A Missionary in the Snow
Nome, Alaska, February 13, 2012--Nome usually has long, cold winters, and Christopher Steppe, a United Methodist young adult missionary in the Alaskan city, thought he had packed enough heavy gear when he headed there from his native Virginia last September: plenty of hoodies, thermals, scarves, gloves, and even a heavier coat than he would have used back home.
Not enough, and especially not when unusually early snowfall blanketed the subarctic region on the Bering Sea. "Luckily, a friend sent me a long down coat before the snow showed up," he says, referring to harrowing early winter snow and cold topped off by a fuel shortage.
Chris is a US-2 missionary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries assigned to the Nome Community Center. The center is a national mission institution linked to United Methodist Women and Global Ministries. It offers programs for youth, families, and seniors in the Bering Straits region. Chris works especially with youth and seniors.
Nome Community Center traces its roots to a project among reindeer herders started in 1906 with funds from the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church. Today, it is a major community asset to the town of 3,500 and surrounding areas. It supplements public welfare programs with a food bank, a children's home, and after-school activities.
While the snow did not stop the center's work, it was touch-and-go some days, Chris reports. The white flakes came early this winter, starting in October with a blizzard that dropped a foot and a half. "The people were telling me that it was uncommon to have a snow storm so early," he says, "and then there were more surprises. We had three blizzards within the span of a week and a half adding another four feet to what was on the ground."
November was worse. "The biggest storm lasted about 24 hours, with hurricane winds, freezing temperatures, and a high tide. I tried to sleep, but the apartment where I was staying, located on a hill, kept swaying like a boat.... Somehow I finally feel asleep to the sounds of the walls bending inward. I put my life in God's hands that night."
Then fuel began to run short. The early snow had prevented the last regular shipment of the season--after a certain point the sea starts to ice over, making deliveries by boat difficult and dangerous, plus, Chris notes, the reserves are far, far away. "The whole city was in a worrisome uproar, but some people said the shortage affected vehicle fuel, not heating oil.
he media made it seem like everyone was going to freeze, when it may have been that the cars had to sit unused. While concerned, my means of location were my two legs. The stipend of a US-2 is not enough for a four-wheel drive."
Relief finally arrived in the form of a Russian oil tanker. While less dramatic, the 2011 "rescue" of Nome recalls the famous 1925 incident when a dog sled team arrived just in time with serum needed to avoid a diphtheria epidemic.
"I was one of the first to see the ship," Chris says. He arranged to take a group from the Boys and Girls Club to watch the work and visit Coast Guard personnel. "We were able to have a visit from a Coast Guard helicopter which all the youth got a chance to sit in and listen to the Coasties (as they are called here) tell about all the gadgets and buttons. We then walked a mile and a half out to the Coast Guard Ice Cutter for a tour. The walk was long, but the way back was worse. One thing about Western Alaska is that wind storms can come out of no place, and it happened that day...I gave up my gloves, hat, and scarf, and gave lots of piggy-back rides to the younger children. The children made it back without a hint of frostbite. I may have helped make them stronger that day, but they also made me stronger. Praise the Lord."
The ship left, the oil tanks were filled, and everything calmed down. The weather returned to its usual cold but bearable rhythm. "What I have left is a braver consciousness when it comes to the Arctic, and some very sore muscles," Chris says.
About the Young Adult Missionary Program
Young adults between the ages of 20 to 30 are encouraged to apply to become a United Methodist US-2 or Mission Intern. US-2s serve in the United States for two years. Mission Interns serve for three years, approximately half of the time abroad and half of the time in their home country. Both US-2s and Mission Interns commit to linking their faith to justice. The due date for applications is February 19, 2012.
Your organization can be one of many United Methodist-partnered organizations hosting a US-2 or Mission Intern. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Placement site applications are due March 15, 2012, to host the missionaries in the late summer or fall.
(Basic information provided by Chris Steppe was edited, with additional information added, by Elliott Wright in New York.)
Date posted: Feb 17, 2012