UNITED METHODIST CHURCH OF CHUGIAK

In my ministerial journey in Alaska, I had served three years in the Kenai Parish and Bishop Grant had agreed to have me stay in Alaska. Anchor Park was open, but given the attitudes of that day, it was felt by both the Superintendent and the Bishop that going to Anchor Park would be too much of an increase for such a young pastor. So, in their wisdom, they moved a very popular pastor from Chugiak to Anchor Park and they moved me to Chugiak. Some of the people in Chugiak were very, very unhappy. They protested, but to no avail. When my appointment was read at the Annual Meeting, a lay person (O. W. “Bill” Lowe) who had fought to keep Leo, came bounding across Grant Auditorium and shaking his finger in my face he said: “I want you to know that we fought like hell to keep Leo…(I waited for the hammer to drop, shrinking in size) and we will fight like hell to keep you.”  My size restored to normal. One major advantage is that I was not only a personal friend of Leo’s, but I had been a player in the Birchwood Camp, so I was known. It helped. However, Leo was only moved 15 miles or so from Chugiak and when a crisis came up in one family, they called Leo instead of me. Leo drove out to Chugiak from Anchorage and we visited the family together and then Leo disappeared. To my knowledge, he was not called again. It helped that we were friends.

Shortly after getting settled, I met with some of the “men” of the church and told them that I knew a significant amount of money was available to build a new sanctuary. I wanted their advice as to whether to make that a priority of my ministry or should we wait awhile. They said “full speed ahead” and that is what I did. With the help of strong laypersons like Harold Abrams and Stan Nickerson, the building process went smoothly. A contractor wanted to keep his crew together through a winter, so he gave us a very low bid. By and large, it was a wonderful experience. Harold Abrams was responsible for lots of construction at a nearby military base and he would stop by every evening on his way home and check out the process. When it came time to approve the architect’s color scheme for the sanctuary, we hit a rough spot. To save money, he had authorized rough beams (cheaper) and they were to be stained a light green to hid the imperfections and fit in with the total color scheme. Bill Lowe (remember him) wanted to change the recommendation to leaving them natural. Harold Abrams said “troubles come when you tamper with the vision of the architect.  He should know! Bill Lowe, when he was outvoted blew up and announced he was leaving the church. Later in the evening I went to his home, affirmed that his views were valued and stayed until about 2 a.m., reflecting on the situation. He stayed in the church. Years later, he and his wife  visited us in Spokane and he proudly announced that the beams had been sanded and were now their natural color. He had won! By this time the architect was dead, so no feelings were hurt. I visited the church with the natural beams and it looked okay.  It only took him nearly 30 years to get his own way. One can never live life over again, but I had less patience in my older years with bullying behavior. That night I had compassion.

The color scheme matched the outdoor trees on May 15th when spring arrived. For two weeks, you couldn’t tell where the building ended and the world began.

We also had a battle over the glass windows installed at both ends of the sanctuary. They were to be tinted. The Mission Superintendent informed us that we could not have the windows because he was contributing $60,000 to the project. If we didn’t change the windows to more inexpensive walls, we couldn’t have the money. We had a meeting with the local church committee and it was my task to tell the Superintendent that if we couldn’t have the windows, we didn’t want his money. He relented. We got the money.  It would be hard for the reader to visualize this, but walking down the center aisle of the church, occasionally we could see Mt. McKinley about 160 miles away. Once I just gave up preaching and turned to enjoy the view myself. No one was listening to me.

We had a wonderful study group in the church, with one resident fundamentalist (maybe two) and one agnostic, if not atheist. We had loving, dynamic, respectful discussions. A rare experience in ministry. After some counseling, the agnostic gifted me with a moose horn lamp, which we still treasure.

Part of my responsibility was being in charge of Birchwood Camp. We finished a lodge and upgraded the camp with cabins (from tents) and eventually had a resident caretaker, which took a lot of responsibility from my shoulders. Since I didn’t get paid, I gave myself the title of Camp Superintendent.

Since I am telling Bill Lowe stories, his wife became ill and he was unable to do his annual float on a river to get a moose. So his church friends gathered money and it was my task to give the money to him so he could do an airplane hunt and get his annual moose in just a few hours. As Bill often did, he got angry and rejected the offer. “He was not a charity case. He could pay his own way.” I was not sent home empty handed, but with money I would have to return to the donors. Then I got angry and I went back to his home, telling him that it was his duty to his friends to receive this gift from his friends. “Well, if you put it that way”, he relented and took the money and I didn’t have to return it to the donors. He won’t let down his friends.

A great deal of financial support came from the Pittsfield Methodist Church in Pittsfield, Illinois. I sent them some moose meat for a wild game dinner. I shot my own, I didn’t ask for any of Bill’s moose. Merice Richner painted a large painting of the Chugiak area (priceless now) as a gift to the church in gratitude for their support. I checked recently and the church still had the painting.

James Kirsch offered to sand the parsonage logs and then restain them. He spent months on the job. What an offer! I experimented with having dogs, as Stan Nickerson dropped a German Shepherd/Husky mix by my house. He didn’t tell me she was pregnant. She had one puppy. The dog was wonderful. Always sat beside me when I was driving the new truck to Birchwood Camp.

One time the daughter of the camp watchperson called to tell me that a dog team and sled had come into camp empty. I told her that they should not pet them.  (too late)  Dogs can be vicious.  I drove there as quickly as I could. I found the dog musher on the camp road, looking very upset. I asked him to get in the truck, which he did. I told him I knew where his team was and we were quickly there. He was so grateful that he offered the young girl the pick of his kennel. Her mother started to say “no”, but I assured her I would be the backup, if they didn’t want the dog. Soon I owned another dog. Eventually I gave that dog to a beginning dog musher and she became her leader and won at least one race in Fairbanks.

Speaking of Fairbanks, in 1957 there was a great flood in Fairbanks and I went with a group of young men from St. John to clean out the church basement.  There were feet of gravel on the floor. We hauled it out five gallons at a time. I never recovered physically (lower back) and it became my role to get the young men motivated and focused. We slept in a shelter set up at a local school gymnasium.  Biggest learning: if you have a basement in a flood zone, fill the basement with clean water and the basement walls with not cave in and the damage will not be as great. You heard it first here.

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