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Missionaries in Alaska see spark of what God ‘is about to do’

EDITORS’ NOTE: The 2004 North American Missions Emphasis is underway in churches across the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptist Press during this period will present profiles on the featured missionaries. For more on the emphasis, visit www.AnnieArmstrong.com.

KIANA, Alaska (BP)–God first began working in John and Kim Piepmeier’s lives through their local church but, over time, He led them to a land that’s about as close to “the ends of the earth” as anywhere.

Their ministry in the remote Native Alaskan village of Kiana, above the Arctic Circle where the only Hondas around are small “four-wheeler” all-terrain vehicles. In the wintertime — when temperatures can reach 50 degrees below zero — a snowmobile is the family car.

For the Eskimos who comprise 16 percent of Alaska’s population, this is life as usual. For these Missouri natives — as with any missionaries called to a radically different environment — it is the certainty of God’s call that has helped them adjust.

“The Bible tells us that the Lord has many offices and places where He wants each of us, and I feel that’s what He’s done with us,” John said. “He’s equipped us with the ability to handle it and enjoy it here. I don’t think it takes any kind of special person. It was just being available, and really seeking after the Lord.”

The Piepmeiers, who lead the Kiana Baptist Mission, are among nearly 5,200 missionaries in the United States and Canada supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are featured during the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2004 North American Missions Emphasis, which this year focuses on “The World at Our Doorstep.”

John and Kim were 36 years old when they accepted Christ, and it was three or four years later that they began to feel God might be calling them to fulltime ministry as Mission Service Corps missionaries. The program allows missionaries to serve under the auspices of the SBC’s North American Mission Board but with responsibility for raising their own personal financial support. In their case, God worked through the circumstances of a motorcycle accident that left John partially paralyzed and on a disability pension. The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering provides supplementary support for some MSC missionaries, including the Piepmeiers. All MSC missionaries receive training, materials and other assistance.

The Piepmeiers first served in resort ministry at Lake of the Ozarks in their home state, and by August 1999 they felt God wanted them in Alaska. They learned of the need in Kiana, and within a few weeks they were ready to leave. Confirmation of their decision came when they were able to sell their house, car and personal belongs within three weeks — even a piano that had found no buyers previously.

“We just knew that the Lord had directed us there,” John said. “Some people say, ‘Well, how can you be away from your family?’ But the Lord just kind of prepared our hearts for everything, including the remoteness of Kiana.”

As they got out of the plane that fall, they were awed by the natural beauty of the landscape and the Northern Lights. But they also had to adjust to the reasons the area is so sparsely populated. Most food — or anything else — is flown in to Kiana’s small airstrip. Milk is $5 for a half gallon; bleach is $20 a gallon. When they visit the nearest warehouse club in Anchorage — a $500 round-trip flight for one person — they bring along several Rubbermaid storage containers to mail their purchases home.

“The way of life is just very different,” John said. “There’s no reason to get worked up or worried about anything unless it’s life-threatening; even then, there is no reason to get worked up. If anything goes wrong or needs to get fixed, you do it yourself. You can’t call a service guy or technician.”

The weather, of course, is a constant struggle. Their septic system is a particular challenge, understandable in an environment surrounded by frozen tundra. They purchase their heating fuel in 55-gallons drums and deliver it themselves.

“After being 50 below, zero feels very warm,” John said. “The shortest daylight of the year is Dec. 21 and we won’t see the sun the week before or after, but we’ll have about two hours of gray light each day.”

The harsh conditions likely had something to do with why there had not been a Southern Baptist presence in the town since 1975, when a former missionary, Valeria Sherard, retired.

“There had been a whole generation that had grown up without the Baptist mission running all the time. Some people have told me they can really tell the difference, and they want their children to be involved here,” John said.

Sherard, who now lives in Mississippi, served at the small mission church for 15 years.

“I think because she had been there for so long that we have been more accepted,” John said. “People do allow us and want us to come in and pray with them. They are appreciative that we would take the time to go to the Lord with them.”

Initially they got to know the people by attending basketball games, going to the schools and the store, and just visiting residents.

“It’s a small village,” Kim said. “Going around the outside of the village you’d be lucky if you got a mile and a half. So when you’re new in town everybody knows you real quick.”

Kim even took advantage of her own interest in sewing to ask women to teach her how to do particular native crafts. She formed friendships in the process.

“We even started a women’s sewing club on Thursday nights where women of the village could come over to our house,” she said. “We have a big table in the kitchen where we sit around and sew together, do bead work or work on furs.”

The ministry to children and youth is also strong, with a Good News Club offered on Friday afternoons and a youth group every Sunday night. Sunday attendance is often made up of more children than adults.

“I just have to ask God to lead me in sharing each Sunday, to have faith that God will allow me to speak in a way that both adults and children will understand,” John said.

The only other church in town is a Friends (Quaker) congregation that has existed for more than 100 years, and many of the people are connected in some way with both. Each church has a bell, which they ring 30 minutes before the service, then again at five minutes.

As in other areas, there is a problem with substance abuse and depression, even suicide. Poverty itself is not a major issue, with many holding good jobs in the oil industry or at the nearby Red Dog Mine — the largest zinc mine in the world. But the people often feel trapped.

“It is really something that is a problem, with lack of hope or lack of having a future, a goal set in their lives,” John said. “They feel like there is just nothing to look forward to.”

But the Piepmeiers are making a difference. Since they arrived 73 people have accepted Christ as Lord of their lives.

One young girl was always willing to pray for prayer requests during Good News Clubs, moreso after she accepted Christ. Then there was the boy who always sat with John in the pastor’s chair.

“At 6 years old you could ask him to look up any Scripture and he would stand right up and read it,” Kim said. “He said when he grew up he was going to be the pastor of the church.”

Among the adults whose lives have been transformed by the Gospel was one man who has been free of using and selling alcohol and drugs for more than a year. He has become active in the church and is growing in his relationship with God.

“That’s a wonderful blessing to see those things happening in the village,” John said. “You start with one, and soon we know we will have two, and four, and eight as it keeps multiplying.”

It is that kind of evidence of God at work that keeps the Piepmeiers committed, willing to make the sacrifices for the opportunity of making a lasting difference.

“We believe that there’s going to be a great revival,” John said. “… We believe that because of all the recent salvations that we’ve had we’re seeing a spark of what the Lord is about to do. We would ask that all Southern Baptists pray for the Kiana Baptist Mission, all the people, and for revival to come to the region.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GETTING AROUND, COMPASSION & PRAYER, KIDS IN KIANA, NEW SISTERS IN CHRIST and LEISURELY CHAT.

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  • James Dotson