Alaska is a mission field because 90 percent of her 738,000 citizens are not born again nor could they hear the gospel from the existent small, struggling churches. Once a foreign mission field, Alaska attained statehood in 1959, which made the evangelization of its natives and immigrants a priority of National Missions. Alaska's location, geography, climate, and people influence missionary service far more than any other National Mission field.
Located 500 miles northwest of the state of Washington, America's "last frontier," which is the forty-ninth state's nickname, is accessible by air, sea, or a marathon 1,671-mile drive over the Alaska Highway, crossing Canada's British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. The terminus of the highway is Fairbanks, located in the central part of the state. As Alaska's second-largest city, boasting 34,000 people, it is only 100 miles from the Arctic Circle. In the mountain range to the south is the highest point in the United States--Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet). Because Alaska is remote it presents frontierlike conditions for missionary service.
Alaska's western neighbor, Russia, located only fifty-seven miles away across the Bering Strait, discovered this land in 1741. It was from the USSR that Secretary of State William Seward had the foresight to purchase in 1897 what was to become the country's largest oil producer. Not everyone was favorably impressed with this frigid and sparsely populated land, even at the bargain price of two cents per acre and a total cost of 7.1 million dollars. The disenchanted called it "Seward's Icebox." Even the Russians were happy to divest themselves of this barren land.
The United Sates military considers Alaska a strategic location for defense. During World War II nearly 40 percent of the populace was in the military services, but now only 33,000 military personnel are stationed there.
Some of the peoples are Slavic in origin, having migrated from eastern Russia and intermarried. The Russian Orthodox church became the national church and continues to be the largest religious body, with eighty-three churches and 10,000 members representing half the Christian community. Religion, for the majority, is but a facade with very little meaning.
The geography of Alaska shapes the lives of the people and isolates them from one another. Through the years the natives have learned to cope with the conditions, but outsiders find the adaptation process extremely demanding. The land is massive, equaling one-fifth the land mass of the contiguous states. It stretches 1,200 miles north and south and 2,200 miles east and west. It is twice the size of Texas but ranks fiftieth in population; whereas Texas has fifty-three persons per square mile, Alaska has one person. Thirty-six percent of the populace is scattered in 200 isolated villages, often forty to sixty miles apart. Fishing villages found along the rugged coastline, which stretches for nearly as many miles as that of the lower forty-eight states, are connected with an often undependable ferry system. Remote mountain villages may be connected with ski trails or those trails left by snowmobiles. The many villages scattered along the Yukon and other rivers are accessible depending on the season, by boat, bush pilot, or snowmobile, for there are only 10,000 miles of roads, mostly connecting the five mainland cities--Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan.
The land may be divided into seven areas that stretch like bands laterally across the state. Each area is nearly isolated from the others geographically; therefore, the people and their life-styles vary widely. Even missions are often limited to working in certain areas. The southernmost band divides into two areas resembling the opposing sides of a handle bar mustache. To the east and following down the coast is the panhandle. This area includes Juneau (the capital), Sitka, and Ketchikan. It is home for 6,000 maritime Indians XE "Indians" , the Tlingits, Haida, and Tsimshians. Gospel Missionary Union has planted three churches among the Indians and has developed several ministries among the 50,000 who inhabit the panhandle. The panhandle is attached on the north end by means of the coastal range bordering the Gulf of Alaska.
A National Geographic writer describes the gulf as
a wilderness on the edge of a wilderness, remote by water, remote by land, rimmed by ice fields, glaciers, and the second highest coastal mountains in the world. The people live in a few small towns and a scattering of cabins...Like the rest of Alaska, the gulf is a harsh place to live...attracting young people who are disposed toward an absence of society.
Nearly half of Alaska's population is to be found in Anchorage, the largest city of 300,000, and in Valdez, the terminus of the 800-mile pipeline from the north slope. Ironically, the pipeline cost 1,000 times the original purchase price of the whole state. Baptist Mid-Missions, headquartered here, has established the Anchorage Baptist Bible Institute and also plants churches in the "bush." Solid Rock Ministries has a camp at Soldotna.
Area two is west of Anchorage and includes the peninsula and seventy Aleutian islands. It is home for 7,000 Aleuts among whom sixteen Slavic Gospel Association workers have been working since 1940. They have planted six churches.
