There are 229 villages in Alaska that are accessible only by plane or boat, in an area twice the size of Texas. Far too many places, and too spread out, for a small staff to reach each year, or even each decade.
Dave (Nuu-chah-nulth) and Rosemary Sternbeck, LIM staff based in Fairbanks, Alaska, report that if they can get to 6 villages each year – that’s a successful year. Add in the dozen or so church groups that travel to remote villages to teach VBS and offer Bible Study, and, as an organization with volunteers and supporters, we could interact with each village every 12-13 years.
There is amazing ministry being done in Alaska. The Word of God is being shared, and lives are being changed, but there is so much more that we can do. The opportunities are there, but we need more people.
One solution: Teen Camp.
TEEN CAMP IS NO ORDINARY CAMP
The air is alive with excitement. Voices laughing and singing, feet pounding on the wood of the dock followed by a splash and more laughter. These are the sounds of summer camp; these are the sounds of young leaders changing Alaska.
Lutheran Indian Ministries’ Teen Camp is not your typical camp. Yes, the campers will have fun and make new friends and participate in some arts and crafts. After all, camp is all about the experiences and the memories you make. But at the same time, these teenagers are learning to use their faith in Jesus Christ to raise their remote villages out of the vicious cycle of physical and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide they are currently trapped in.
In many ways, remote Alaskan Native villages mirror American Indian reservations. Though their experiences with the European settlers were different, the outcome was very similar. Alaska Natives, despite being thousands of miles away, were not sheltered from the destruction that came from the loss of culture.
But, you and I know that the path to healing starts with the Word of God and the love and grace that comes from Jesus Christ. And, just like in Native Americans populations, we cannot expect the Kingdom of God to grow and flourish merely because we have translated the Bible into their Native tongue.
SING THEIR SONG
We believe that the only way to make a truly monumental impact on a group of people with the Gospel, is to make certain they can relate to it themselves.
People need to be able to contextualize the story, make their own connections, see themselves in it, and only then can they truly understand it. Jesus was great at telling the right story at the right time to the right people. We should be following His lead.
Clarence DeLude, LIM staff in Hawaii and Native Hawaiian himself, likes to tell the story of how his ancestors created their great feather cloaks, or ahu‘ula, some of which consisted of more than 250,000 feathers. These grand pieces took multiple generations to complete because they would capture a bird and pluck two or three of its feathers before releasing it.
The key to catching a bird?
You have to sing its song. You have to know what it eats and where it spends its day. You have to know how it lives.
The same goes for ministry.
When we are able to relate to those we are trying to teach, we gain their trust.
When we eat with them, we learn about their families, their trials and concerns, and their hopes.
When we speak their language and recount their stories, they no longer see us as outsiders, but as friends. We ultimately have to know how they think.
Taking this a step further, and further solidifying the importance of Teen Camp, if the “minister” was never an outsider, but born and raised in their ways and in their community, how much more impact would his message have and how much better could he relate to the people than someone from outside their culture.
Because of your commitment to raising Native leaders, we worked with 24 young men and women whose deep faith and leadership qualities have made them unique to this task. Twenty-four teenagers who will return to their villages and spread the Gospel, not as a missionary, but as integral members of their community.
Teens like Clarence and Andrea.
JUNIOR COUNSELORS LEAD AND LEARN
Clarence and Andrea are both Teen Camp veterans and, for the first time this year, were given the special role of Jr. Counselor.
“These two were picked to fill this role because, over the course of the last couple years, they both showed an incredible amount of growth in their spiritual maturity and responsibility,” explains Rosemary. “The other campers really look up to these two, and they strive to be good role models.”
TORN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
Clarence comes from a cross-cultural background. His mother is Alaska Native, his father is a non-Native, Lutheran from Wisconsin. Clarence remembers going to visit his grandparents in Wisconsin during the summer, and while he loved being involved in the local Lutheran Church, city living was like prison.
