WILLOW, Alaska – It’s spring in Alaska. The Rev. Christina DowlingSoka and the Rev. Joe-d DowlingSoka have completed their sixth winter on the Northwest extremity of the United States. They’re bracing for “breakup,” when the long-frozen landscape melts to reveal the mud beneath, and flooding is a risk.
“We’ve had almost nine feet of snow this year,” says Joe-d, directing his Zoom camera toward the window behind him. “There, it’s coming off the roof there. So, it’s really fun. Both of us love snow.”
That’s a good thing. After 25 years of ministry in Holston Conference, including several years of leading Buffalo Mountain Camp, the DowlingSokas traded their camp T-shirts and hiking shoes for parkas and snow boots. Since 2017, the clergy couple has served as co-pastors at Willow United Methodist Church in Willow, Alaska, and ministry leaders for a community that depends on the church for food and other aid.
In June 2022, Christina DowlingSoka assumed another responsibility when Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky appointed her conference superintendent of 25 local churches and three fellowships in the Alaska United Methodist Conference.
The DowlingSokas praise Holston Conference churches and individuals for providing a large part of the financial support for United Methodist ministry in Willow – about one-third of $150,000 the clergy couple raises each year for the food pantry and church.
“We’re just deeply grateful to Holston for -- what do we call ourselves -- the outpost of missions?” Christina said in a recent Zoom conversation with The Call.
“Yes, we are in the frontier for Holston,” Joe-d said.
Now serving in a mission field where the temperature can drop 20 below 0 degrees and daylight diminishes to five hours daily in wintertime, the husband-and-wife team are continuing what they say is a “strong connection” across the 4,000-mile span between Holston Conference and Alaska.
Holston Conference has included Alaska in its mission giving since the 1990s, when Holston native and Deaconness Fran Lynch began her ministry in the Willow, Anvik, and Grayling communities. Lynch, a Church and Community Worker, retired in 2017.
Although the DowlingSokas arrived in 2017 without having first visited their new ministry in Alaska, the desire to serve there wasn’t a new thing for them.
“Joe-d had felt this calling like 20 years ago, and it just wasn’t a good time for me to leave. We had parents to care for and other things, and I was still in camp,” says Christina. “So it was delightful that he was retiring in Holston, and I think in his retirement speech, he made an appeal for funds.”
Joe-d DowlingSoka officially retired in 2017 after pastoring several churches as well as serving on staff for six years at Buffalo Mountain Camp in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Christina served Buffalo Mountain for 14 years, including eight years as director, followed by pastoral appointments in Holston. (Buffalo Mountain Camp closed in 2014 due to flood damage.)
After Bishop Dindy Taylor prayed for the DowlingSokas on stage at Holston Annual Conference 2017, the couple headed off to Willow, population 2,200, located 72 miles north of Anchorage. They jumped into life there, leading a congregation of about 40 worshippers and working in the food pantry.
The pantry currently feeds about 170 to 200 families each month, Joe-d says, or about 27 percent of the Willow and Houston community. “Before the pandemic, we only served 15 percent of the community. So we’ve really grown the base. We had to build a new storage building just because we were filling the church with food pantry items.” The pantry also sends 80 to 100 children home each weekend with food bags.
The congregation is an “outward facing” group that thought nothing of “layering up” their clothing to hand out food boxes in sub-zero temperatures during the pandemic, Christina says. (After the pandemic, the food pantry transitioned from a drive-thru ministry back to its previous form, an indoor ministry where shoppers could choose their preferred items.)
“If you look at who were the instrumental voices to bring the clinic here, there were a lot of Methodists,” says Christina, citing just one of the improvements established in the area over the last two decades. Others include a small bus system, a recycling program, and a library. The head librarian is the church’s lay leader, Julie Mitchell. The food pantry director is Ola Williams.
“We’re just proud it is United Methodist voices, whether it’s roads or libraries or clinics, with the real sense of how can we bring shalom to the whole community,” Christina said.
The church also offers firewood and emergency ministries, and special outreaches, such as “Christmas Celebrations Packages Day,” with fixings for a Christmas meal and handmade scarves, hats, socks and blankets from church groups throughout the U.S., including Holston.
“There’s a lot of loneliness here, and little things like that can make a difference,” Christina said. “One woman came through and said, ‘This is my only gift this year.’” The people who feel isolated among the weather and wilderness also appreciate the “love and hugs” offered by volunteers at the church on food pantry day, she says.
When Christina was appointed conference superintendent last year, the DowlingSokas were afforded an even bigger view of Alaska’s beauty and breadth. In October 2022 alone, Christina traveled 5,000 miles to lead charge conferences at churches located in Nome, Juneau, Seward, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.
Some trips required an airplane, since, as Joe-d points out, the county or “borough” that Willow is located in – Mantanuska-Susitna – is “the size of West Virginia.” When Christina was on an ice-fishing expedition, the fisherman demonstrated the distance by telling her to “turn to the west and look: There are no people for hundreds of miles. No roads.”
Last month, the Rev. Christina DowlingSoka participated with Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth in the chartering service of one of the newest churches in the denomination, Ola Toe Fuataina United Methodist Church, a primarily Samoan congregation located in Anchorage.
“It’s a lot of fun to travel the Alaska Conference, and to meet the people and the many ministries they’re engaged in is truly wonderful,” she said.
With many years of ministry and experiences under their belts – including Joe-d learning how to “dress a moose” to prepare the meat for food – the DowlingSokas are considering retiring from their Alaskan appointments in the future. Their hope is to someday return to their Holston Conference home, where Christina hasn’t been since 2019. Joe-d traveled to East Tennessee in late February 2023 to attend Ministers Convocation and speak at some of the 50 supporting churches in Holston Conference.
In the meantime, they’re raising funds to keep United Methodist ministry going in Willow. The Alaska Conference is also looking for retired pastors or pastors who will serve churches for one-quarter to half-time appointments (as well as a few full-time pastors in the future). All Alaska Conference pastors are guests from other conferences.
“Our churches are so far apart from one another that we can’t put together these charges, so a pastor often needs to have other income to serve a church,” Joe-d said. “But the opportunities in these churches are huge.”
This summer, the DowlingSokas expect some mission teams from throughout the denomination, including one from Holston Conference. The short, mild summers in Alaska include days with 20 hours of sunlight. Joe-d says that gets to be a lot.
“The summer gets to be -- it’s overwhelming, it’s just too much,” he said. “We love the winter. We crave the winter.”
For information on how to support the Willow mission, visit WillowUMC.org.
Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee. Sign up for a free email subscription to The Call.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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