a church growing in the woods

Out in western Alaska there flows a slow, meandering river.

Born in the central Brooks Range as a frantic, clear-water stream charged by melting snow and ice, the Koyukuk eventually leaves the mountains behind and begins to wander through the flat spruce and birch forests in what appears a confused attempt to find it’s way to the ocean. Boulder-strewn banks become muddy silt. The river grows, and slows, as the rush of youth becomes the slower pace of middle age. Eventually the Koyukuk meets the Yukon River and catches a ride to the Bering Sea.

Somewhere in the midst of the wilderness the Koyukuk ambles past the village of Huslia like a tired, old bear. This community of three or four hundred Koyukon Athabaskans is decidedly different from other villages; the population is actually growing. The high cost of living “in the bush” is forcing increasing numbers of rural residents to relocate, with Fairbanks and Anchorage as two popular destinations, but “Huslia people” love their home, their culture, even their climate; last winter’s sixty below temps have become this summer’s high eighties, accompanied by hordes of mosquitos.

This is the place Don Ernst and his family have called home for more than two decades. Well, most of them, anyway. Don and Brenda’s children have grown and their two sons are thousands of miles away, but their daughter and son-in-law live here in Huslia, keeping the Ernsts well supplied with visits from grandchildren.

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Don and Brenda are church planters. Their ministry has been long, rewarding, challenging, often difficult and sometimes heart-breaking, but it’s also been effective. There is a church here. In fact, it’s a growing church…literally.

This summer Don coordinated visiting teams of volunteers with local effort to expand the log building where believers meet. During the brief summer they have torn down walls, milled logs, stacked them into new walls, constructed the floor, built and set trusses, and now the entire roof is on, protecting the building from the coming autumn rains.

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Before long, minor details, like doors and windows and lights, will be installed and the building readied for use.

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In a couple of months the air will cool, leaves will flush with color and drop, and the woodstove will be fired up. Locals will gather to sing praise songs and strum guitars while Brenda picks a tune on the mandolin. They’ll thank the Lord for another successful moose season and a supply of meat cached in the freezer.

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The first snow of the coming winter will settle on the roof. And Don will step up to the pulpit, look out across the wide room with plenty of space for growing families, and open the Word of God, just like he’s been doing for the past twenty-three years.

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