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SEU Professors Reach Alaska

Although it is a part of the United States, Alaska is often overlooked and forgotten. Out in the barren wilderness, known as the Alaskan Bush, there are little to no churches. A few Southeastern professors have noticed this need and have dedicated many years to planting and sowing the seeds of God’s love in various regions.

One of these professors is Dr. Ed Plastow, professor of business. Plastow and his wife, Shannon, have been involved in missions efforts in Alaska for two decades. “It’s been a 20-year labor of love,” said Plastow.

The Plastows’ Dedication to Camp Agaiutim Nune  

The Plastows first fell in love with Alaska after taking a vacation there in the spring of 1999. It wasn’t until the fall of 2000 that an article put out by the Assemblies of God’s (AG) Pentecostal Evangel caught their eye. It expressed a great need for people to come work in the Alaskan Bush. “That really touched us, and we committed to Camp AN in May of 2001,” said Plastow.

Camp Agaiutim Nune (AN), meaning “the place of God,” is a wilderness camp located on the Akularak River, 17 miles from a village called Emmonak in the Yukon Delta region. It is only accessible by boat and has no running water or electricity. The camp is powered by generators, and food and water supplies are prepared a year in advance and shipped from Anchorage.

Every summer, Camp AN runs a kids camp (ages 9-12), teen camp (13-18), and family camp (all ages). There’s usually a turnout of 80 to 120 children and teens with a staff of 35 people.

In the summers, Plastow invests most of his time into the administrative operations of the camp, while Shannon serves as the main cook. The camp has mainly catered to the Yupik people, who are transported there by boat from Emmonak and the surrounding villages.

“The Yupik kids and teens live in a really tough environment physically, mentally, and spiritually,” said Shannon. Plastow added, “It’s like being in a third-world country.”

Many of the kids who attend the camp come from villages with small homes. Oftentimes, there is a lack of beds within a household, making it impossible for everyone to sleep at the same time. Usually parents have the first pick, leaving the children to roam around at night. “The parenting is very different from what we see in the lower 48 states,” said Shannon.

While at camp, the kids and teens enjoy a more structured schedule, consisting of morning, afternoon, and evening services with worship games and other fun activities in between. They also encourage the kids in their Bible reading by memorizing verses and providing them with their very own Bibles. “We tell them, ‘This is the Word of God,’ so it’s something they know is special,” said Shannon.

For past campers, the Bibles they received have become treasured possessions. “People tell me those Bibles have been spotted all over western Alaska now,” said Shannon.

Many times, Camp AN may be a child’s or teen’s first encounter with Christ and Christianity.

“The suicide rate in western Alaska is the highest in the country. The Alaskan people are forgotten, and they know they’re forgotten,” said Shannon. This is what keeps Plastow and Shannon coming back every year. “It’s just amazing all the different things we’ve seen God moving and doing out there,” said Shannon.

Plastow and Shannon have also forged a partnership between Southeastern’s missions department, sending out students and even some faculty members to volunteer at the camp over the span of 15 years.

The Hembys’ Partnership with the Alaska Ministry Network

Dr. Samuel Hemby, professor of practical theology, also recognized the spiritual needs of Alaska. For eight years, Hemby and his wife, Rita, have dedicated many of their summers to serving the Assemblies of God (AG) in Alaska.

Hemby’s partnership with the AG Alaska Ministry Network was originally formed back in 2011 when he had been asked to host a group at Southeastern called This Generation Ministries. They were sent by the Alaskan district superintendent, Rev. Bill Welch, to promote and recruit students for ministry opportunities in churches, camps, and short-term missions.

After Hemby hosted the group and showed them around Southeastern’s campus, Welch reached out to him, and they formed a mutual connection. What he hadn’t anticipated was what Welch would ask of him months after their introduction.

The next time Welch reached out to Hemby, it was with the news of a tragedy. One of the AG churches outside of Anchorage had lost their pastor and his wife of 16 years in a sudden accident. Welch expressed the extent of the church’s trouble and asked if Hemby could come and fill in the need for immediate guidance. Within the next week, Hemby and Rita made arrangements to fly out and fill in as interim pastors through the difficult transition, and they stayed for four months.

That first experience of helping a mourning church opened the door to countless more opportunities. The Hembys have returned almost every summer to help with whatever is needed. Sometimes that looks like serving as interim pastors, administrators, or even figuring out the necessary implementations to keep a struggling church open.

“We’ve been able to assist the Network in keeping churches open, as well as helping to bring them some stability to move forward. It’s been really cool to see and be a part of,” said Hemby.

Even with the amount of traveling the ministry requires, Hemby never left his full-time position at Southeastern. Over the years, he was able to adapt his class schedules and summer months to accommodate both commitments. Hemby said, “My time working with the Alaska Network and various churches has provided me with very valuable experiences to bring back and share with my classes.”

Similar to the Plastows, the Hembys recognize the difficulty in the cultural differences of being in Alaska.

“The problem is getting people to come and actually stay there,” said Hemby. “The Alaskan people have very different mindsets, and it’s hard to connect. It can feel like a foreign country. It’s one of the only places in the U.S. where you can feel as if you’re completely out on the mission field.”

Despite the hardships that might come with adjusting to the societal changes, there are just as many unique aspects that wouldn’t be able to be experienced anywhere else. For instance, one of the special places Hemby has been able to visit is Metlakatla, a tight-knit, traditional Tsimshian Indian community.

Hemby said, “On a small island like that, it’s really easy to have a large impact, even with something as simple as a vacation Bible school. You’d hold a camp for a week, and the whole island would show up.”

 “There are many churches and camps who are always in need of people, as well as many areas available for church-planting,” said Hemby. His desire for the future is to spread the word about the numerous ministry opportunities available in Alaska for students and graduates. 

 

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