MINTO, Alaska – This is the tale of two churches. And one Alaskan village. And a road trip with an Episcopal priest.
I met the Rev. Bessie C. Titus at the Chena River Convention Center in Fairbanks. Bessie was sitting behind a laptop at a registration booth next to a table where beaded wallets, beaver skin hats and other native crafts were being sold.
Ten minutes into our conversation about faith, Bessie suggested I visit a village in Alaska's interior. I jumped at the opportunity.
The drive to Minto winds into the Alaskan Interior over mountain passes with blowing snow, icy pavement, steep hills, and semi-trucks hauling supplies to Prudoe Bay. Roads are few. There are Moose, bears and other animals.
I was traveling with a priest, I reassured myself. How bad could it be?
On the way to Minto, we went over some particulars. Some 180 people live in the village, said Bessie. Most who live there are descendants of Athabaskan Indians. The elders speak Athabaskan as well as English.
The journey to Minto climbs through mountain passes, along snowy ridges, through marshes, and past stubbly fields of stunted pine trees. About two hours out of Fairbanks, you turn off the highway and head for the hills on a gravel road for 40 minutes. Along the way, men can be seen unloading dogs from a vented truck and hitching them to a sled. Occasionally, Bessie would point out a trailhead or a hot spring.
Rolling into town, we passed the cemetery where Bessie’s parents are buried, the air strip, log cabins, and then the new Worship Center.
Two unique events in the spiritual life of the town helped give birth to the worship center.
First, a spiritual revival swept the town’s young people in the early 1970s. Bessie remembered it started when a young man came to talk with them about his personal experience with God. He talked so compellingly and so directly about his relationship with God, she said. After that, it was like the town just caught fire with the Holy Spirit.
Bessie first introduced me to a room filled with about 30 people in the community hall then took me to the home of Bergman and Sarah Silas, where a handful of us talked around the Silases' kitchen table.
“There was a great mood of the Spirit in the 70s in this village,” said Pauline “Polly” Simmonds. “When we say a mood of the Holy Spirit, it was just a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the people, where a transformation took place. We were once like this,” she said, spreading her hands wide to illustrate a great distance between two points. “And (then with) that transformation, we suddenly realized there needed to be a change in here,” she said putting a hand over her heart.
Young people walked down the street saying, “Praise Jesus!” Sarah Silas said. People couldn't seem to get enough of church. All eight of her children “got saved.” Five people from that time period were ordained in the Episcopal church as a result of the spiritual awakening, including Bessie and Sarah’s husband Bergman.
“I was just hungry, I wanted to get more, more of what’s coming,” said Bergman. “That’s where I tried to trust the Lord in what I’m doing.”
The spiritual renewal also led to a deep soul-searching about the role of the community’s two churches, and Episcopal and and Assembly of God church.
Richard Simmonds, Polly’s husband and a retired Episcopal priest, said villagers often attended the Episcopal church in the morning and the Assembly of God church in the evening.
The Assembly of God minister left, and the Episcopals needed a new building. So the two churches decided to unite under one interfaith worship center. Now both services are held at the worship center, which is open to all Bible-based faiths.
“We believe we worship one God through Jesus Christ. That’s all we believe. We don’t believe in denominations,” said Sarah Silas, explaining how the Interfaith Worship Center works. “As long as they preach the word of God they’re OK.”
Still, no longer belonging to one denomination feels unsettling to some.
“It’s like we have no store hours,” said Bergman. “It’s like we’re just on our own. … There’s some of us that still want to be (Episcopal). “For me, my mother, my father, my grandfather, all of them,” all were Episcopal.
“We’ve got to have something,” he said. “I want to gift to my church, and it bothers me.”
On my way to meet Bessie for our trip back to Fairbanks, Richard took me by the new church.
The worship center is large and airy. Ample natural light streams through its windows and reflects off clear-varnished logs. A rabbi’s stole covers the lectern. Ram horns and a Jewish flag hang on the wall. A native drum rests in one corner. Quilts proclaiming Jesus hang on the wall.
It is an open space, reminiscent of the Alaskan wilderness outside the village -- spare, clean and uncluttered.
Bessie sees this church as a holy space, one filled with the Holy Spirit like that first miracle that descended on Minto in the early 1970s.
"Did you feel anything in the church?" she asked me as we pulled out of the village.
I had been there to take photos and do a story. But the question made me think about something Sarah had said, something that indicated the community's deep commitment to faith and to the future.
“We believe that the Lord will pour out his spirit on Minto and the whole village will get saved. We believe that and we’ll never give up. We’re still expecting that miracle by faith,” she said.