Monthly Archives: August 2015

A visitor’s guide to worshipping in Anchorage (originally published 5/23/15)

If you are visiting Anchorage or moving here, we have many religious worship options. Muslims will find a mosque. Jews can find two synagogues, Reform and Lubavitcher, with Friday and Saturday services. The northernmost Hindu temple in the world is within five minutes of the airport terminal. All major religions in America are represented with convenient and often beautiful worship places, close to major hotels, many within walking distance. Three Orthodox groups in Alaska are very prominent in Anchorage. Formerly called Russian Orthodox — now simply Orthodox — one of our earliest religious groups arrived here 200 years ago. Its bishop lives in Anchorage. Several spectacular churches and a cathedral here are affiliated with them. The Greek Orthodox Church has a beautiful place of worship on the lower Hillside where their Metropolitan performed a Thyranoixia (Opening of the Doors) ceremony last fall. Rounding out the orthodox list is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Eagle River just north of town.

Catholics are plentiful in Anchorage. It’s home to many parishes and is the seat of an archdiocese, so the archbishop is very active in the faith community. Recently, Holy Family Cathedral downtown officially shared, with papal approval, co-cathedral status with Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral in West Anchorage. There are many independent churches in town, including Alaska’s largest megachurch, ChangePoint. Baptists have numerous churches in Anchorage, including Alaska’s other megachurch, Anchorage Baptist Temple on the east side of town.

I’ve been writing about Anchorage’s church community in blog posts and newspaper columns for seven years. Those weekly columns, published in each Saturday’s Alaska Dispatch News, are available online at, stretching back to January 2014. My blogging, current and past, and these columns are available at Blog entries on this website are being transferred from ADN and reach back into 2012 at the moment. My writing covers every facet of church life in town. Primarily, I focus on Christian churches. When visiting them, I look for warm greetings, a genuine sense of hospitality, well-delivered biblical sermons, and music that’s not merely for entertainment.

Churches are now shifting to summer service hours, so check service times on the Internet first. It’s also worth calling the church to ensure website details are accurate.

Church stops worth making

Several local churches offer more than services. I suggest including them in your itinerary:

Holy Family Cathedral

Located in downtown Anchorage, this church is nearing its 100th year. It was the scene of a papal visit by Pope John Paul II in 1981, who conducted several papal audiences there and celebrated a huge Mass a few blocks away on the Delaney Park Strip, attended by over 50,000 people.

First Presbyterian Church

This large church is on the south side of the Delaney Park Strip. Inside is a spectacular floor-to-ceiling stained glass wall with embedded religious motifs.

St. John United Methodist Church

On the south side of Anchorage, this large, modern Methodist church contains a large totem pole carved in the Tsimshian tradition by a retired UMC pastor, the Rev. David Frison. Called the Easter Totem, it depicts the last events in the life of Christ. Frison also carved a smaller totem called the Christmas Totem. The large totem is inside the sanctuary and copies of both totems are standing outside.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

This large cathedral in Northeast Anchorage is home to a beautiful congregation. Attending services there is always a joy for me. They have a wonderful choir and inspiring liturgy. It is beautifully decorated and sports the onion domes we associate with Russian Orthodox churches.

St. John Orthodox Cathedral

Found in Eagle River, this large cathedral is a labor of love. Many of its icons were beautifully created by a congregation member. Their choir accompanies all services. I’ve been privileged to sing with them several times.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral

This Roman Catholic cathedral is fairly close to the airport but was selected for co-cathedral status because its size, parking, and interior arrangement lend itself to large gatherings. Its beautiful interior has hosted many significant events in its comparatively brief period of existence.

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church

The northernmost parish of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, this distinctive church is the only Greek Orthodox Church in Alaska. Its striking interior takes you into another realm of worship uncommon in many contemporary houses of worship.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

A small but beautiful church in the heart of downtown Anchorage, All Saints’ offers beautifully wrought stained glass windows on three sides. Before his death, Sen. Ted Stevens made All Saints’ his church home,when in town.

