Chapel in the Mountains

Anaktuvuk Pass



(Anaktuvuk Ministry Today)

January 28, 1959:

Pioneer Perseverance and Sweat Make Church High in Brooks

 ANAKTUVUK, Alaska -- A small log church, deep in a treeless arctic waste, stands as a symbol of a newfound faith in God -- and of the curious fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

From earliest times, the tale was passed down through generations of the Nunamiut, or inland Eskimos, that a Deliverer would come to them and he would be Ataanik or Lord.

So when the Rev. William C. Wartes, a Presbyterian missionary, landed his single-engine float plane on the lake at Anaktuvuk Pass and introduced himself, the villagers nodded know-ingly and asked:

"What took you so long?"

The Nunamiuts also had been told Ataanik would come when the tundra was covered with "Katuk," the Eskimo word for containers. This part of the prophecy came true also.

The U.S. Navy had explored for oil in the Brooks Range. Vast expanses of tundra were dotted with 50-gallon oil drums left behind when the Navy abandoned its search for oil.

The Rev. Mr. Wartes first visited Anaktuvuk, about 300 miles southeast of Point Barrow, in 1952. On frequent flying trips, he taught the villagers the lessons of the Bible. In the summer he held services outdoors, in the winter, in sod huts.

It was his dream to build a log church in the isolated village 2,300 feet up in a saddle of the Brooks Range along the migration route of the caribou. But the difficulties seemed almost insur-mountable. The timberline was 25 miles down the John River on the south slope of the Brooks Range.

Suitable stands of spruce were another 10 to 15 miles beyond. Men were few and the logs could only be transported by dog sled when the river was frozen. Tools and equipment had to be flown in piece by piece, from Barrow.

The villagers, however, were thrilled by the thought of having a church building of their own. Last spring, 14 village men pledged their strength and dog teams to haul the 275 logs needed for the chapel. The Rev. Mr. Wartes brought in carpentry tools and a chain saw.

Then began the chore of felling trees, cutting the logs to size and packing them by dog sled 30 or 35 miles up the frozen river. Some were so heavy it took four men to load them on the sleds.

As warm weather began to melt the snow and ice, a number of logs had to be carried the last several hundred yards by hand. For a time, the Rev. Mr. Wartes feared the logs never would be collected by the time he had completed his Alaskan mission.

"But, as is often the case," he says, "God still answers prayers. We had been praying hard for a north wind and colder temperatures. Not only did the wind come and the river freeze slick as a skating rink but there was an additional blessing.

"The caribou came. When we awoke they were all around us. It was simple for the men to replenish completely depleted food supplies."

Finally, all the logs were gathered. Slowly through the summer the 17.5 by 24-foot church took shape. Handmade benches had a seating capacity of 60. A five-foot annex in the rear held a pulpit, a small organ and the communion table.

The chapel was dedicated in September after the Rev. Mr. Wartes, his wife, and their six children had returned on furlough to Seattle. The 37-year-old flying parson recently was reassigned to the Olympic Peninsula community of Sequim in Washington.

Behind him he left 43 converts -- nearly half the Nunamiut band of 89 -- in the hands of his replacement, the Rev. John Chambers of Scotia, N.Y., and the village postmaster Homer Mekiana, ordained a church elder last spring.

Anaktuvuk Pass Seeks Minister

At one point, Anaktuvuk Pass appointed a Pastor Nominating Committee composed of Lela Ahgook, Rachel Riley, Dorcas Hugo, and Lulu Simpson. The committee indicates that the congregation wanted regular services, Sunday school, and something to attract the men back to services. “The elders are tired of doing all the work,” they add.

Qualities they wanted to see in the next pastor included:

a man;

not too young, not too old;

a good listener with an understanding of confidentiality;

not born or raised on the North Slope;

willing to do pastoral visits;

willing to settle in Anaktuvuk Pass;

willing to support and encourage elders;

willing to do volunteer work in the community; but

could be married or single. 

