Where Have You Been, (Not-so-)Young Man? (Alaska Journal 1)

Galena Flood 2

The last two weeks in September I was in Galena, AlaskaWhere? 64°44′26″N 156°53′8″W, to be precise. That’s 270 miles west of Fairbanks and 350 miles north of Anchorage.  It’s a long way from home—or anywhere else. What in God’s name were you doing there? In mid-August my wife and I attended a training event for people who wanted to help with disaster relief sometime, somewhere. Before we left that day, the leader, a long-time friend, told us how this Yukon River community of 500 people was the hardest-hit among the villages caught in last May’s thousand-year-flood(!) during the river’s spring thaw. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) invited faith-based organizations to provide volunteers to help with the cleanup and rebuilding process.  Suddenly my calendar said “Sometime, somewhere!” I served on one of eight teams provided by United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. I’d been nagging/encouraging folks in our church toward “incarnational mission” for a while. Like many congregations, we’re better at donating money and stuff than (our own) bodies to meet needs. “Incarnational mission” means we go in person, as God came to us personally in Jesus. “Put-up or shut-up” time for me and Incarnational Mission had come!  I learned long ago to pay attention to transformational opportunities that appear seemingly out of nowhere. “Coincidence” usually turns out to be a “God-incident”.  Jonah and a bunch of other folks have learned through the centuries: When God says “I want YOU!” you can run but you can’t hide.

What did we do? Whatever it took to get houses safe, sanitary, and secure enough for residents to live through the winter. AmeriCorps volunteers had already done the initial clean-out/muck-out. Thank God for their young, strong bodies which bent in ways to which mine would have objected strenuously, and recovered much faster than mine would have. The thirty-plus UMVIM and other volunteers present during all or part of those two weeks worked on at least sixteen different houses. Our eight-hour days six days a week included hanging and taping drywall, painting, installing new flooring, doing basic electrical work, scrounging for supplies, improvising, and creative re-purposing, and always more debris cleanup. Some of us spent three days under a house installing “belly board”. That’s plywood fastened to the underside of floor joists so that insulation can be laid on top of it before the rest of the floor is completed. This house had standing headroom under the back third or so, but only about three feet of headroom otherwise. Where were those Americorps kids? Two brothers from Michigan (Reformed Church in America members who somehow got connected with us) were skilled finish carpenters who installed trim, molding, cabinets, etc. Our most unusual challenge was raise the level of a large (empty, thank God!) steel fuel tank so that fuel would flow downhill to the family’s newly-installed heater. The challenge was using only what was at hand, which didn’t include a forklift or a crane. That night we gave thanks for the brilliance of Archimedes—“Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.”

Galena has two churches, St. John’s Roman Catholic Church and Galena Community Bible Church. We had very little contact with St. John’s, so I can’t say anything about their ministry in this crisis. We worked closely with the Bible Church. Most churches I know could learn from the way GBC has served its community through this disaster. Their food pantry fed people. They partnered with government agencies and nonprofits. They hosted mission teams from the “lower 48” nonstop. They stretched their modest facility to its limits. During worship on Sunday morning cots and sleeping bags were in evidence around the edges of the room. One Sunday a bright yellow power-tool battery in its bright yellow charger sat on the platform just a few feet from the pastor as he preached.

Our group of volunteers represented a broad cross-section of the Christian community.  GBC hosted mission teams from various evangelical churches. Our “United Methodist” umbrella welcomed  Unitarian Universalists, the two RCA brothers, a team of seven “Baptist Builders” from Arizona, , at least one self-described “half-Catholic”, and assorted Lutherans and Disciples of Christ who’d come in previous groups. Each morning someone shared a brief devotional message before we started our day’s work. These meaningful messages  set the tone for another day in which we  went out and embodied (Incarnated) the unity of the church as we worked together.

What in God’s name were you doing there? A) “Incarnational mission”. See above. B) Letting God love the world through us. You remember that verse everybody loves to quote that’s always showing up at sports events: “God so loved the world [emphasis mine] that he sent his only Son…” (John 3:16). C) Witnessing in the style of St. Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”

In his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, Brian McLaren recalls the words of one of his mentors: “…in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”  We understood that active faith at its best and highest reaches out to those who are not part of our United Methodist tribe or even our Christian “tribe”. What we have in common with those we served—which is more than enough to launch us into mission “in God’s name”—is that we,  along with our brothers and sisters in Galena and everywhere else on this planet, are all created in the image of God. In other words, we’re family. When part of your family’s in trouble, you do whatever you can to help.

0 Responses to “Where Have You Been, (Not-so-)Young Man? (Alaska Journal 1)”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Categories


%d bloggers like this: