What I Have

 A Christian Education Initiative

If you have known me for a while, then you know that I am an Alaskan. I am not quiet about my Alaskan childhood. It is actually my go to fun fact about myself when asked to give an icebreaker in class. At any chance I get, I am going to brag about my home state. In all of my travels, I have never been to a place that quite matches the wildness, the excitement, and the beauty of the place I grew up. 

A glacial river near Tuxedni Bay, Alaska. Photo by Abigail Faulkner.

This weekend, I was blessed to be able to attend a Christian Conference at Lake Geneva in Alexandria called SALT. And let me tell y’all, God moved in incredible ways at SALT last weekend. I have no doubt that in time, there will be a Christian Concerns article to chronicle all the ways God spoke to me and continues to build my testimony. In the meantime, I am absolutely dying to tell you about the amazing new organization I learned about this weekend. 

I am certain you can imagine my excitement, when I, an Alaskan, read the schedule for SALT and discovered the Key Speaker for this conference was Steve Pavek. “Who’s Steve?” you may ask – he’s the leader of Chi Alpha at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and is a site director of the “What I Have” initiative. 

A Uniquely Alaskan Need

Before I talk to you more about Steve and how cool he is, let’s talk for a second about “What I Have.” In my home state of Alaska there are hundreds of villages in Alaska who are in desperate need of teachers. 

There is a massive turnover for teachers in Alaska, which I think is because of a few factors. On average from 2008-2012, about 64% of teachers hired by districts statewide were from outside Alaska. This means that statistically, a teacher hired in Alaska is more than likely to not be from there.  That means you could be moving what feels like across the world to state where your starting a new job, living in a new place, no support system, no idea how to enjoy being an Alaskan – oh, and by the way, you’re going to do it in state that feels like the dead of winter from October till April and you’re not going to see the sun for the majority of that time. To top that off,  teachers are already underpaid and under-supported. Plus, that teaching job you applied for that pays so well is in a town in Alaska so small that people don’t own cars and it’s only accessible by bush plane. Good luck. 

With that context in mind it should come as absolutely no surprise that annual teacher turnover rates vary hugely among rural districts, ranging from a low of 7% to over 52%. As a result, when these teachers quit their job, they are leaving behind a village full of children that are now lacking an educator, and more importantly, they are lacking in the support a school can provide.  

It’s also no stretch to say that the Alaskan Indigenous population has been under-reached, over-evangelized, and under-discipled. This population also has some of the highest rates of suicide, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse of anywhere in the country. To make matters worse, often villages are extremely isolated and difficult to reach, and when missionaries do go out there, it can sometimes be more hurtful than helpful. 

Therefore, Christians need to balance wanting to help and serve overlooked populations like native Alaskans, with the knowledge that missionaries have historically done a lot of harm to Indigenous populations all over the world. I think Christianity gives a lot of people hope. Marketplace missionaries can bring rural communities two things: their professional skills, and hope for the future. 

I’ll get more in depth on how missions can be harmful and helpful in this next section, but in the specific context of Alaskan missions, rural communities desperately need educators. As Christians, I think it is our responsibility to help out people when we see a need like this.  

Mission Ethics

How can missions be hurtful? How can a bunch of people investing their time and money into a community cause damage?

Two main issues can pop up with short term missions trips. An example of the first would be you going out to villages, building relationships with people (usually children) and then you leave. And again, they are alone with little support and few people to talk to about their faith. There is no avenue for further discipleship and not really an opportunity to show them what faith can look like lived out.  Did you do a good thing by leading a child to Christ? Absolutely. However, I think there is more that we can be doing as Christians to show them the love of Jesus. 

Second, it can be really easy to overlook some of the cultural differences and be disrespectful. Combine the lack of cultural competency with a savior complex (remember, my fellow Christians, we don’t save anyone – God does) and you can easily do a lot more harm than good. 

And that’s not to say that short term missions can’t be good. Let it be said here and now that I love mission trips. They can have a positive impact and reach people for Jesus. However, I am a huge believer in that short term missions are most effective when you’re paired with someone who is on a long term mission in that same place and a short term missionary team can support them. 