Resurrection Chapel

Located at Holy Spirit Center, a Catholic retreat center on the Hillside, this beautiful chapel has a 180-degree view of Cook Inlet to the west, the Alaska Range to the north and the nearby Chugach mountains to the east.

Central Lutheran Church

Sited immediately south of downtown, this church has a beautiful sanctuary containing a wonderfully carved wooden altarpiece. I marvel every time I see it.

While churches are used for congregational worship and teaching, underlying the churches I’ve mentioned is a solid sense of caring for others. Many Anchorage churches reach out to the poor, downtrodden, and hungry. There’s more to churches than bricks and mortar. People come to learn more about their faith, and often come away infused with a desire to serve. If you are looking for a church home, email me at for a more detailed listing of some churches I recommend for a first visit.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

Six ways churches can improve our community

Many opportunities exist in our community where churches and their individual members could have a more significant impact in improving our community. I detail six ways that can happen. A few churches have a track record in some of these areas, but many do not. My list of helping ways is not exhaustive, but illustrative of how much more good might be done.

Clean community efforts

Anchorage is a hot spot for tourism in Alaska. Thousands of tourists come every day to visit our town, and see what we offer. Many of our streets and highways are eyesores due to the trash seen on them. It often remains for weeks and months. Few churches or faith-based organizations have their names on roadside signs saying they are responsible for keeping that section of road clean. Even the roadways around many churches are littered with trash. The old saying, “cleanliness is next to godliness” might have greater meaning if churches took greater pride in the environments where they are located. This would also be a major way to demonstrate your church’s commitment to the community. For Christians, there are many scriptural injunctions regarding our duty to care for the earth.

Missions here are possibly more important

Some local faith-based organizations, especially Christian ones, are obsessed with the idea of sending teams of people to the ends of the earth to participate in expensive short-term mission trips. Often the countries where they go are more Christianized than the U.S. Alaska, according to most studies, is at the bottom of the scale for prayer, Bible reading, and church participation; the mission field is here. Plus research indicates most of these trips actually do more damage than good, in the long run, by engendering insidious dependencies.

A few organizations are beginning to focus on Christian microfinance as a way to better the lot of those in far-flung lands. The Chalmers Center, at Covenant College, trains churches in the U.S. and Canada to begin biblically integrated financial education classes for low-income people. They’ve trained church and ministry leaders in over 100 countries, and are currently focused on equipping networks of churches in West Africa to form church-centered savings groups. Chalmers leaders Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert wrote an amazing book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself” which was rapidly adopted. Their associated training guides are actively helping fulfill the Gospel commission with regard to the poor. Fikkert and Russell Mask’s latest book, “From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty through Church-Centered Microfinance,” was just released. These programs are intended for local use as well.

Invite surrounding residents to a church picnic or potluck

Comparatively few churches invite their surrounding neighbors to the church for a community dinner without strings attached. I’ve attended a few of these gatherings and it’s wonderful to see churches being charitable to those in their church neighborhood. One-to-one discussions at such events go a long way in breaking down barriers and determining community needs. Anchorage is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the U.S. You never know what will come out of such a venture. One church in Chugiak discovered the neighborhood youth had no place to play inside, and opened its gymnasium to them for basketball. It engendered much good will in that neighborhood. Major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter provide powerful opportunities to not only feed and talk with each other, but to include church neighbors.

Personally participate in feeding the poor

If you’ve never helped out at one of our food banks, food distribution programs, or local helping organizations like the Downtown Soup Kitchen, Bean’s Cafe, Brother Francis Shelter, or the Rescue Mission, you’ve missed a tremendous opportunity. Yes, it requires giving up some personal time, but the return is huge. There are many other such opportunities in Anchorage, and none will turn down offers of help. Yes, you can give to support their needs, but giving is too easy. It’s important you be personally invested in the act of love and charity. Some of these organizations would love to have people come in to read, direct bingo games, or provide Bible studies for their clientele.

