to the smallest church I had ever pastored, far from friends and family.
“Some of my pastor friends jokingly thought I’d lost my mind and said, ‘You’re going where to do what?’
“But I can honestly say that we love it up here. I know some folks can’t understand that, but I know some that love serving in south Texas,” he says with a laugh.
“When I’m old and gray, I’m sure I’ll sit my grandchildren on my lap and say, ‘Let me tell you about the stupidest thing I ever did in my life’ or ‘Let me tell you about the greatest adventure of my life.’
“I already have an idea which story it’s going to be.”