Anaktuvuk Pass Ministry Today

The Rev. Judith McQuiston is pastor at Anaktuvuk Pass today (1998). She reports a growing membership and a growing commitment, not only to ministry to the people of Anaktuvuk Pass, but also to tourists and people living outside the Arctic.

"Our current membership of 77 is the highest ever in the history of the church," Rev. McQuiston reports proudly. "We received 16 new members in 16 months I've been here, and we have six young people in the high school confirmation class. To be fair, we should explain that many young people had been baptized over the years, but confirmation classes had not been provided."

"Interest in the youth group itself is re-kindling, as well," she added, "And we've begun a Wednesday night service. We'll see how it goes."

The Anaktuvuk people are also proud of their growing ministry to tourists. It began during the summer of 1998 and will be expanded upon in time for summer 1999. A pamphlet on the history of the church has been prepared with Scripture and an invitation to worship with the congregation.

The church has also accepted an invitation from a Presbyterian and United Church of Christ yoked parish in Ogden, Utah, to come and do ministry with them. The Mission Trip, scheduled for 1999, with include Scripture, prayer and song translated into English and Inupiat, as well as a potluck.

Any "love offerings" received as a result of this trip will go to renovation of the original log church.

"It will be converted into a fellowship hall with electricity, heat and a bathroom," Rev. McQuiston explains. "A group from First Methodist Church of Wichita, Kansas will be helping us with the work. They came up last summer and were magnificent. This year they are going to provide both a Bible School and a work crew for the renovation project."

Another outreach program of the congregation involves the saving of postage stamps from letters received by church families. This is a project of Presbyterian Women. The stamps are gathered up and sent to California where they are sold to stamp collectors. The proceeds from sales are then used to fund the Spanish-language mission program in Tecete, Mexico.

"Anaktuvuk Pass has raised $1,000 thus far for Mexican ministry," McQuiston beams.

McQuiston has always considered herself especially called to Native American ministry. The call began some years back when she accepted a teaching position on a Shoshoni and Paiute reservation at Owyhee, Nevada. Experiencing her own personal difficulties at the time, the people gathered around her and her family and protected and helped them begin their own healing process. Judy was ordained as an elder in the reservation church and began planning to enter the ministry herself.

Judy was graduated from Dubuque Seminary at Dubuque, Iowa. Her first call was not to an Native American community but rather to a yoked Presbyterian-United Church of Christ parish in Idaho. The two churches were 60 miles apart which necessitated a great deal of travel.

Her second call was to a community in Wyoming. Here she became involved in ecumenical work, Hospice, inter-city ministry, police and prison chaplaincy, and she completed certification as a chemical dependency counselor. Now she was ready.

"Jim Roghair (pastor at Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church at Barrow) came looking for me. He had heard that I might accept the interim associate pastor position at Barrow," Judy explains today. "I would and I did. I was very happy there, but interim positions are interim positions."

"The position was open at Anaktuvuk Pass and I knew I wanted to stay in the Arctic -- so I applied. They had never had anyone stay more than two years, and I committed to three to five. They hired me. The salary is much lower than in Barrow, but this is where I want to be.

"I wasn't exactly what they had envisioned in a pastor, but they did get a pastor who would do her best to implement the kind of ministry they said they wanted to happen in Anaktuvuk," she adds.

Commenting upon women in ministry in Alaska, especially the Arctic, McQuiston points to the church at Savoonga.

"Savoonga is known as one of the strongest mission churches in the Presbytery," she says, "And I believe that is because of the work of Alice Green."

"I can't stay at Anaktuvuk as long as Alice stayed at Savoonga, but I am using some of her strategies and putting a foundation in place for those who follow me."

"God didn't exempt the Inupiat from the call to do ministry throughout the community and the world -- and the people of Anaktuvuk have heard that call and responded with all their heart and energy," she smiles proudly.

Who Followed Whom...

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