125 years of faithful Presbyterian ministry in small-town Alaska
May 28, 2010
As the ferry from Juneau approaches the harbor here after its four-and-a-half hour trip up Lynn Canal, the Presbyterian church is among the most prominent landmarks — along with the towering snow-capped mountains that surround the town.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise: the church was founded before the town. It stands like a sentinel among the huddled buildings that hug the shore where the Chilkat and Chilkoot Rivers meet the sea.
When naturalist John Muir and the Rev. S. Hall Young — a protege of legendary Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson — first visited here in 1879, the area was populated only by four Tlingit (pronounced klink-it) tribal villages. They arrived by war canoe, accompanied by recently converted Tlingits from Wrangell, far to the south.
The tribespeople, having heard of the “preacher-chief” (Young) and the “ice-chief” (Muir), gave Young a prime piece of undisputed land overlooking the harbor — “Day-shu” (“the end of the trail”) —to start a Presbyterian mission, with the promise that Young would also start a town in order to establish a trading post.
‘We’re like a family’
Today, Haines is a town of 1,200 permanent residents — the population roughly doubles during the summer tourist season — and Haines Presbyterian Church is a thriving congregation of 66 members that regularly welcomes more than twice that many worshipers on Sunday mornings.
“We’re like a family,” says Crystal Badgley, Haines Church’s commissioned lay pastor (CLP), who serves part time with the Rev. Ron Horn, the congregation’s pastor. “So many people in Haines came from someplace else, so the church fills the need for family ties.”
Badgley came to Haines 23 years ago from eastern Pennsylvania as a PC(USA) Volunteer-In-Mission … and stayed. Married to one of Haines’ firefighters and the mother of two teenagers, Badgley spent five years attending Alaska Presbytery’s CLP training classes and last June was commissioned to serve the Haines congregation.
Horn says the sense of family at Haines Church is his greatest joy as pastor. “It’s important that I talk to everyone every Sunday,” he says. “That’s what family does.”
He says he recently received a call from one of Haines’ “snowbirds” — people who spend the summer months in Haines and the rest of the year “down south” (outside of Alaska) to escape the harsh winter. “He called to tell me about the death of his parent,” Horn recounts. “He lives in the ‘lower-48’ nine months out of the year, but considers Haines Presbyterian Church his family of faith.”
Haines, like many remote Alaska towns, is never going to grow in population, and so the Haines congregation isn’t likely to grow in membership. “Growth isn’t coming in numbers,” says Doris Ward, an active member who has lived in Haines for 45 years. “So we look more at how individuals can grow in their faith personally and share with each other and the community.”
Involving every member is essential in a small church and community where resources are limited. “There’s some things you just can’t do,” Ward says, “so you have to think about what we CAN do …. Some very interesting things result.”
Humble beginnings: reaching out to native youth
From its origins, Haines Presbyterian Church has reached out to young people. In 1880, the year after Hall’s arrival here, a teacher, Sara Dickinson, arrived in Haines to join the mission and set up classes in the manse, occupied by the Rev. Eugene S. Willard and his family. Willard formally established the mission as a Presbyterian church in 1881.
With the Willards arrived a church bell, bearing the inscription “Chilkat Mission 1881 founded by Sheldon Jackson and S. Hall Young.” The bell, mounted on a sturdy wooden frame near the front door of the church, is rung each Sunday before church and on other special occasions.
It also tolls plaintively each April when most Hainesians gather at the harbor for the blessing of the fleet — primarily private and commercial fishing boats. It tolls once for each resident who has died during the past year, many of them at sea, for this is a town that sustains itself on the fish and other wildlife that inhabit the waters that are all around. The tolling is accompanied by the “Fisherman’s Prayer”: Dear God, have mercy on me, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
The manse was built with money borrowed by Sheldon Jackson after the Presbyterian Church’s Mission Board turned down his funding request. The money was later repaid by the denomination’s Women’s Executive Committee for Home Missions. In gratitude, both the church and the town were renamed Haines in honor of the committee’s secretary, Mrs. F.E. Haines.
A few years later, a boarding school for Tlingit young people was erected on the mission’s site. In 1904, as part of a land deal with the U.S. government that provided space for the construction of Fort William Seward — the first full-fledged army installation in Alaska — the small Haines congregation built a new church building and, with the establishment of a territorial school system, the school was remodeled into a hospital. In 1915 the building — now dubbed Haines House — was recommissioned as an orphanage and in 1927 a second building — Wheeler Hall — was added to the orphanage, doubling its capacity.
Haines House closed in 1960. The older of the two buildings was burned. Wheeler Hall was torn down and the lumber used to build several homes in Haines. A new church building was constructed on the foundation and was dedicated in 1969, but on Palm Sunday of 1973 it was burned to the ground by an arsonist.