Moving inland, area three encompasses the Alaska Basin, bordered on the north by the Alaska Range, which constitutes area four. Send International (formerly Central Alaska Mission), is headquartered in Glenallen and began work in 1936 in the basin. The mission maintains Alaska Bible College, a medical work, a radio station, KCAM, which blankets the area with the Good News, and does church planting.
The heartland of Alaska, area five, is dissected by several rivers that are dominated by the 2,000-mile Yukon River. The Athabascan Indians have built scattered, isolated villages along the rivers. The largest faith mission, InterAct [Arctic Missions], has been evangelizing this area since 1951 and has 165 missionaries who work with six churches, the Arctic Bible Institute, a junior high school, a camp, a bookstore, and church planting ministries.
The last two areas are within the Arctic Circle. Area six includes the Brooks Range, which is essentially uninhabited except for scattered villages found in the mountain passes. Finally, the Arctic plains of the far north polar region are home for the Eskimos. They also live along the western coast. More than a third of North America's 60,000 Eskimos live in Alaska. The term Eskimo means "eater of raw meat," reflecting the primitive conditions under which they may live. Most Alaskan Eskimos (22,000) live in settled villages, but those living in Greenland (23,000) and Siberia (12,000) may be nomadic. Pierce Beaver indicates that the Christian community numbers 20,000 Eskimos attending 138 churches. Over half of those belong to the Catholic church and 2,600 are Moravian; another 1,500 are Episcopalian, and 1,300 are United Presbyterian. Faith missions are represented by Send International, [formerly Far Eastern Gospel Crusade 1947] which has planted three churches attended by 118 members.
The climate of Alaska varies from the temperate panhandle to the subzero (-80 degrees F.) temperatures of the high elevations, especially the northern end of the state lying above the Arctic Circle. At times the wind chill factor can reach 100 degrees (F.) below zero. The Eskimos have been especially endowed with a thick layer of flesh on the face and a short stubby body to cope with these temperatures, but they still have to be cautious.
The long, hard winters are the most difficult for the missionaries in the bush. Most everyone heats with wood, because heating oil is expensive. Much time is required to prepare the substantial number of cords of wood needed for those months. It may be necessary to travel several miles to find dry wood. Before the freeze, the wood can be floated down the river, but later a dog sled or snowmobile will be used.
Another problem is maintaining a balanced diet. Game meats are available and some dry staples that have been flown in from the village store may be purchased. But fruits and vegetables are scarce.
Most areas of Alaska have a summer season during June, July, and August, when the average temperature ranges from 68 degrees to 76 degrees.
The coastal regions are plagued with dense fog, substantial rain, and calving glaciers. Violent storms are common fare. Such climactic conditions can be very depressing, but the fishermen hazard them because of the great wealth involved in the fishing industry.
The missionary who contemplates working in Alaska will need to consider the special demands the climate can impose. Alaskan service may require strenuous physical labor, periods of isolation, and few supplies and conveniences. Bush ministry is for one who likes the life of an outdoorsman and is willing to work in a rural village of 100-300 people.
The native population of Alaska, numbering 64,000 (16 percent of the state population) overwhelmingly lives in bush country, for only 8 percent are urban. The natives are divided among three groups. The Inuit [Eskimos] number 28,800, the Indians XE "Indians" number 28,200, and the Aleuts are 7,000. The Indians may be further subdivided into four groups: the Athabascans, 21,000; Tlingits, 4,500; Tsimshians, 850; and the Haida, 600. The Aleuts are related to the Eskimos, but neither is Indian.
Urban Alaskans make up 64 percent of the populace. They earn 23 percent more than the average American, which reflects the higher cost of living. Oil revenues fill state coffers sufficiently so that in 1980 the state income tax was removed. During the decade of the 1970s the urban population grew by 34 percent. The construction industry is ever busy; however, the government is the largest employer. Tourism (100,000 annually), fishing, and manufacturing offer many jobs. Urban church planting needs to receive a higher priority by the faith missions. John Gillespie of InterAct notes that faith missions work primarily with native people in the villages.
Within fifty years of the discovery of Alaska, the Orthodox church began to evangelize the natives in 1792. The Lutheran church sent missionaries in 1840, before Alaska was purchased. Six other denominations became active before the Gold Rush in 1898, when the population nearly doubled.
Recognizing the overwhelming expanse of the state, the denominations entered into a comity of missions whereby they sought to avoid duplication of ministry. By this means each group worked in a different region that became known as the ministry of a particular church. Those entering to work in a particular area now must recognize this heritage.