“When I’m home, I can go where I want and nobody questions me if I jump on my sno-go and drive 100 miles to the next village. But in the city, we spent so much time indoors, and I didn’t have the freedom I usually do. It drove me crazy!” explains Clarence. “But, it’s hard in the village, too. There’s so much good, but also so much bad. I know that I would have more opportunities outside of the village, but this is my home. And, I also feel like I could do a lot of good if I stay here.”
Rosemary explains, “We see this a lot with the Native teens we serve and mentor. There’s this internal conflict. They’re saying, ‘I don’t want to stay, but I don’t know how I can go.’ Particularly in the northern-most villages of Alaska, where traditional, subsistence living is still widely practiced, and villages are extremely remote, people build an incredible bond with their family and community. Even if things aren’t perfect, it’s what they know and love.”
Not to mention, living in a city, even one as small as Fairbanks, can cause major culture shock. Take, for example, the little boy, who at 5 years-old shoots his first caribou. In the village, he’s now a man. He has helped to provide for his family. He can build himself a shelter in a blizzard and live off what he can catch. Those life skills don’t translate very well to city life.
Often times, the people who do leave their village for the city, return within a year. Even people who have lived cross-culturally, as Clarence has, find themselves back in the comfort of the village.
TOO SINFUL TO BE SAVED
Andrea, unlike Clarence, had no Lutheran ties before her first VBS. She is a product of the dedication of a North Carolina church group who has visited her village of Dearing for more than 9 years. Their commitment to Dearing, year after year, formed strong relationships between their team and the community, and because of these relationships, the team saw Andrea’s leadership ability grow with each visit.
Despite her years of VBS, what always stuck with Andrea was that she was a sinner. By the time she reached camp last summer, she was convinced she had sinned too much. There was no way that God could forgive her. That is until she heard the story of the “Lost Sheep,” the story that explains that Jesus came to save the sinners, even the worst of sinners, and that He was desperately seeking each and every one of them.
“Pastor Dave was telling us the story of the Lost Sheep. He explained it so well, and all of a sudden, it hit me,” exclaims Andrea. “Suddenly, I realized, I am a lost sheep! Jesus wants to save me, too! It hit me so hard that I started crying right there in the living room, with everyone watching, and asked to be baptized. When I felt that water, I honestly felt like my sins were washing away, that I was starting over. It was a day that has changed my whole life, and I want to learn how to give that gift to my friends and family and village.”
Andrea was one of six teens to ask to be baptized at last year’s Teen Camp, and the passion and joy they showed to their fellow teens was contagious. This year, there were new campers who had heard the testimony of the newly baptized and were anxious to be baptized, too. Dave’s lesson on “The Good Samaritan” hit home, and six more Alaska Native teens asked to be baptized, confirming and strengthening their faith.
Like Clarence, Andrea wants better for her people and her village, and Dave and Rosemary are helping them and mentoring them to be the leaders they know they can be.
FANNING THE FLAME
As Junior Counselors, Andrea and Clarence are able to not only grow, but to help others, those other 22 campers who came to Camp Bingle, to grow closer to their Savior and Creator, and who will hopefully take that new life and gift of Christ and share it with those in their villages.
The momentum of an enthusiastic Christian can’t be stopped!
This year’s theme, “Fanning the Flame” focused on growing the seed of faith that had already been planted in their hearts. Counselors, Junior Counselors, and Teens learned the importance of the Bible, and how to center themselves in the Word of God. They came away refueled until next year’s camp.
Equally important, they talked about planting the seeds of faith in others and how the Holy Spirit can fan that small flame into a mighty inferno. They shared with each other their thoughts and concerns – how to go back to the village but not get sucked into the temptations they face. They learned how to lead by example, and how their lives should reflect Christ.
Teen Camp touched the lives of 24 teenagers from five different remote, Alaskan villages. People like you helped to buy plane tickets and food, supplies and gas, to make sure these teens were given a chance to learn and grow and eventually to give their communities, and themselves, a better future – one that glorifies God in all that they do.
They say it takes a village to raise up a child, you are a part of the village raising up Alaska Natives teens.
But, we also think it takes only a single person, with the right mentoring, discipling, and support behind them, to raise up a whole village.