Before the whirlwind of summer continues, I want to take a moment to share about my Alaska trip for everyone I haven’t gotten to talk to in person.
Here is an overview of why I happened to be in Alaska for three weeks. A very good friend of mine is a high school math teacher (a pretty amazing one, I might add) and chooses to spend several weeks of her summer volunteering at a Bible camp on the southwestern coast of Alaska. She invited me to come along this summer. I said “heck yes” (verbatim).
Fast forward to June 14th, when she and I flew from St. Louis to Anchorage and ultimately (via charter plane the next day) to a small village called Unalakleet, located right on the coast about 2 plane hours from Anchorage. The camp was a 15-minute drive and then perhaps a half-mile walk into the wilderness. My kind of party.
We joined the Covenant Bible Camp staff for three weeks of coed camp grouped by grades: Jr. High week, 5th/6th, and then 3rd/4th. The average number of campers we had at once was about 80/85. I led worship for the first week and then acted as a counselor the last two weeks, and Pinky (the friend I accompanied, who still goes by her college nickname “Pinky” in most circles) served as program director for all three weeks.
Covenant Bible Camp is affiliated with the Covenant Church. I don’t know a lot of the specific details of its formation or history — only that I affiliate it with Sweden, Swedish people, Alaska, and North Park University in Chicago (where a number of people connected with CBC either attended or currently attend).
Camp amenities comprised of showering once a week, using ample amounts of bug spray, wearing hiking boots and the same one or two sets of clothes every day, outhouses, running water only available at the “wash-eteria” or in the kitchen, and a generator that would run for about four hours a day to make the few outlets and lights in the chapel and dining hall work. I realize that may not sound enjoyable to everyone. I, however, was akin to a kid in a candy store. It was even better than eating dates. (For those of you who haven’t yet observed that particular quirk of mine in action, I like eating dates. A lot.) Our daily activities consisted of eating, doing chores around camp, playing games with kids, running around, being generally goofy and wild, singing camp songs, listening to chapel speakers, playing guitar, and shepherding our campers in a further knowledge (or perhaps first experience) of Jesus.
The flora and fauna of camp should not go unmentioned. The area into which camp was nestled is wooded and feels almost like back-woods Wisconsin. Wildflowers bloom everywhere and a river winds around camp providing a border on two sides. Beyond the camp property, tundra scrub abounds with occasional patches of coniferous trees huddled together amidst the reserved green. The area is hilly and we had several locations to which we would hike with the campers during the week to spend time soaking in an incredible view and doing activities including packed lunch, games, devos, and worship. Since we were there in June, I never saw the sun set. We went to sleep under a sky just as bright as it had been during lunch, and when we woke up, the sun would simply be in a different place than where we left it the night before. It was surreal. The transition to this atmospheric wonder was much smoother than I anticipated — in fact, I was caught much more off-guard upon my return home where I experienced night again after three weeks without any darkness. Quite interesting.
Our campers were almost entirely indigenous, hailing from villages up and down the Alaskan coast and from inland as well. Yes, they all spoke English — however, many had classes in school that passed on their cultural languages, crafts, and traditions. Many counted in Yup’ik, sang songs in Inupiaq, or taught me Cup’ik words for animals and wildlife (or “poop” – though I don’t remember what it is now so don’t ask). They have accents that make them sound Minnesotan, and use a lot of endearing jargon — “bug dope” for mosquito repellant which everyone carried in their pockets to ward off the skeeters, “I jokes” for when you’re kidding someone, “bugging” when something was annoying or bothersome, etc. Even writing the phrases now makes me smile to remember their speech and our conversations.
The youngest ones especially were quite affectionate and by the end of the week, you couldn’t take a step without one (and often more) jumping on your back, hanging from your neck, asking to be held or swung around, taking your hand, leaning up against you, or falling asleep on your shoulder during chapel. The older weeks of camp were a bit more reserved and it took more time and humility to win them over. They also introduced a lot more behavioral issues which took a lot of prayer, wisdom, and solemn conversations to combat.
Each group of campers, from the oldest to the youngest, bore battle damage and scars from growing up in a wide range of unhealthy situations and hard home lives. While at first glance they appeared carefree and happy, just like any group of children playing at camp might, conversations and opportunities to minister through ongoing patience and structured expectations revealed a host of hurt. Kids with parents in jail. Kids from huge families with no money for doctors. Alcohol abuse. Sexual and emotional abuse. Cultural horror stories that smelled of demons and spiritual warfare. Poverty. Deaths close to home due to the harsh elements, occupational hazards, and alcohol. The behavior of especially the Jr. High kids sometimes struck me as instinctual and primitive. Bullying, manipulation, and lying seethed like an underlying cancer. It was a palpable reminder of the pervasiveness of darkness. When not confronted with the light of Jesus Christ, it matures into a systemic, root-rotting affliction of behavior that is evident even in young kids when left unchecked.
Of course, there was plenty of light in our campers as well. Some had already taken Jesus up on His promise to redeem and restore before they arrived (many at camp during a previous year), and still others were exposed to His gospel for the first time this summer. Our campers asked excellent questions; sang worship songs and hymns; listened attentively in chapel; and prayed aloud in our cabins. It was an incredible time of growth for a bunch of kids whom God loves very much.
In addition to the kids who attended camp, I can’t say enough about the incredible group of people that volunteered their time and energy to make it happen. Christ-filled people that extended no ordinary human love to a bunch of noisy kiddos and provided, for some of them, the only examples of mature, intentional, integrity-filled adults they’ll see all year. I made a lot of friends that I already miss and want to see again.
Now for a final recap. Whenever someone has asked me how my trip to Alaska was during the past week or so that I’ve been back in the Lower 48, I always begin my tale with how beautiful Alaska is and how they should go if they ever get the chance. However, it wasn’t the breathtaking view of Anchorage that greeted us on the plane ride or the never-ending ranges of snow-crested mountains over which we flew to reach our village or even the muted green valleys enclosed by distant mountains and ribboned with crystal rivers we surveyed during hike days at camp that so captivated me. It was the people I met, worked with, prayed with and for, and laughed with (and at once in a while). It was the groups of children which God created, ordained, picked, and sent to camp to learn about Him perhaps for the first or only time. Alaska certainly is breathtaking and you should certainly go if you ever get the chance. But an opportunity to serve a people like that is a much greater treasure.
I have been sitting out in a screenhouse in Mundelein, Illinois writing this blog post. I arrived back in Lake County after seeing my best friend get married this past weekend in central Illinois and just in time to depart for Wisconsin with my youngest brother for an overdue camping trip tomorrow. (From which I’ll arrive home just in time to leave for Africa and then Europe in just over a week.) I am glad to write out these thoughts because I don’t know when I’ll have time to more leisurely digest them over the coming weeks. If you think of it, I would love your prayers for wisdom as far as my next steps. Once I land in Italy, I don’t have a finalized plan of when or where. I want to be available should something come up that might keep me in Europe a little longer than I know about right now. However, I also don’t want to be (overly) imprudent in my movements and I don’t know exactly what to do. I am praying hard that God a) has a plan (which I know in my head is true), and b) will let me in on it when I need to know. I will try to write again before very long. Here goes nothing.