Community United Methodist Church Meets its Community’s Spiritual and Practical Needs
On most Wednesday evenings during the school year, a lively group of 20 grade-schoolers gather at Community (NunaaqiGmiut*) United Methodist Church in Nome, Alaska, for dinner, church school and hugs from caring adults. In fact, children in this neighborhood consider Community an extension of their own backyards — the church boasts the only playground on this side of town.
Lily Fawn White, mother of a 5-year-old and chairwoman of Community’s church council, praises the children’s program, called Faith Followers, as one of many examples of how her congregation meets the practical and faith needs of Nome’s 3,500 residents. “We are so thankful to have a safe place for the community children to play.”
Community Church, one of the oldest Protestant congregations in Nome, is an intergenerational spiritual home, a neighborhood gathering place, a guardian of local culture, and a symbol of hope in a town rich in diversity. Community also seeks to meet the needs of residents of Nome and nearby villages, community, serving people who are relatively well-off and those who are affected by poverty, isolation and even substance abuse.
Nome, like much of western Alaska, was relatively unpopulated when people panning for gold descended in the late 19th century. The town grew to 20,000 at one point. A diphtheria epidemic rocked the Native population in the 1920s and, though many survived, the call of better jobs in the cities, the peak and decline of gold fever and, finally, relocation of Natives helped shrink the population to its current 3,500 residents.
Today, the town is still not accessible except by plane, so clothing and food are expensive and hard to get. People with lower incomes depend largely on the church and social service agencies for support. To that end, Community Church boasts a thrift store (a ministry of United Methodist Women), a Boys and Girls Club, feeding and social programs for senior citizens and children), and cultural activities, such as Native dance, fishing expeditions, and berry picking for residents of all ages and circumstances. Church women welcome newborn babies in the community by assembling and giving away layettes to parents. In addition, the church’s Inupiaq Women’s Choir, which includes members beyond the congregation, is considered a jewel of Nome culture, performing music in the language of the Inupiat people of Northwest Alaska across the region.
White herself joined the congregation in 2008 after she moved to Nome from her native Oklahoma to serve as a US-2 (a short-term missionary, typically a young adult) through the General Board of Global Ministries. Her early work involved her serving youth and children, while also reaching out to neighbors who were at risk for hunger and homelessness. A member of the Ponca nation reared in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, White said Community’s commitment to the Eskimo-Aleut people of Nome, which makeup half the city’s population, kept her in the congregation after her missionary term ended.
Now a juvenile probation officer with the state of Alaska, White, her partner Rhonda Sparks, and their son, Trevor, are integral and active members of Community.
“Nome and Community embrace Native traditions and cultures. Our congregation mirrors the town. We work together to make sure we are all taken care of,” White adds.
Community congregation is a rich mixture of Inupiaq and Yupik (branches of Eskimo), Inuit and white members, with African-American, Asian-American and Pacific-Island American members, too.
Lew Tobin, now 65, says that diversity was one of the attractions for him when he came to Alaska from New York City in 1972.
Like White, Tobin first came to town as a young adult to outreach as a teen coordinator for the church-related Nome Community Center. He recalls arriving on a cold Friday night in October, and, with no place to sleep, he camped on the floor of Community Church’s sanctuary near the altar. On Sunday morning, he considered moving his stuff before worship started but says, “I had nowhere else to go, so I joined in the church service.”
Tobin became the first paid employee of the community center, and extended his work there with young people to his church work. Over the years, he has taught Sunday school and organized sledding trips, Christmas caroling, bowling nights and camping trips. His own faith has been buoyed by participation in the Walk to Emmaus and a Tuesday morning men’s prayer group.
Fostering Vital Conversations
Community Church was the result of a 1949 union of a white congregation and a Native congregation. Although the congregation has been racially mixed since then, the church celebrated a milestone in July 2013 when the Rev. Charles Brower became the first Alaska Native appointed to Community — or any other United Methodist church in the state.
Before becoming a local pastor, Brower says, his church experience was varied: he was baptized Presbyterian, tried a summer with Assembly of God, was married in Reformed Church (to his wife of 44 years, Janet, with whom he has four sons and seven grand children), and served as a Church of Christ deacon. Returning to Alaska, he joined St. John United Methodist Church in Anchorage because of their emphasis on mission outreach. Reared in church-run boarding schools, Brower has experienced the church at its best and its worst.
“I am a native of Barrow, Alaska, and I was sent to boarding school at age 10 and, with many other Native children, relocated from my family and community and forced to give up my culture to be ‘Christianized’,” Brower, 67, recalls.
A stint in the U.S. Navy after high school and a renewed “faith in a God who affirms me just as I am,” kept Brower grounded. “I think I have a strong sense of the challenges facing my people—challenges that face many people in Alaska. I’m grateful for this opportunity.”
Brower, a member of the Western Jurisdiction’s Inter-Ethnic Coordinating Committee and chairperson of Native Ministries for the Alaska Missionary Conference, says worship attendance at Community is about 45 to 50 people. Summer attendance drops as people venture out to find work, but, Brower says, ‘the number of homeless visitors increases.’
“Homeless people looking for summer work often sleep in the space under the thrift store — which is set up on pilings. We just ask them not to smoke,” Brower adds. “We understand that the church property and community center is for everyone.”
It’s that kind of welcome and that keeps Howard Appel engaged at Community. A trustee of the church, Appel is educational coordinator at nearby Anvil Correctional Center. He has invited Brower to talk to inmates at Anvil, 95 percent of them Native and most of whom come from villages where there are few jobs, a high cost of living and a high rate of substance abuse. “Charlie speaks from a place of faith, compassion and understanding, and I’m grateful for that,” Appel says.
Appel, 69, also credits his involvement at Community Church with sustaining him personally. “I went through a divorce and I couldn’t have survived without [former Pastor Bob Bowers]and the compassion of the church members,” he explains.
“I was on the Nome Community Center board for years, and I worked in the food bank and with elderly residents. The older adults, especially, became my family. There is something very special about this church. I can’t image being anywhere else.”
* “people of this land”
M. Garlinda Burton is a consultant, writer and editor living in Nashville, Tenn. She is a member of Hobson United Methodist Church.