Provide practical approaches to building strong marriages and families

Marriage and strong family units have been under assault for many years, contributing to some of the social problems with which our community deals. Faith-based organizations can do more to address this severe need than they are currently doing. Many approaches can be used. Some of them will really change lives. I’ve recounted several examples in this column of incredible reversals of course, where couples and their children got a second chance. I think too many churches do not make these programs high priority. I rarely view any announcements about them in the paper or see them advertised on television. It takes talent, training, energy, and a strong faith commitment to pull them off but they pay off in the long run. They should also not be a one-shot deal but an ongoing process.

Community gardens go far to address many issues

An excess of land surrounds many of Anchorage’s churches. A few churches have taken the opportunity to put this land to use by providing space for neighbors to grow vegetables without charge. The gardeners are free to use the resulting produce for themselves or to sell it. Churches themselves often grow vegetables, with the help of members, to donate to charitable organizations such as the Food Bank of Alaska, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, Bean’s Cafe or others. This is a practical way to show members how to help others. I’m hoping more churches adopt this brilliant method of helping. A few will ultimately determine ways to involve showing the poor how to grow some food for their own needs.

All of these initiatives have the potential to demonstrate the commitment of our faith community in bettering the lives of many locally.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

Food and faith at the Alaska Greek Festival

If you’ve never attended the Alaska Greek Festival, this might be a great weekend to do so. This well-known festival is hosted by and held at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. An annual Anchorage tradition, this year’s festival will be the 21st celebration. Holy Transfiguration is located immediately on O’Malley Road, near its intersection with Lake Otis Parkway. Parking is available on the church grounds, or at Hanshew Middle School, a couple blocks north.

My columns explore faith and faith traditions. Like other Orthodox faith traditions, the Greek Orthodox Church traces its beginnings back to the Apostles after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel quickly spread from Jerusalem to Syria, Turkey and Greece.

Holy Transfiguration’s new church, a work of many years, was conceived and a project initiated in 2005. In 2009, the Greek Orthodox community of Holy Transfiguration welcomed its hierarch, Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco, for groundbreaking ceremonies, at which time the community received the Metropolitan’s blessing for the parish to officially begin construction of its new church. In the summer of 2014, their first service, the Paraklesis to the Mother of God, was held in the new church building. The following Sunday, Divine Liturgy was held on the feast of Pentecost.

Metropolitan Gerasimos came and celebrated the Thyranoixia (Opening of the Doors) that October. Participating clergy from the Orthodox (formerly Russian Orthodox) and Antiochian Orthodox joined hands with their Greek Orthodox brethren to make this a most joyful time indeed. I was fortunate to be standing with the wife (Matushka) of an Orthodox priest, who gave me insight into the rituals. Many parishioners, former parishioners, and other community well-wishers joined in the celebration. In the service following, both bishop chairs were used as Orthodox Bishop David and Metropolitan Gerasimos were present.

Holy Transfiguration’s priest is the Rev. Vasili Hillhouse. His wife leads the choir. Orthodox services feature a strong choral tradition. The Rev. Vasili’s wife, Presvytera Maria, serves as cantor. She’ll chant Great Vespers Saturday night at 7 p.m., giving attendees a taste of Byzantine chant. To learn more about the Greek Orthodox tradition and explore this beautiful new church, the Rev. Vasili is giving tours at 1:15 p.m., 3:45 p.m., and 6:15 p.m. each day of the festival. Be sure to ask questions about Greek Orthodox icons and iconography. The church narthex and bookstore will remain open outside of tour times. The acoustics in the church are wonderful. During services there is an inspiring attitude of respect and quiet. During a service I attended, I was moved by the portion of the service where the Lord’s Prayer was recited in unison in a number of tongues, as called for by the Rev. Vasili. I’ve not heard this done during any other of my church visits.

“The proceeds from Festival are only used to support the completion of the new church building,” the Rev. Vasili says. “The annual gala profits are used to support the operations, ministries, and housing expenses of the church.” He also noted there is no charge for festival admission and most credit cards are accepted.

“Over the years the Alaska Greek Festival has become a mainstay of the Anchorage community,” Vasili says. It has provided wholesome fun and entertainment for Alaskans and visitors to our beautiful state. This festival is all about sharing the best of our culture and our Faith. While the food, music, and dancing are all Greek in character, those who are preparing and serving the food, and those who are dancing for you come from various ethnic backgrounds. We have all found a common joy in sharing the Hellenic culture and Orthodox Christian Faith with our visitors. We’ve been so blessed to have the support of the Anchorage community, and it has only been through their support that we were able to build this beautiful new Byzantine church as an expression of our faith in God, and as an example of the love that God has for all of his creatures. We hope that all of our visitors are blessed by their participation in our festival, and we thank them from the depths of our heart!”

In addition to the church related activities, the festival offers daily live Greek music and dancing, cooking demonstrations, bouncy house for the kids, silent auction, an agora (a market of gifts and souvenirs), a deli, and Orthodox Christian bookstore.

The food is truly delightful. A dinner booth will offer traditional Greek entrees. A gyro and souvlaki booth offers both of these tasty grilled items. You may spot the Rev. Vasili working at the gyro booth. In the kafenion you’ll find your favorite Greek coffee, pastries and desserts — yes, baklava will be there too. Finally the loukoumades booth will be making and serving a true treat. In ancient Greece, these heavenly, hot honey puffs, sprinkled with cinnamon and nuts, were awarded to top athletes at religious festivals.

Some friends from this congregation invited me to their place one Christmas when I was alone. In addition to great food and wine, I was introduced to Greek dancing and the word “Opa!” I discovered “Opa!” is used when they dance and celebrate. It is a term of high emotion expressing great delight in what is going on. If you’re old enough to remember the picture “Zorba the Greek” you will know what “Opa!” means.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)


Does your churchgoing give you a settled faith?

Last week I had the privilege of attending an Orthodox conference in Eagle River. One track dealt with theology, and the other track presented the development, history, and status of the Christian faith in the Middle East from the time of Christ forward. The Middle East presenter, the Rev. George Shaloub, pastor of The Antiochian Orthodox Basilica of St. Mary in Livonia, Michigan, talked about the courage exhibited by Christians in Syria despite some of the most desperate conditions in the world. St. John Orthodox Cathedral, where this conference was held, is connected with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America which is an Archdiocese of the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. Two Syrian archbishops, Metropolitan Paul Yazigi and Archbishop Youhanna Ibrahim, were kidnapped two years ago. They’ve not been seen or heard from since. Whenever prayer was offered at this conference, or in any services at St. John Orthodox Cathedral, they were remembered by name in the prayer.

All of the people I met and heard at this conference exhibited the signs of having a settled faith, a stark contrast with much of the climate in religion today. I see the headlines, and you might too: “Megachurch pastor resigns due to affair,” “$65 million corporate jet pursued by prosperity pastor,” “Gunman kills at church service,” and “Church members swindled out of millions.” There is so much stress and disarray in religion, it is so refreshing to be among people with a settled vision and a faith that stretches back in time to the early Christian church. Some Orthodox have offered me suggestions for excellent spiritual books to gain more knowledge of this ancient faith. All of them are very spiritual suggesting a deeper dive into faith, and their ancient faith tradition. The faith of the past is just as vibrant in these times as it was then. If you’re interested, a search online for “top orthodox spiritual books” will reveal many insightful books, some of which may be available for free download.

Over the centuries, many Orthodox have become martyrs for God. A settled faith allows martyrdom. St. Ignatius, the third Bishop of Antioch, where believers were first called Christians, was a martyr in Rome, being fed to wild beasts. Before his death, writing in his epistle to the Romans said, “Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favor upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared; that, being gathered together in love, ye may sing praise to the Father, through Christ Jesus, that God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west. It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise again to Him.”