Conditions in bush Alaska are rapidly changing. Today most of the larger villages have public elementary and secondary schools, provided by either the Bureau of Indian Affairs XE "Bureau of Indian Affairs" or Iditarod, the state-run system. This eliminates the problem natives face with sending their children to the city to attend high school. It also lessens the need for mission high schools and provides opportunity for national Christians to teach in the public school system.
Transportation remains a major problem for bush missionaries. Roads are either nonexistent or very poor. River travel, which includes the cost of the boat, motor, and fuel, is expensive. Dog sleds and the huskies are very popular and are often entered in the state's annual dog sled race. The modern snowmobile, although expensive, is very popular. Most villages have airstrips, but bush pilots are not always reliable; therefore, Missionary Aviation Fellowship is a great help to missionaries.
A great need exists to train national pastors. Three of the five church-planting faith missions working in Alaska have established Bible schools for the training of the natives and whites. Two of those began in the late 1960s. A survey in 1978 revealed that there were only thirty-nine native pastors serving in 309 churches. The survey further indicated that the average age of those men was 63. The conclusion reached from this report was that "missions in Alaska have not been successful in producing native Christian leaders." Circumstances have improved dramatically.
Alcoholism is widespread in the Indian communities. No final explanation has been given to indicate why this is so. Perhaps joblessness, isolation, boredom, competition and a host of other reasons contribute. But without question, the only answer to the problem is the power to conquer through a vital relationship with Jesus Christ. Counseling ministries have a high priority for it has been discovered that there is an abnormally high rate of all kinds of abuse of Indian children and women of all ages.
Although improving, medical service in the bush is minimal. Resident doctors are at a minimum; therefore airlift to the nearest hospital makes the bush pilot a vital link in health care. Life expectancy is well below the national average with a heavy toll exacted by fighting, accident, flu and pneumonia, and a suicide rate ten times the national average. Many children are orphaned; therefore, the American Baptists established a children's home in Kodiak. The residents are 81 percent native.
Communication media in Alaska have mushroomed with the advent of fourteen newspapers, twenty-two radio stations and sixteen television stations. Two of the radio stations are Christian broadcasters.
Denominational missions are working in Alaska as well as church-planting faith missions supported by service organizations. Wycliffe Bible Translators is finishing up its work and will be closing out its Alaska field. The New Testament is available in Eskimo/Inupiaq from the American Bible Society. Although there are twenty living languages in Alaska, only the older natives use them; English is the medium of instruction in the schools. A mission brochure summarizes: "The old Indians speak only their native tongue. Middle-aged Indians are bilingual. The young people speak only English."
Within the native community of 64,000 are 43,000 (71 percent) nominal Christians. The largest group is Orthodox (36 percent). The other two groups are Protestant (18 percent) and Catholic (17 percent).
Presently there are over 374 missionaries working under twelve boards. Two hundred churches serve a membership of several thousand. Send International reports that they have started a new ministry among the fastest growing minority group in Alaska, the Japanese, who remain isolated from the gospel.
The Southern Baptists are the largest evangelical group in the state. They have 62 churches, 18 preaching points, with approximately 12,000 members. FAIRBANKS: They have ministry among the Blacks at St. John Baptist Church which has 295 resident members. The Friendship Baptist Church, once known as Eskimo Baptist Mission, is multi-ethnic. University Baptist Church, 167 members, has sponsored the planting of a Spanish and a Chinese church and a literacy school. First Baptist Church  is located at North Pole, AK. Most of the members are military personnel and tourists. The town boasts a 20 foot high statue of Santa Claus.
ANCHORAGE: There are 36 Southern Baptist congregations, five of which are between 200 and 300 members. Three minister to the 65,000 Blacks in the area. There is a Thai Bible study group, a Hispanic ministry, a Korean mission, a Filipino church. Missionary Linda Hokit indicates that Anchorage is the largest native village in Alaska, with high rates of rape, alcoholism XE "alcoholism" and abuse.
EVANGELISTIC FAITH MISSION
EVANGELICAL FRIENDS MISSION
EVANGELISM MISSION, INC
GOSPEL MISSIONARY UNION
SEND INTERNATIONAL OF CANADA
SLAVIC GOSPEL ASSOCIATION
SOLID ROCK MINISTRIES, INC
WYCLIFFE BIBLE TRANSLATORS OF CANADA, INC.