Team embraces Elim’s youth, cultural ‘clock’

By Mary M. Rall
Community Covenant Church

Community Covenant Church missions team at Elim

Members of the Community Covenant Church missions team spend some time on Elim’s beach with children from the Native Alaskan village. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Guyer/Community Covenant Church)

Eleven members of the Eagle River and Anchorage communities stepped out of their routine and into the culture of Elim May 24-29 to provide an annual vacation Bible school program for the Native Alaskan community.

Nine team members from Community Covenant Church and two from Covenant Youth of Alaska traveled to the village on the Seward Peninsula to support the ministry, said Shannon Casey of Eagle River, who’s participated in the outreach since it began six years ago.

“The very first time, we had heard through friends who had moved out to that village about a lot of the problems that there are in rural Alaskan villages and with the kids specifically,” Casey said, adding her mother, Susan Casey, was inspired to do something to serve the community. “She likes working with the kids, so we planned a VBS to go out there.”

While many youth encounter similar challenges, Elim Covenant Church Resident Pastor Bob Curtis said the small size of the 350-person village sometimes magnifies the problems of Elim’s younger residents.

“It’s a very small community, and because of that, pretty much any time there’s a situation that may have occurred here, by the next day, everybody knows about it,” Curtis said. “They really feel like they’ve been exposed.”

The reoccurring outreach provided by the VBS program has helped build acceptance of the mission team in the Native community and has created a means to build lasting relationships with the village’s youth, Casey said.

“If you’re there to help their community, especially their kids, they really appreciate it and want to support us,” she said.

The consistent efforts of the VBS teams have done a lot to establish trust within the village and to allow members of the team to grow alongside the youth they serve.

“We started with kids around 10 and under. As these five or six years have gone by, the kids have grown,” said 21-year-old Curtis Guyer of Anchorage, who’s supported the ministry since 2011. “So, we go from hanging out with elementary school kids and doing elementary school games on the playground to just sitting on the beach and around the campfire with 15 and 16 year olds who’re a lot more relaxed and know that you’re not just a playmate anymore, you’re a genuine friend.”

Casey said they’ve been able to watch the youth’s development over the years, the changes in which are made all the more evident because the team visits the village just once a year.

“I think our hearts have kind of shifted over the years with that first group of kids as we see them go through different stages. Sometimes they’ll be jumping all over you, and the next year they’ll be too cool to talk to you,” the 20-year-old said with a laugh, adding that some of the older youth have a tendency to make an appearance anyway. “They still want to see the group, because they know us, so they’ll just kind of hang out on the perimeter without really participating, but they’re still there.”

The dedication of the VBS outreach is a significant factor in drawing the village’s young people back to the team annually, Curtis said.

“A lot of that has to do with trust building, so over the course of the years they’ve really legitimized their efforts here in the ministry they’re involved with by coming back,” he said. “Over time, that really speaks volumes about the character of the people coming to be with us.”

The first two days of this year’s outreach were hard for the team, though, Casey said, as they learned of families who had tragically lost loved ones since the team had last been to Elim, some of whom the group had known.

“You realize pretty quickly that these issues are so far beyond what we can help with at all, and we can’t change the situation, we can’t change their lifestyle, but we can teach them that there’s hope,” Casey said, adding the VBS program introduced Bible verses such as 1 Peter 5:7 into the lessons, which reads, “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

“We’re trying to teach them these little things that they can store away so that when things do get hard, because they will, that they know even through that that God loves them,” Casey said. “He cares for them, and they have a purpose and a value.”

Susan and Shannon Casey

Susan and Shannon Casey get a lift on a four-wheeler from a Native Alaskan youth, for whom driving the vehicle is second nature. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Guyer/Community Covenant Church)

Demonstrating that same love and value to the youth who’ve outgrown the VBS program is on the team’s heart as well, Casey said.

“Basketball is a big thing to reach them out there. It really draws the community in, so we had a little tournament. It was really cool to see a lot of the older kids, kids beyond our first group that are in their 20s show up to play,” she said. “A lot of the community turned out. There were elders that came to watch, and we had hotdogs and a cookout and stuff. There were little guys on the playground and the kids actually playing basketball. That was really cool, to reach the whole community.”

Yet serving in Elim isn’t without its challenges, Guyer said, explaining that no amount of planning can prepare the team for how the week will unfold.

“One of the challenges is planning, because a lot of it is go with the flow,” he said.
“You’ve got to be flexible and be ready to change on a dime.”

That need to remain adaptable is in large part due to the abundance of daylight Elim experiences during the summer, Guyer said, which averaged about 21 hours a day during the team’s visit this year. The long days result in the village running on its own “clock”, with many residents beginning their day from 1-4 p.m. and heading to bed as late as 6 a.m.

“That’s very typical of pretty much all of the villages across the entire state of Alaska,” Curtis said. “This is a bountiful season with such a short time, so this is an ideal opportunity for the people to gather as much fish and any other mammals and such from the ocean. So, the clock continues to run in the summer time.”

Even planned activities for the team may go by the wayside if something as simple as the weather shifts in just the right manner, Guyer said, which was the case for a poorly attended basketball tournament the team offered a previous year, which many Elim residents had initially expressed interest in participating.

“The ice went out, and it was beluga season then,” Casey added. “So, a bunch of people were going out boating and getting eggs and hunting for belugas and seals, which was really cool.”

Elim’s beach

Ice still floats along the edge of Elim’s beach, creating a unique play area for the Community Covenant Church mission team to share with the village’s children. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Guyer/Community Covenant Church)

The village community likewise operates on a unique schedule, Casey said, with everything from the time social events to church services will begin being estimated.

“Time’s not important,” she said. “People are important, and you stop and talk to someone [only to end up being] late to where you’re going, but you’re really not late, that’s just when you got there.”

The clock and schedules in Elim may be flexible, but the annual visits to the village by the ministry team remain consistent. This could be the last year Casey and Guyer participate in the outreach, though, as they’re engaged to be married July 1, 2016, Casey said. The couple is planning on moving to Pittsburgh soon after so she can finish up her nursing degree at Robert Morris University.

Guyer will graduate from the University of Alaska Anchorage with a degree in geomatics in May 2016 and said he’s not entirely convinced he’ll never return to the village, as he didn’t feel a sense of closure for his time with the outreach.

“I feel like we saw the least amount of kids on Friday, the day we left, and it was hard, because I didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of them, because most of them were asleep,” he said with a laugh, adding the youth will always ask about team members who don’t return to the village. “It’s almost heartbreaking when they’re really upset about it, and I don’t want it to be, ‘Where’s Curtis?’”

Casey said she sees opportunities to serve the community in the future, and the team observed geomatics surveyors working in the Elim while the team was there and that the village’s clinic often relies on having people come to the village to provide medical training to its staff, which means she and Guyer may have new ways to serve the community of Elim in the future.

“Once I’m a nurse, there’s the potential to maybe go out there for a month or something and work in their clinic and help train people,” Casey said. “There’re just a lot of opportunities down the road, and I think one day we’ll go back.”

And the community of Elim just may be waiting for them if they do.