Many Christians are being slaughtered daily in the Middle East, and in other places in the world, as their faith is antithetical to the slaughterers. We need look no further than the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya, earlier this year, to understand how insidious this problem is. Many Christians in this world live their lives knowing that they may be snuffed out in an instant. In Anchorage we do not have the added burden, beyond our normal accidents and health problems, of anticipating car bombs, snipers, and all the other accouterments of warfare that could end our lives instantly. If we did have that burden, and were people of faith, we would very much need to have a settled faith knowing all was right with God and our fellow man. Additionally, faith and worship strengthens immune systems, lowers blood pressure, and adds years of life. For a detailed paper on the connections between faith and health visit

The Rev. George, in an interview with me during the conference said, “What gives you your humanity, is your spirituality, and the reinforcement that you are made in God’s image and likeness. Nobody talks about that anymore because it’s a difficult subject. ‘I cannot be like God.’ Nobody’s asking you, but at least remember that you have the possibility. Don’t damage yourself.”

A future column will feature my interview with this man of God who faithfully lives his settled faith, and has done so since his very beginnings as a boy in Syria. Placed in a religious boarding school at age 12, he has always gone where God has led him. He is now the pastor of the largest Orthodox church in America. I was very impressed with his settled faith.

A Barna Group study released Wednesday, “2015 Sees Sharp Rise in Post-Christian Population,” evaluated 15 key metrics relating to Christian belief and practices related to that belief, comparing them to 2013 study results. Their data show that post-Christian status in America rose from 37 percent to 44 percent in just two years. Barna authors further stated “While the United States remains shaped by Christianity, the faith’s influence –particularly as a force in American politics and culture — is slowly waning. An increasing number of religiously unaffiliated, a steady drop in church attendance, the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, and the growing tension over religious freedoms all point to a larger secularizing trend sweeping across the nation.”

Recently, when in Paris, I stood in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Standing at the end of the plaza facing the cathedral, I was amused to see a young woman sitting on the pavement about 50 feet away from me armed with a selfie-stick. She was repeatedly taking pictures of herself with the cathedral in the background. Each picture featured a different smile, searching for the proper one. Inside the cathedral, late afternoon Mass was said; there were more tourists than worshippers. A settled faith is living a focused life, not one of narcissism. I applaud those local believers who have settled faiths. I sometimes experience it, and it’s beautiful.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

Searching for a church? Some observations and questions

All right, you’re new to our community — a visitor, or a new part-time or full-time resident. It happens you also are looking for a faith community where you can develop, sustain, and practice your spirituality. You may be confused with the many communities of faith from which to choose. It’s no longer a given that the faith of your youth — or previous place of residence — will sustain you. The religious environment in our country is undergoing some of the most radical change in over a century. Take nothing for granted. Be thorough in checking out your new church home. How do you proceed? Here are some general suggestions, and five specific questions to ask any church you visit, culled from my 15 years of visiting local churches, and seven years of writing about those visits.

Obviously some faiths, Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc., usually follow traditional liturgical patterns, so some observations noted here may not fully apply.

Looking for a church: essential observations

Start your search by looking for churches using the Internet. Note whether they have a functional, up-to-date, useful website, displaying service times and location on the first page. If it displays pictures of mountains, lakes and streams instead of key member activities, move on! Look for recent sermons and watch or listen to them. That is a great clue about ministerial communication style.

The church sign should be easily read at posted speed limits. A good church sign should also include an Internet address and service times. In a drive-by inspection, the church should be outwardly maintained, and clean. When you enter the parking lot, determine if adequate parking is provided for guests and the disabled. Upon entering for the first time, look for greeters who’ll extend warm welcomes and provide a bulletin or worship guide. If you have children, ask the greeters if the church provides meaningful programs for them. Look at the restrooms to determine their cleanliness. Unclean and inadequate women’s restrooms are a common complaint. Adequate and comfortable seating is important. A church 80 percent full appears completely full.

