From out on the dark waters of Cook Inlet near the Kenai River, one of the brightest lights of Kenai comes from the steeple of one of its oldest churches.
For more than 60 years, the Kenai Bible Church’s famous cross has sent out a bright white light over the river from its perch on the bluff. Although the bluff has eroded, the fence has been replaced, the building painted and its neighbors come and gone, the cross stays lit, as constant as the tide below.
Over the years, it’s become so well known that most people identify the church with the light. To mark its 75th anniversary this year, the church is calling the celebration “75 years of faithfulness — the light continues.”
“The light of the world,” said Sue Tachick, one of the church members who is organizing the anniversary celebration, referring to the biblical name for Jesus.
The light actually carries a tragic history. It was donated by the Petersen family in 1956 in honor of their son Jim Petersen, a Kenai National Moose Range employee who died in a boating accident on Skilak Lake in 1955. It replaced a historic wooden cross atop the church, which was originally built in 1952. Its current building replaced an old log structure, which housed missionaries above a small church.
The nondenominational church’s history stretches back further than that, though. Officially founded in 1942 through the Chicago-based Slavic Gospel Association, the Kenai Bible Church was the first Protestant church in Kenai, then a small fishing village with a single Russian Orthodox church.
Linda Ross remembers jumping the white picket fence from the cabin next door, where she was born, to attend Kenai Bible Church as a child.
Prior to the founding of Kenai Bible Church, most people were members of the Russian Orthodox church, which was established in Kenai in the late 18th century. The priests spoke Russian in service, and many of the native Dena’ina people had learned Russian as well, Ross remembered. However, there were few offerings for children at the church, she said.
Kenai Bible Church, then called Kenai Chapel, began to offer Sunday school classes for children. People began to attend both, or switched over, she said.
“We went to both churches,” she said. “My parents were Russian Orthodox, so we went there for Easter and Christmas and any holiday, marriage or a death, that was there. But we attended Sunday school here.”
Carol Anderson’s father came to Alaska as a missionary in 1939, came to Kenai first in 1945 and served as Kenai Bible Church’s pastor from 1948–1955. Church members added additional space over time, growing it into its current form over the years, she said.
The church has always been relatively small but tight-knit, supporting missionaries all over the world who often write or return to tell their stories, she said.
“A lot of people who came to Christ here went on to be missionaries,” Anderson said.
“And we still support them,” Tachick added.
Tachick, Ross, Anderson and several other members of the church have been digging up research on the church’s history, touching base with former pastors and missionaries and organizing events for the celebration, which is set for Aug. 3–6. The Slavic Gospel Association — which Kenai Bible Church is now independent from — has many of the records related to the church, but they’ve also gathered personal photos and stories from former members.
Many of the former pastors have said they’re coming for the anniversary, which will feature events like a tour of Old Town Kenai and fishing trips with church services in the evenings, Tachick said.
Tachick herself moved to Alaska and joined the church in 1961. Over the years, the church has had a number of pastors come and go, but it’s not always immediate — sometimes there are interim pastors who fill in until a new pastor can be found. She said it’s impressive the church has been able to stay solid throughout those times.
“What amazes me is how God kept this ministry going,” she said.
Though the church’s congregation has changed over the years, fluctuating in size, many people around town have memories there and consider it their home church, even if they don’t attend anymore, Ross said. The church also supports organizations in town such as the ABC Pregnancy Center and Solid Rock Bible Camp.
There is something about the congregation’s attitude that is welcoming to newcomers, too, said Linda Swen, another member helping to organize the anniversary. She and her husband moved to Kenai from Anchorage about 12 years ago and began looking for churches, trying out several before walking into Kenai Bible Church.
“We came over here and went to church, and never went to another church,” she said. “…We felt so welcome, more than just about any other church we’d ever been to. It’s a love here that you really feel like you’re family. There was no other reason to keep looking.”