Presbyterians and The Pipeline Ministry
Presbyterian chaplains served the workers in the gold fields in the 1900s, the workers in the copper mines in the 1920s and 1930s, the workers on the Alaska Highway and along the Alaska Railroad in the 1940s and 1950s, and it was to be no different in the 1970s with the construction of the 800 mile long Alaska Pipeline.
Synod Associate Executive Gordon Corbett served as chairperson of the Alaska Christian Conference Task Force formed to oversee the pipeline chaplaincy effort.
At the time, Corbett noted that the task force would provide “opportunities for religious groups which have not had experience working together” to do so. The ACC had a mechanism by which denominations which were not official members of the organization could participate in special projects such as the Pipeline Task Force and several had done so.
In addition, the task force specifically indicated its intention to recruit and include clergy from all ethnic minority groups in the program.
But we get ahead of ourselves. We must go back to the beginning.
The Alaska Christian Conference (ACC) submitted a proposal to the Alyeska Pipeline Service Corporation on November 1, 1973, suggesting that the company fund a $122,500 chaplaincy program for the men and women who would be working on the construction of the project. The ACC estimated that some 1,500 to 2,000 persons would be working at six or seven construction sites during the course of the project, with an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 people being moved from their homes for training related to work on the pipeline system.
From the experience of similar construction jobs in other countries, from experience of the North Slope operations, from the experience of fire fighting and other employment situations in which people are moved from their homes and families for extended periods of time, it is possible to project problems of a social nature, ACC told Alyeska.
With people away from home there will be family crises, such as deaths, sicknesses, family difficulties, with wives carrying the greatest burden for family management....
“The Alaska Christian Conference would like to offer Alyeska Pipeline Corporation a chaplaincy program which would help meet many of these problems. Our desire is to serve the personal and social needs of the construction workers, their families, Alaska communities along the pipeline corridor. We believe that such a program would be financially beneficial to Alyeska,” ACC wrote.
The original proposal included funding for a full-time director, an administrative assistance, and four full-time field workers. Additional program services were to be provided through a corps of volunteers.
The Conference received a letter in response dated February 12, 1974 indicating that Alyeska was interested in establishing a pipeline chaplaincy.
On February 23, however, the Fairbanks Council of Churches held a pipeline impact meeting with representatives from Alyeska, the community, the churches, and government. Charles Elder, executive vice president for Alyeska attended the meeting and indicated “an interest in providing for the spiritual psychological needs of the workers.”
Several denominations had already begun identifying funds for pipeline chaplaincy work, i.e. the Southern Baptist Convention had budgeted for three positions, the American Lutherans had budgeted for one person to work out of Valdez, and other groups indicated that they had been exploring similar ideas.
Following additional discussions with B. H. King, manager of Alaska Personnel Relations for Alyeska, Alyeska offered to pay transportation to sites for chaplains and to underwrite the board and room while chaplains were on site. The company could see the benefit in having one person coordinate the chaplains serving the pipeline personnel “in order to keep some order” -- and therefore, they might underwrite the salary of a “coordinator of chaplaincy.”
Presbyterians involved in the early discussions included David Solberg, chaplain at Community Hospital in Anchorage; Gene Straatmeyer, then pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fairbanks; and Gordon Corbett, associate synod executive for the Synod of Alaska-Northwest. Other denominations involved were the American Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptists, and United Methodists.
By June of 1974, Alyeska had funded a modified grant and the program was underway.
The appointment of Maj. Raymond A. Dexter of the Salvation Army was announced in June. He would be coordinator for religious activities and pastoral counseling services. Dexter came with more than 19 years experience directing religious and social welfare programs. He would be based out of Fairbanks.
Dexter had been a former state commander for the Salvation Army in Hawaii and had experience working in a multicultural context. He had been a staff chaplain with the U.S. Army in the Pacific, retiring with the rank of colonel. He held a doctorate of education from Stanford University and a master of science degree in mathematics and meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The ecumenical effort was a success, if such can be judged by the plethora of articles collected from various secular and denominational publications.
“The chaplain program has probably provided more favorable publicity for Alyeska than almost any other aspect of the project, reported Task Force chair Corbett in January of 1975. “National church publications for the Methodists, Presbyterians, Salvation Army, and the American Bible Society have carried stories about the chaplains and their work. The Wall Street Journal and Reader’s Digest reporters have done interviews for future stories,” he added.
And more articles were to follow in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian publications.
Billed as the “Longest parish in the world” (800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez), the ministry was described in a May 22, 1976, Anchorage Times article.
From it we learn that non-denom-inational worship services were con-ducted on a regularly scheduled basis. Counseling took place in both formal and informal settings -- with workers frequently coming to the chaplain’s room at all hours of the day and night.
Pianos and organs were not available, but music for the services was provided through more portable instruments such as guitars, flutes, harmonicas, violins, and fiddles.
Chaplains had conducted marriages, memorial services, and two baptisms.
The chaplains may be sharing in the glamour of the pipeline with the other workers, but they are not sharing the wealth of typical $1,200 a week salaries,” the writer reported.
“Chaplains are provided by the denominational headquarters and are paid modest subsistence salaries by their own churches and denominations. Alyeska provides room and board and transportation between the camps,” the article explained.
A rundown of participating chaplains was provided:
An observation throughout the ministry was that denominational differences among the chaplains did not seem to be of significant concern. Chaplains came from a wide spectrum of theological, liturgical, and educational backgrounds. It was not the denominational tradition that counted, but rather the individual chaplain and his or her ability to relate and minister to an inter-denominational (and more often, a non-religious) community.
Some were concerned about just how much service could be offered and to whom, and for what purpose. Mormons, for example, were assisted in identifying each other and in securing authorization for group leaders and meeting places. The efforts of specific groups whose purposes seemed to be chiefly aimed at proselytizing, however, were resisted. Jewish rabbis were encouraged, when available, to visit the camps, particularly for pre-Passover counseling. Special Kosher food was also secured for the holidays when requested. There did seem to be “relatively constant pressure” to allow practitioners of various denominations and sects free access to the camps to “minister to their members.” This was resisted on the basis that the camp chaplain was there to serve the whole community not just his own group. The question was asked, however, about non-Christian groups like Buddhists, Baha’i, etc. The issue did not arise, but there had been some concern that no clear response had been formulated in advance.
The pipeline construction was completed on schedule and the Pipeline Chaplaincy Task Force and program came to a close June 30, 1977.