On a gray, raining morning in Kenai, about 40 people, eight dogs and a handful of four-wheelers parked on Dunes Road in Kenai and headed out into the soft sand of the south beach of the Kenai River.
They walked in small groups, huddling together for warmth and dodging the steady, incessant rain under umbrellas, working to raise money for Arctic Barnabas Ministries during the organization’s third annual beach walk.
Beka Dillingham, 6, walked close to the water, occasionally dodging waves from the Cook Inlet and pausing regularly to pull a feather, shell or rock from the sand.
“I found a purple one,” she shouted as she ran to Abby Peters, 13, who put the find in a plastic bag and goaded Dillingham into walking at a steadier pace.
The two eventually climbed onto a four-wheeler with four other kids, and rode up and down the beach for the remainder of the three-mile walk.
It’s a fund raiser that attracts support from the local community and from people Outside who donate resources to support evangelical ministry in Alaska.
The Kenai-based Arctic Barnabas Ministries is a nonprofit organization that supports evangelical families throughout remote areas of the state through contributing physical labor and work teams, providing equipment, organizing retreats giving moral support, and ministering to missionaries and their families.
Johnathan Peters, Arctic Barnabas executive director, said the group is raising money to fund flying into Bush communities, which can get costly at about $200 per flight hour.
The shortest trips are to communities like Naknek, in Bristol Bay, but the group also flies as far as Kotzebue, a city at the end of the Baldwin Peninsula in the northwest corner of the state.
While many of the missionary families are supported through specific churches, Arctic Barnabas is a nondenominational organization that supports evangelical ministry throughout the state — regardless of its origin.
Peters said the group knows of about 125 families ministering in communities throughout the state — Arctic Barnabas supports 74 families in 85 villages.
“We fix broken pipes, install boilers, repair four-wheelers, process game, really anything they need,” Peters said. “We’ve done complete home remodels before — sending in a team to make a house safer, livable.”
While the five pilots, two planes and 20 families working for Arctic Barnabas provide physical labor and tangible items to the missionary families scattered throughout the state, Peters said the group’s primary means of support is to lessen the isolation that can be felt by people living in Bush communities.
Last year, the organization flew 74 trips into the Bush, Peters said.
They solicit donations for everything from weatherproofing of pastors’ homes, to spare parts for their airplanes, to snowblowers, scholarships and postage stamps — anything to provide logistical support for evangelical ministry in the state.
“We believe what they’re doing is so critical that we want to come up alongside them and help,” he said.
In the remote Inupiaq village of White Mountain, Ross and Ruth McElwee said they feel the benefits of the Arctic Barnabas mission spiritually and on a more tangible level.
Ross McElwee is the pastor of the White Mountain Covenant Church — the only church in the village of about 200 located about 75 miles from Nome. It is the last mandatory stop on the Iditarod Trail.
When the McElwees moved to White Mountain from rural East Texas, they lived in a parsonage that needed extensive work.
“The one side of the house had sunk more than 8 inches so you could roll a marble and it wouldn’t stop,” Ross McElwee said. “There were issues of air infiltration and condensation problems. The parsonage was built in the 1970s and it had never been updated.”
Between 2008 and 2009, five construction teams flew to the village with Arctic Barnabas, leveled the home and did refurbishing work throughout the house, including completely remodeling the bathroom and kitchen.
“When the first summer came and we’d been here less than four months, we had 75 people moving in and out doing repairs alone,” Ruth McElwee said. “It was so much more than I would ever have dreamed and we didn’t have to pay for any of it.”
At other times, members flying with the organization bring bags of fresh fruit and vegetables, a rare treat in the village.
“One year they showed up with a watermelon,” Ross McElwee said. “Watermelon is sold by the pound in Nome and it’s around 4 to 5 dollars a pound. So a small sugar baby watermelon might be 25 to 30 dollars and you still have to pay to get it into the village.”
The work done on the parsonage affects the whole village.
“Every person in this community regards the church as being their church, whether or not they come regularly. There are people who don’t attend church regularly but sometimes they’ve had problems or difficulty in their lives and we’re a listening ear for them,” he said.
At other times, support from Arctic Barnabas has come in more intangible forms.
“We have four children,” Ross McElwee said. “When my son Isaac turned 13, some of the people flew up here from Arctic Barnabas and … he has been interested in aviation since he was 3 or 4 years old. In school, he was a little behind in math and one of the pilots commented, ‘You know, if you’re going to be looking at flying as a career, math is something that’s very important.’ He went from being behind in math to doing trigonometry in the 11th grade.”
For Ruth McElwee, living in a remote village comes with its own unique set of challenges and the Arctic Barnabas organization hosts a yearly retreat specifically for the women leading evangelical lives in Alaska.
“It’s teaching, it’s fellowship, it’s ministry one-to-one and it’s being treated like royalty for lack of a better word,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for me to have a safe place where I can open up and share the personal struggles that I am going through.”
The smallest visit, phone call, email or gift can be profound in its impact, the McElwees said and that support has been invaluable in helping the family adjust to life in the Bush.
“It’s nice to know that there is someone there who cares about you, not just with their words, but that they care by their actions and coming and along and supporting what you’re doing,” he said. “Everything that they have done, we have always felt like it’s because they care. They’re not trying to get something from us, it’s just a support that they do and it’s a support to us.”
After the beach walk, about 30 people headed back to the Arctic Barnabas headquarters at 135 North Willow in Kenai where the group’s airplane hangar had been stacked with tables and chairs for a barbecue.
The group crowded into the hangar and dug into a spread of food, many changing from damp clothing into red beach walk 2014 T-shirts.
After all of the donations were counted, Peters said walkers raised $13,060 from about 22 Alaska organizations and individual donors.
Scott Lazaros grabbed a steaming mug of coffee before sitting down to talk about his two years of work with the Arctic Barnabas minister.
Lazaros, his wife and their four sons moved to Alaska from Michigan to start Alaska Mission Connection within the Arctic Barnabas program. His focus is to connect people within different ministries in the state and help Alaskan ministries support one another instead of relying on support from Outside.
“We try to connect churches all over Alaska with the body of Christ, rather than having all Lower 48 teams come up to Alaska,” he said.
Lazaros, an airplane mechanic, said he knew he wanted to be involved in aviation-based missionary work from a young age.
He said he considered airplanes an invaluable tool in missionary work in areas like Alaska, Africa and Asia. Lazaros said he had worked in remote areas where, like Alaska, flying meant being able to reach exponentially more people.
“In the Phillipines, what would be a four-day hike into a village is a 20-minute flight,” he said.
By helping to keep the Arctic Barnabas airplanes in the air, Lazaros said, people within the organization were working to spread hope throughout isolated communities in the state — especially in situations where life can be a hard adjustment for remote ministering families.
“Whatever we can do to encourage longevity in a pastor,” he said.