For example, when I went on a mission trip to Mexico,  ten of my closest friends and I did not roll up on a random church in Chihuahua Mexico with a hammer and nails and offer to build a church. Rather, we partnered with a couple who were already working in Chihuahua as missionaries and let them guide and direct us to where we could be the most helpful. That just so happened to be helping build a church, but the missionaries were already working on the construction and overseeing our work. We just got to be literal hands and feet of God and give people a place to worship, which was super cool! 

Could we have done that without the long-term missionaries? Nope. And even if we had tried, I am not sure we could have built a house out of sticks, let alone learn how to hang sheetrock. We had to meet the challenges with a heart of humility. 

All this to say, reaching people for Jesus, and doing it positively can be really tricky, so I want to talk again about What I Have. What sets this organization apart is that they don’t just send missionaries, they send teachers. They go through a year of training to learn the culture, some of the Yup’ik language, and other super cool things in preparation to go and love a community well. 

The training that you do beforehand is critical in making sure that you’re not going out to a village and continuing the long history of disrespecting native cultural practices and engaging in cultural erasure. I am not an advocate for cultural erasure of any kind. 

Steve shared a story about how a bunch of teachers went out to a very rural village and on their first day, all the teachers were invited to meet with the Indigenous tribes’ elders and got to know them. The only teachers who went to meet the elders and spend the day with them were the two sent by What I Have. 

Now, I don’t know if you guys know a lot about Indigenous and Native Alaskan culture, but brushing off an invitation from the elders to get to know them is not the same as calling your Grandma and telling her you’ll see her next week. It means disrespecting community leaders and losing out on an amazing opportunity to get to know the people you’re going to be living in community with. If you’re not spending time learning about a culture that’s different from yours, then you’re going to miss out on opportunities like these and on so much more. 

What do you have?

Ok so, now you know Alaska has a need for educators. You know that there are effective ways to approach missions, and a not so effective way to approach missions. So what’s the mission of “What I Have”? They “enable college graduates to use their degrees to become marketplace missionaries in the villages of Alaska”. In practice that means equipping teachers with all the knowledge and support they need to go out to rural Alaska and become teachers. 

How do you help out these kids who are in desperate need of hope? “The solution lies in people who are not just willing to go, but also willing and  equipped to stay.” The teachers who go out to remote work don’t just visit for a while and go back home. They go for a minimum of three years. They become community members and brothers and sisters with the people in the village. In my mind, the worst thing that could happen is that these kids now have access to at least one stable educator. The best outcome is that these teachers become integral part of a community and plant churches that are sources of hope for communities that are usually lacking in any hope for a future at all. 

So maybe you’re reading this and you’re like “Wow maybe I could become a marketplace missionary in Alaska and spread the good news,” to which I would say please pray about it and be sure that’s what God has called you to. Second I would say, don’t be arrogant enough to believe you can do that without support. There is a ten month training program you can apply to and you have until February 15, 2024 to apply. 

Or maybe you’re reading this article and you’re like, “Abigail, have no desire or call to drop everything and move to Alaska to be a teacher at the ends of the earth but, I still want to help”. To which I would say, the motto of “What I Have” is that there is always something we can do. You can give financially to What I Have. 

Currently they are fundraising to help renovate a church in Bethel Alaska to act as a hub and help send out teachers to the rest of Alaska as well as do many other super cool things. 

Or maybe you’re reading this and you’re like, “Abigail, I have no desire to be a part of your silly little Alaska Jesus Organization, but I know I can do more to help my community”. Well friend, I have good news for you too. Giving Hearts day is just around the corner on February 9th. There are hundreds of local organizations right here in Fargo who need your time, your treasure, and your talent. 

I am really passionate about Alaska. I am passionate about doing right by others, and pursuing justice. More than all that, I am passionate about spreading the news of Jesus which means spreading news of hope for a future. 

You may be passionate about animals, or architecture, or math, or politics. It doesn’t really matter. I am calling you to use whatever talent God gave you, and for a moment, see it through his perspective and not yours. How can you use your talents and build a better world and a better place for us all to live in?

That might mean dropping everything, packing your bags and moving to be a teacher in Alaska. Or it might mean donating to an organization like Firstlink here in Fargo. Or it may mean volunteering once a week at a food pantry. 

It doesn’t matter. The lesson here is that we all have something we can give. So what do you have?

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