The music should be meaningful, tied to the service or liturgy, and proportional to the length of the service. If not, it is probably indicative of an entertainment culture in that church. Look for welcoming language from the people leading the service. Their language should imply a sense of inclusion. “We” is inclusionary; “I” is exclusionary. The pastor’s sermon is a key focus of church attendance. It should hold your interest, engaging your mind in a meaningful way. It should enhance your spirituality. Finally, observe if you were talked to after the service. These are all important hallmarks of a hospitable church.

Five important questions to ask during your first church visit

Will my family and I regularly encounter Scripture?

Church should be a place where better insight can be obtained from Scripture. It’s appropriate to expect this from churches. Unfortunately, some churches have agendas that include series of sermons based on popular books, or filled with interesting, but nonpertinent stories linked loosely, or not at all, to the theme for that day’s teaching. Ask a regular member if they feel they are being regularly fed there. (Of course, the church should not be the sole source of your Bible study; individual and small group study are critical, too.)

Will this church care for my soul, the souls of my family, and make it a priority?

The spiritual leadership team of a church should be vitally interested in the spirituality of each of the members entrusted to their care, including yours. It’s not an easy task, but one you should expect to be taken seriously. That does not mean expecting the pastor or team member will show up every time you call. Talking to members of the church will help you determine if this is actually happening at this church. They’ll know if it is or not.

Does this church invest in the needs of the local community?

Too many churches burden members with the needs of people on the other side of the world and neglect their neighbors. In Alaska, many churches send short-term missions teams to the far side of the world at great expense, often with no tangible outcomes but a nice vacation. Our local communities provide practical, countless opportunities for helping our neighbors. Is the neighborhood surrounding the church happy with its presence? You can ask. Does the church garden on behalf of hungry ones in the community? Ask about church involvement with the homeless, the sick, those in prison, victims of domestic abuse and violence, and those who are in need of food. You may be surprised at what you hear.

Can your particular gifts be used to further the mission of the church?

The worst thing to happen would be for you to possess many gifts — time, money, talent, etc. — and not have them used in the mission of the congregation. Cheerful givers need outlets; they should be put to use. Talk to members or the pastor about needs related to your specific gifts to determine if there may be potential fits for them.

Will the various programs of the church meet your and your family’s needs?

If you have children with special needs, does the church have programs to assist with them? Sunday school programs can be helpful providing Christian education for various age levels, including adults. Determine if they do a children’s church or let them know you’d prefer your children enjoy church as a family. If you are single, divorced, bereaved, or a new Christian, are there resources in place to address them?

Churches are growing dynamic entities that are God-, community- and person-focused. They provide unique opportunities to enable and support your spiritual growth, and that of your family. Most growing churches in our community embrace many of these elements. You can find an article posted earlier this summer about unusual church places at

God bless your church searching!

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

Seminars offer religious training to leaders and laity alike

Over the course of the past year, I’ve written about the slipping status quo of biblical and religious literacy (see Alaska’s remoteness, compared to the Lower 48 where opportunities abound to access Bible and religious education, contributes to this problem, especially for those past high school age. Two major religious communities in Alaska have aggressively been addressing these deficiencies with in-state training opportunities. This column highlights two upcoming programs.

Illiteracy update

In a recent post at “The Exchange” (see, church researcher Ed Stetzer writes, “Christians claim to believe the Bible is God’s Word. We claim it’s God’s divinely inspired, inerrant message to us. Yet despite this, we aren’t reading it. A recent LifeWay Research study found only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Over 40 percent of the people attending read their Bible occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. Almost one in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible — essentially the same number who read it every day.”