The congregation rallied and a new building was dedicated that fall.
Rainbow Glacier Camp
For two months each summer, Rainbow Glacier Camp of Alaska Presbytery serves hundreds of Presbyterian kids and young people from throughout southeast Alaska. Located several miles outside Haines, the wooded camp affords spectacular views of Haines inlet, the surrounding mountains and its namesake, Rainbow Glacier.
Two congregations from the “lower 48” provide substantial support for Rainbow Glacier Camp. Several work crews from First Presbyterian of Kennewick, WA, come each year to maintain the camp’s facilities and ready it for the summer camping season; and University Presbyterian Church in Seattle provides a cadre of young people to serve as counselors.
How Rainbow Glacier Camp came to be is the stuff of Alaska legend.
In 1925, Haines Church’s pastor, the Rev. Eugene Bromley, loaned $100 to a man named “Peg Leg Harry,” who promptly disappeared. Ten years later, when Bromley was hospitalized in Juneau with appendicitis, his first visitor was Peg Leg, who wanted to repay the loan and did so by handing over the deed to 50 acres of land near Haines, which he had won in a card game.
In 1945 Bromley gave the land to Alaska Presbytery and by 1950 Rainbow Glacier Camp had begun. The camp’s two original buildings were two army barracks that were dismantled in Skagway, 14 miles further up Lynn Canal, and reassembled at the camp.
A card game figured in another mission Bromley started during his pastorate in Haines, which ran from 1923-1933. He was recruited to fill out a poker table and won the boat Tornado. He used it to travel to nearby canneries, fox farms, fish camps, mines and villages, where he preached and conducted other religious services for extremely isolated Alaskans.
The Presbyterian boat ministry continued throughout southeast Alaska until the mid-1980s.
Still focused on kids
On Sunday mornings Haines Presbyterian Church bustles with activity. Much of it revolves around children and youth. Once a month the children’s sermon is delivered by the church’s puppet theatre. The stage, built about 50 years ago by church members, sits to the left of the chancel. The area in front of the stage is crowded with perhaps two dozen kids.
“The puppet ministry is hit-or-miss, depending on who’s around to run it,” Badgley says. “That’s the way it is with lots of stuff around here — people are free to use what we have and make use of it. But we kind of have a cyclical pattern here — we can’t do that right now but when we do it’ll be nice to have it back.”
The church’s bell choir is dormant right now, waiting for someone to take it on. “We have the bells,” Badgley says. “We just don’t have a ring-leader.”
The congregation is also looking for a piano player for worship. “Big churches in big cities can just go out and hire one,” Ward says. “We’ve got to be a little more creative.”
“We have an organ,” adds Bill Lehmann, a long-time member and Florida native, “but right now we don’t have anyone who knows how to play it, so it just sits there.”
The puppet ministry rebounded last fall when a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer — Luke Van Marter — arrived in Haines after graduating from Louisville’s Youth Performing Arts School. Since then, the puppet theatre has been performing his original scripts, carefully edited by Horn.
One kids’ activity that has been consistent over the last 10 years at Haines Presbyterian Church is Vacation Bible School. “We have made a deliberate decision to promote Vacation Bible School heavily in town and have become well known for it,” Badgley says.
There are 16 churches in Haines and VBS draws kids from most of them. “It’s expensive to do,” Badgely says, “but we believe it’s important to make the investment.”
“Right leaders at the right time”
For more than 125 years now, Ward says, “we’ve been truly blessed to have the right leaders at the right time.”
The Rev. Ron Horn and his wife, Jacque, have been at Haines Presbyterian Church since 2003. Horn, who is also a professional photographer, says he has “two main jobs — to make sure we have good worship every Sunday and to love the people.”
The most difficult aspect of ministry in Haines is the remoteness, he says. “You don’t see it in the summer but in the winter you really feel it. Everyone knows it and learns to deal with it one way or another.”
Hardest for him, Horn says, is not having other Presbyterian pastors nearby. “I have to be very intentional about maintaining contact and accountability,” he says, “adding that “it means I spend a lot of time on the phone.”
Alaska Presbytery’s office is in Juneau. The executive presbyter, former General Assembly Moderator David Dobler, is part-time, and spends much of his time in Sitka where he also serves as part-time president of Sheldon Jackson College.
“Alaskans are fiercely independent, which is hard for a church because we recognize we need each other,” Horn says. “But every time there’s a crisis or a tragedy, we pull together in a way that dispels the ‘fiercely independent’ mentality.”
Haines Presbyterian Church continues to thrive because it focuses on the essentials, Badgley says — a good pastor, good worship and Sunday school, Bible study and programs for youth, and remembering the church is a family.
“We understand that people come and go and with them their gifts,” she says. “We understand that we can’t always have everything we’d like to have … but we always have enough.”