Northern exposure: Mission team finds moose, cheese sticks, lessons in Alaska

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They really wanted to see a moose.

So teens from New Palestine, visiting Alaska, had their eyes open in some of the usual places — the moose-sighting locations local residents mentioned. No moose.

One day, though, while riding in a van back to the church where they were staying, “there’s a moose right on the side of the road,” said Ezra Schwier. “They’re just right there.”

He was one of about 30 youth and sponsors from Brookville Road Community Church in New Palestine who traveled to Alaska in June for a mission work trip. Their tasks and the weather were varied, from the warmth of a sand volleyball court to the cold bite of hiking a mountain pass in sight of snow-capped peaks.

“The climate and scenery was so diverse,” said Anna Ackerman, an incoming New Palestine High School senior. “I couldn’t decide if I was in Indiana or Colorado.”

The group divided into smaller ensembles to serve in the Anchorage area. Some led a Vacation Bible School in a park. Others sorted and organized the walk-in freezer at a non-profit serving people who are hungry and/or homeless. Still others helped out at ChangePoint Church.

Anna was a crew leader for the VBS, so she led a group of children through various stations during the four hours they were there: a devotional with a Bible story, a picture to color that went along with it, a snack, and a game to play that fit with the lesson.

The group of children coming grew during the week, and a grandmother shared with the team how excited her grandson was about memorizing the day’s Bible verse and other verses too when he got home.

“It was just cool how that started like a little fire in him,” Anna said.

Sadie Miller said the children warmly welcomed the VBS volunteers.

“We were new, random people coming into their community,” said Sadie, also an incoming New Palestine senior. “They were just so joyful and so excited to learn about Jesus.”

The mission team drove to Chicago early June 5, boarded flights to Seattle and arrived in Alaska around midnight there. They spent several days serving in various venues, having been connected with those organizations by Praying Pelican Missions. Then they flew from Anchorage to Chicago on June 12 and drove back to New Palestine.

They pulled weeds and swept up gravel at the ChangePoint church campus, where they lodged during the week. They also helped with a drive-through food distribution at ChangePoint, packing donated sweet corn, chips, bread, eggs and half-and-half into boxes. Each box was packed to feed a family, and drivers lined up in the church lot would tell how many families they were picking up for.

On another day Ezra and others were gathering food for an area mission. It felt out of his comfort zone to knock on doors and ask people if they had canned goods for a pantry. He felt better after hearing some of the people’s responses.

“They would say, ‘Of course, yes, I’d love to donate, because when I was in need, Frontline (the mission) gave me food,’” said Ezra, another incoming New Palestine senior. “That was cool to see the community they had in that area.”

At other times, his assigned group labored in ministry that was not as face-to-face. His group was the one tasked with sorting through a walk-in freezer at Bean’s Café, discovering more than 2,000 pounds of cheese sticks, and trying to come up with a system of organization that would help the non-profit’s staff enjoy more efficient use of the space.

The team had to pull together in the task with good attitudes, he said. “We were able to uplift each other.”

That was one of the memorable lessons for him from the trip; one isn’t always presenting the Gospel verbally or directly, such as sharing one’s testimony or personal faith story.

“We were still indirectly impacting these people just by allowing that food pantry to serve them more efficiently,” he said. “Sometimes we’re called to do stuff that will still show God’s love.”

Like spotting a moose — not in an expected spot, but amid an ordinary moment — he saw the value and purpose in a seemingly mundane task.

It’s easier to see clearly in the daylight, and Alaska has 20 to 22 hours of it during the summer. But Ezra thinks about how that shifts to almost continuous darkness in the winter, and how suicide rates in the state exceed the national average.

“There’s a lot of need for hope for the people there,” he said. “Even in just a week we were able to impact the people we came in contact with and share God’s love with them.”