WASILLA, Alaska – The north Missouri mission team stepped out of the Anchorage, Alaska airport into much cooler weather and spectacular scenery as they prepared to ride in church vans 45 minutes north to the town of Wasilla. They were preparing to work for a week with the Cottonwood Creek Cowboy Church, a mission of Fairview Loop Baptist Church in late June.
The group constructed a horse corral for the cowboy church to use to hold horse expos and they blazed some trails through some woods so the church could offer trail rides to the attenders of the cowboy church services.
The pastor, Tim Avritt, is a soft-spoken man who has been around horses and ranches most of his life. He started out working on ranches in New Mexico and Texas as a young boy. Later he met his wife, Deb, a farrier who was getting training to shoe horses in a New Mexico community college. They moved to Alaska where they train horses, sell hay and provide farrier services to the Mat-Su Valley region horse enthusiasts.
Avritt said most Alaskans have horses for recreational purposes and usually it is the women of the household taking care of the horses. Many of the men work up north on the oil slope, in mines or in the military and they are often away from home for extended periods of time.
On the Sunday of the week-long mission trip, there were 6 women who attended the cowboy church service. Normally there are about 30 each week. It was the beginning of the king salmon run and many of the men had gone fishing for the weekend.
Jeff Harlan, pastor of the Hartford Baptist Church, recruited most of the trip participants. Harlan is a member of the Chariton Hills Christian Cowboy Association in Putnam County, Missouri and he helps with the group’s annual rodeo Bible camp. He said he was interested in going to Alaska to see the state but also to share Jesus with the population, many who do not know Jesus or have any church connection.
While most of the members of the team worked on the horse corrals, there was also a need for painting on a building used by the nearby Wasilla Korean Baptist Church. Four members of the group from Broadlawn Baptist Church in Unionville, painted the upper reaches of the building, while an Alaskan church youth group painted the lower levels of the building. At the conclusion of the week, the Korean church invited the group to worship in their Korean services and they provided buffet lunch of beef bulgogi, rice, egg rolls, watermelon berry soup and kimchi (a cabbage dish). For many of the team, Korean food was a new experience, but the plates were empty at the end of the meal.
Other dinners of moose stew, fried halibut, smoked and baked salmon and reindeer sausage were consumed by the trip participants during the week.
One of the highlights of the trip was connecting with Alaskans and linking them to the new cowboy church. One couple, horse owners, had some hay and they donated it to the cowboy church. Group members loaded the hay and saw that the couple was behind in grass mowing. Two men mowed the grass and trimmed around the house for the mining engineer and his wife, both of whom are prospects of the cowboy church.
The church planter said “He’s kind of particular, so go easy on him.” Avritt said they have been building a relationship with this man for ten years.
At the conclusion of the grass mowing, the team members went with the couple to their barn to admire their Foxtrotter horses, which had been purchased in Lebanon, Missouri. Foxtrotter horses are known for their even, steady gait. They visited with the couple and carefully extended an invitation to cowboy church.
Another young boy in the area had been living in Kirksville, Missouri a few years back and a former foster mother from Kirksville arranged for him to visit the team and the cowboy church pastor along with his grandparents during the team’s week of ministry. Again the careful invitation to come to cowboy church was extended.
But NAMB church planting missionary, Gary Bearce, who helped make arrangements for the trip, said it is not uncommon for Alaskans to have absolutely no church connection as did the above two families. He added “The Mat-Su Valley is growing 2½ times faster than the Anchorage area.”
Bearce said demographic trends call for the region of Wasilla to grow to 111,500 by 2020. They are hoping they can continue to plant new churches such as the Cottonwood Creek church and the Korean church in the coming years.
At the end of the week, the group split into two for a day of salmon fishing by some and a trip to a glacier up in the mountains for others.
A day later they boarded a plane for Missouri, but had several delays and cancellations. Two days later they made it home, exhausted but eager to return to Alaska next summer to continue the association’s partnership established with the Alaska churches.