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Alaska Baptists celebrate 75th anniversary, look to the future

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First Baptist Church here served as the official starting point for the Alaska Baptist Convention at its organizational meeting March 27-28, 1946. Now known as the Alaska Baptist Resource Network, the ministries resulting from that gathering decades ago were honored, again at First Baptist Church, on March 26-27.

Those years have seen the work of Alaska Baptists grow to 115 churches, missions and preaching points, according to Randy Covington, the state convention’s executive director. In addition, partner ministries include the Alaska Baptist Foundation, Birchwood Behavioral Health (formerly Alaska Baptist Family Services), Mosaic Campus Ministries and campuses of Wayland Baptist University in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Covington’s parents came to Alaska on their honeymoon and fell in love with the place, he said. That led to his growing up at First Baptist in Fairbanks under legendary pastor Felton H. Griffin – or “Brother Griff” as he was known. Covington went on to serve 25 years with the International Mission Board in far eastern Russia before returning to his home state. He has been in his current role since 2016.

“As a kid in the 1960s I could see an expansion of Southern Baptist churches,” Covington said. “As a missionary, I had the chance to be part of a church planting movement among unreached people groups, such as when we worked with nomadic reindeer herders. That increased my desire to see more churches planted in our state.”

At the anniversary event, Covington challenged attendees to see Alaska as a harvest field upon which it can build its rich evangelistic heritage. That can be seen through the $28 million contributed through the Cooperative Program over 75 years and the 25 Alaskans, like Covington, who have gone to serve as full-time IMB missionaries.

Willie McLaurin, SBC Executive Committee vice president for Great Commission relations and mobilization, said any way you slice it, Alaska is a mission field where the Gospel is being preached through churches, pastors and associations.

“I’m thankful for the laser-sharp focus that Alaska Baptist churches have put on advancing the Gospel here at home and around the world,” said McLaurin, who spoke at the event. “For 75 years Alaska Baptists have cooperated for the spread of the Gospel. The witness of Southern Baptists is stronger today because of the faithfulness of committed Alaska Baptist leadership and churches. I am encouraged by their rich legacy and look forward to the amazing future.”

McLaurin joined approximately 100 others at the anniversary event that included numerous ABRN staff, pastors and laypeople. Several pastors representing the state’s role in diversity in the Southern Baptist Convention addressed the gathering. Rick Lance, executive director for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, also spoke, reflecting the longstanding partnership between the two conventions.

On March 27, the ABRN was honored as Bronze Level sponsors at the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in Wasilla. Hosted by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, it drew a crowd of approximately 800.

World War II was at its peak in 1943, when First Baptist in Anchorage started at Elmendorf Air Force Base. Fifteen of its 17 members were in the military. Thirteen years later, Griffin, longtime pastor of the church, spurred a conversation with two other pastors – Curtis Dunkin of Fairbanks and J.T. Spurlin of Juneau – that led to the state convention’s beginning. Both of those events predate Alaska’s becoming a state in 1959.

Bruce Rowell visited Alaska in 1996, returning there in 1997 to become pastor of First Baptist in Palmer. The native Georgian hasn’t left since.

“There’s a uniqueness to ministry in Alaska,” he said. “The convention offers a good bit of wisdom and partnership. We’re also so spread out that connections and relationships become really important.”

Because of COVID-19 concerns, seating was limited at the ABRN annual meeting last fall as well as the recent anniversary celebration. Rowell is looking forward to those inconveniences being a thing of the past.

“Our churches, like others, have continued to support the state and national work of Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program,” he said. “Folks at First Palmer have been involved with the children at Birchwood [Behavioral Health] and we’ve had some of them to our church for a Christmas party. We’ve had other opportunities to partner through the state convention.”

Although Alaska is by far the biggest state convention in terms of land mass, it has only four far-reaching associations. Hatcher Pass Baptist Association, for instance, has churches separated by 300 miles. Covington said the geographic reality challenges him to lead in planting more churches in those remote areas. However, that’s a task requiring more than a seminary degree.

“We need pastors who have the ability to preach and some kind of theological training, yes,” he said. “But in order to be effective here you also need some skills that help in the bush. I mean cutting wood, helping someone build a home, or help with mechanical issues. You have to be able to adapt to the long and cold winters and short days.”

All those considered, there’s a reason Covington and his family, like others, have stayed.

“I felt God calling me to be here,” he said. “We love the mountains, hunting, fishing and the outdoors. Alaska can be a pretty transient place, with a lot of people living here connected to the military or oil industry. But many of them come back as retirees.”

In an archived audio recording, Griffin tells of his ministry in Alaska, 23 years to that point, and what he saw to come.

“What has been accomplished here in these 23 years is a result of the grace of God rather than the ingenuity or ability of man,” he said. “… Our work has grown and expanded into native work in the arctic areas, primarily supported by the Home Mission Board.

“… We predict that in the future God’s blessing shall continue to be with us because of the caliber of men who are pastoring our churches here now, and of their continued adherence to the principles of the New Testament, and their loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This article was originally published at baptistpress.com.

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