When Alabama Baptists and Alaska Baptists officially signed their partnership agreement May 14, Jamie Baldwin had already given a five-week jumpstart to the effort.
Baldwin, recently retired from Alabama Baptist work in Sunday School and discipleship, has been in “The Last Frontier” since April 8 on a six-month assignment to assist with a church relaunch.
Although a long way from his home and family, Baldwin said, “Everywhere I turn, God is working. It’s amazing, I mean, amazing, how God is working.” He confided that he often reminds himself, “Jamie, stay out of the way and let God work.”
Baldwin, with help from several Alabama Baptist missions teams, is working with local bivocational pastor Cody Schwegel for the July 4 grand opening of Liberty Church, Craig, Alaska, a fishing and logging town with about 1,000 residents on Prince of Wales Island.
The island, about 160 miles long and 30 miles wide, is accessible only by small aircraft or ferry.
Because of the island’s location in a temperate rainforest in the southern part of Alaska, it doesn’t typically have the bitterly cold and brutal winters associated with the 49th state, but it does get more than its fair share of rain, approximately 200 inches per year.
The church is a relaunch of the former Anchor Baptist Church, which closed a few months before Baldwin’s arrival.
“There were about seven members who felt there needed to be a restart because the church was not healthy,” he explained.
By the time Baldwin arrived, the number of people involved in the church relaunch had almost doubled, with guests dropping in regularly.
The faithful few affiliated with Anchor Baptist Church had been meeting in the basement of their church building for several years because that was the only finished portion of the facility.
The fledging group didn’t have financial resources to finish out the entire building. For community residents who didn’t know better, the building looked like it had been abandoned. For Baldwin, the church building looks like home, at least for six months. Since Baldwin’s arrival in early April, the basement, which had housed Sunday School classes for the former church, became his living quarters, a living option that seems appropriate for the man who epitomized Sunday School for generations of Alabama Baptists.
Such a construction dilemma is understandable because of exorbitant expenses on the remote island.
It’s a three-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan, Alaska; getting supplies to the island costs $7,000, in addition to the cost of supplies.
One of Baldwin’s assignments is “to help the church finish the main entrance to the church and finish some Sunday School rooms for Bible study and discipleship,” he said.
An estimated $3,800 is needed per room to finish the 10 rooms in the church.
Even as construction is underway, Schwegel “has been meeting with a small handful of people to disciple them on the meaning of a New Testament church. They are now ready to reach out and minister to the community.”
Already, Schwegel is seen by many as the “island chaplain. It seems so many people rely on him and call him in time of crisis,” Baldwin said.
He is also helping “get the word out that there is a new church and vision in town.”
Alabama Baptists have played a huge role in the church relaunch.
Baldwin said some Alabama Baptist construction teams have helped in the beginning phases of finishing the building, and numerous Alabama Baptist churches have helped fund construction.
One church even provided the full $3,800 to finish one room. Also, several Alabama Baptist missions teams are slated to travel to Alaska this summer and conduct Vacation Bible School, backyard Bible studies in a local park and a back-to-school bash.
“Our goal is two-fold,” said Baldwin. “One, we want to reach the unchurched in the town of about 1,000. Two, we want to make the town aware of the church.”
Because the church building sits on the highest point in the town, it can be a “lighthouse” to community residents, Baldwin believes.
‘Tremendous days ahead’
Church leaders intentionally chose July 4 for Liberty Church’s grand opening which will include a cookout and children’s activities. This year, July 4 is on a Sunday, and it also is the pastor’s birthday.
Most importantly, Baldwin said, “We chose that day because the name of the church is Liberty, and we want to proclaim to this city that in Christ you can have liberty. God has some tremendous days ahead for this church.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article highlights one of several ways the partnership between Alabama Baptists and Alaska Baptists will be lived out over the next five years. The partnership was officially approved May 14. Watch for more Alabama/Alaska partnership stories in future issues of TAB.