Answering the Call

  • Randy Karlberg
Orange houses and structures in a very snowy mountain

How many stories begin with a phone call?  This particular story begins with a call for help.  A teacher at Grace Christian School in Anchorage, Alaska received a call from a friend in a village in Bush Alaska.  Alaska has over 200 remote communities scattered over more than 660,000 square miles of wilderness.  Most of these communities are only accessible by airplane, boat, or snowmachine, commonly referred to as snowmobile.  The remoteness of the Alaskan wilderness provides for the most amazing adventures as well as some of the harshest living conditions.  The people who call the Alaskan Bush home are tough and adventurous. So back to this phone call… This phone call was asking for help because there had been some tragic circumstances in their particular village.  This is a situation that no parent wants to ever go through.  There had been three village teenagers who had committed suicide in a short period of time.  In trying to deal with the pain of losing young people, the caller asked if there was any way that the school could send out some students to help the children of the village have hope?

Children are every village’s most precious future.  A parent or leader will do anything to help their children in a time of crisis.  This teacher at Grace felt the agony through the phone line and promised to do what they could.  A few short months later a couple of teachers and several students from Grace boarded two small bush planes and began a journey that has knit a deep, trusting, and long-lasting relationship.  This relationship did not remain with just this one village, but over ten villages have been impacted in the more than 20 years that Grace 2 Alaska has been taking trips to rural Alaska.  Some years there have been six different villages to which two separate teams have traveled. The goal of these trips is first to build relationships between schools.  A second goal is to share the love of Jesus with people who are in need of hope.  These relationships are ones of mutual respect and friendship that have lasted for many years.  Some of the students involved in these trips have even stood up in each other’s wedding.  Each of these schools has learned so much from each other regarding culture, family, hard work, and laughter.  The joy shared goes each way.  And every year each school looks forward to renewing friendships and building new ones. 

Thinking back on what has most contributed to this incredible relationship, a couple of things come to mind.  The steadfast commitment to make these trips each year has to have had the greatest impact.  Some of the students in schools that we visit don’t remember a year when the Grace 2 Alaska teams have not come.  Unfortunately though Covid forced us to not travel to rural Alaska in the past three years.  But the renewed excitement has taken hold as the annual trips are back on.  The on-going relationships have fostered a deep trust in each other that is so very important when establishing relationships.  The second thing that has impacted this relationship greatly is the willingness to serve.  The Grace students are prepared knowing that they may be asked to help in any capacity of need.  School principals often take the opportunity for our high school students to spend time tutoring younger students.  This creates a great deal of motivation for the younger students to try their best with an older student investing time in them.  Other areas of service have been cleaning, helping in the kitchen, organizing the library, and playing with children at recess.  In one school we were even given the task of painting a room that needed help.  The motive of service brings such a deep sense of satisfaction and it quickly breaks down barriers to trust. 

How does one know if there is trust in a relationship?  A couple of indicators are sure to show up when trust is apparent in a relationship.  When people allow their children to be in the care of others, trust has been earned.  Across cultures one thing that all parents have in common is protecting their children.  When one is trusted with children, you have established a strong relationship.  And when children are suffering, parents will go to great lengths to help their children.  If a person is successful in helping their children, a parent usually has a good deal of gratitude.  Our relationships with Alaskan village schools has allowed us many opportunities to share our faith openly with the children and adults alike.  During the school day we share secular assemblies which we have planned.  These assemblies have themes such as anti-bullying, saying no to drugs and alcohol, and being a good friend to others.  With the recent impact that social media and technology has brought, the plea to combat cyber-bullying has touched a definite need.  After school hours we are allowed to invite the students and community back to the school for open gym time, games, crafts, and skits that have a Gospel message.  We will have at least one of our students share their life’s story each night we are there.  The impact of these testimonies and conversations that are had as students become vulnerable with each other is powerful.   We always bring Bibles with us just in case some of the students would like to have their own Bible. 

Because of the long relationships and trust our students have been accepted into some of the most intimate and impactful life activities of the communities.  One year there was a funeral that was going to happen as we arrived at the village.  We of course did not want to get in the way and offered to come later or just stay in the school.  Rather than stay away, the village elders invited us to join in the meal after the funeral.  This celebration is called a “potlach” and is a great honor to be invited to participate in.  Another year one of our leaders was invited to join in a whale hunt.  Whaling has been an ongoing tradition for centuries in some of the coastal communities.  Only Native Alaskan people are allowed to participate on a whaling crew.  But others can be invited to come along as long as they don’t participate in any way.  It is clear how humbling it is to be invited on such and amazing occasion.  This particular whale hunt was successful.  The joy of the entire community was palpable as the celebration of plentiful fresh meat for the whole town was realized.  To include our team in the celebration was a huge indication of the close relationship we share. 

Not all things go as planned on these trips.  We have had to do without running water and flush toilets for our trip because the water lines froze and broke.  We have had people who were unhappy with us being in the village and tried to make us leave.  It is critical to get the approval of the village elders themselves before you even try to plan a trip.  There have also been trips where we have been weathered in and our planes cannot fly for a couple of days.  Weather in Alaska rules what you can and cannot do!

Each village is unique.  The people groups may be similar, and many of the community members might even be related.  But each village has its own distinction and every town has its own character.  Staying flexible and thankful for the opportunity to be friends with others is key in building long lasting relationships that have potential for eternal impact.  It all starts with answering the call.