Eagle River Institute

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, the Eagle River Institute offers five days of religious and biblical instruction at St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. The Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John, sharing a bit of the background of ERI notes, “We realized many years ago that the people in our congregation, being in Alaska, did not have easy access to conferences regularly held in the Lower 48. In 1995 we began the Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies as a way of inviting two speakers up each summer to conduct a series of classes intended as general education for Christian lay people. Since then many Orthodox Christian teachers from around the world have addressed a great variety of theological and spiritual issues. The beauty of Alaska also provides an extra draw for speakers. A few years ago one attendee told me that the lectures by Bishop Kallistos Ware ‘reached deep into my heart and reinforced that God is a loving and forgiving God.’Another said it helped her ‘not be quite so judgmental.’ The lectures are usually attended by 50 to 75 people. Orthodox Christianity represents the faith of the ancient churches from Greece, Russia and the Middle East, which in this century is being rediscovered in America and connecting people to a Christian tradition rooted in history yet alive with deep spirituality. Hundreds of people have come to the Eagle River Institute and opened the door to a Christian tradition they previously knew little of.”

I attended ERI last year receiving a significant blessing from associating with people coming to learn more about this faith. One of this year’s speakers is the Rev. George Shalhoub, a teacher at Madonna University and Antiochian House of Studies. His topic will be “Christianity in the Arab World.” The other speaker is the Rev. Andrew Stephen Damick, whose topic is “Key Themes in Saint Ignatius the God-Bearer.” A PDF brochure can be viewed and downloaded at Last year I attended ERI and heard two marvelous Orthodox presentations in a co-presenter format. The Rev. David and Rozanne Rucker, an Orthodox couple doing mission work in Mexico and Guatemala, gave riveting presentations about the challenges in these mission fields. The Rev. Nicholas and Anastasia Molydoko-Harris gave touching presentations about their Russian Orthodox (now Orthodox) service in Alaska, including the establishment of St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral. I say, come for a blessing; the Rev. Marc Dunaway says, “All are welcome to attend and join us.”

Alaska School of Theology: SMU and Alaska United Methodist Conference

Sept. 18-19 will mark the 19th year that the Alaska United Methodist Conference has teamed with the prestigious Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology to present short but in-depth excursions into the Bible. (Descriptive brochure at

This seminar brings two SMU faculty members to Alaska for a 1 1/2-day seminar on biblical and faith topics. I’ve attended these conferences several times over the years and found them rewarding. Alyce McKensie, professor of preaching and worship, presented on the parables of Jesus several years ago. Jamie Clark-Soles, a New Testament professor, presented an engaging and contemporary study on the Book of Matthew. Each presenter has authored multiple volumes and articles.

“In 2002 our faculty consisted of Scott Jones, professor of Evangelism, and Jouette Bassler, a giant in the field of New Testament studies,” said Lonnie Brooks, local SMU co-coordinator of the Alaska School of Theology. “Jouette taught a class on the Book of Revelation, and Scott taught in his field. At the end of Jouette’s class, which I myself attended, one of the students said in class, ‘Dr. Bassler, you have given me a whole new way to look at this material. It was primarily because of the way this book has been presented historically in churches that I left the church. But now I’m coming back.’ At dinner that night with the two professors, I said, ‘Scott, you need to hear this story.’ I told what the student had said, and Scott said, ‘You mean to tell me that Jouette is an evangelist?’ Jouette said, ‘Well, by my count it’s Jouette one, and Scott zero.’ Shortly after that, Scott Jones was elected to be a bishop of the UMC, a calling in which he continues to serve.”

This year’s presenters, wife and husband team Heidi Miller, an Anabaptist liturgical scholar, and the Rev. Gary MacDonald, a United Methodist elder studying social ethics, engage and lead a discussion on worship, theology and ethics, and the place of dialogue and action in the life of the church. Their presentation begins Friday evening with a joint presentation, “A Pacifist and a Realist Walk into a Bar: How Can Christians Talk With Each Other?,” and continues with separate tracks on Saturday. Her talk is titled “Transforming Bodies: Reclaiming Worship That Matters”; his is ” ‘God Grant Me the Serenity …’ Exploring Faith and Politics.”

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)