Category Archives: ADN Articles

RIP – Fr. Norman Elliott

The much loved senior clergyman in Alaska, Fr. Norman Elliott, passed on Friday.

A Visitation will be held Monday 9/19/2016  from 1:00pm to 4:00pm with the service starting at 4pm.  It will be held at All Saints, with overflow being in the Egan Center.  A reception will follow at the Egan Center. The burial will be the following day (Tuesday)  at 1:00pm at Angelus Memorial Park Cemetery.

Fr Elliott’s passing will be mourned by scores of Alaskan who owe their connection to God to him. I’ve written several columns about him which can be found using the search tool on the right under the word cloud. Use Elliott for your search. I’ll post a detailed column after his services.
RIP dear friend.

Local blogger comments on South Africa mission trip column & letters to ADN editor

Last week I discovered a local blogger had articulated his views and responses regarding the South Africa mission trip I wrote about in May.  He did a creditable job in detailing more thoroughly some of my presented material dealing with the problems  these short-term mission trips present.  In his views, he suggests the mother’s letter to the editor may have complicated the issue, especially with regard to her participating son/daughter.

http://whatdoino-steve.blogspot.com/2016/05/parent-bias-blocks-message-prevents_28.html

My column was not submitted to discredit this particular church, but to point out these types of short-term mission trips do more for the participant than the people on the other end.  In light of all of the evidence these trips do more harm than good, long-term, I’ve suggested this church present an op-ed regarding their views.

Unfortunately, in Alaska, we’re often more comfortable dealing with issues on the other side of the world rather than providing caring Christian services to those in our own neighborhoods. It is my hope these articles on missions will bring missionary activities into clearer focus here in Alaska.

Church gardens update

Anchorage Lutheran Church is planning on joining the ranks of local churches with community gardens.  Blessings to you!

Additionally, today’s column should have included the name of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the roster of churches with food gardens, even though they were mentioned earlier.

Congregation Beth Sholom is also in the process of planning a community garden.  Great news!

A disappointing visit to a charismatic church

Charismatic, Pentecostal churches are growing fast worldwide, and only a bit slower in the U.S. For those unfamiliar with these terms, “Pentecostal” refers to churches or religions characterized by an emphasis of speaking in tongues, baptism of the Holy Spirit, healing, prophesying and exorcism. The word comes from the Pentecost described in the Book of Acts. Webster defines “charismatic” in the context of religion as “describ[ing] Christian religious groups whose members believe that they can communicate directly with God to receive help and guidance and the power to heal others.”

“In the U.S., Pentecostals represent 5 percent to 12 percent of Christians, depending on the measurement used,” according to the Hartford Seminary. “That figure is outnumbered only by Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans.”

“The growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America is estimated to be at three times the rate of Catholic growth,” theWashington Post recently reported. “Non-Catholic believers now account for 2 percent of Latin America’s 550 million Christians. Today, Brazil not only has more Catholics than any other country, but also more Pentecostals, reflecting Pentecostalism’s astonishing global growth.” Amazingly, this is a movement that started just a little more than 100 years ago.

Recently, I attended a service at a prominent local charismatic Pentecostal church. I’ve visited this church several times before, but always seem to come away with more questions than answers. It appears to defy the advice given by Pentecostal writers who urge practices these churches should follow to be more welcoming to guests.

Assemblies of God Theological Seminary’s J. Melvin Mingin an Enrichment Journal article titled, “Helping Outsiders Become Insiders,” cites studies of five fast growing Pacific Northwest churches representing four denominations and what made them grow. He lists similarities the growing churches shared in how they welcome guests, including greeters in the parking lot, hosts at the front doors to make people feel welcome, a visible hospitality or welcome center, bulletins with a simple but clear order of worship, and a reception after the service for guests to meet with church leadership.

This church had more than the usual number of problems, but many churches are guilty on one or more of these counts, and in order not to single one out for special scrutiny, I’ve chosen not to identify this one. I arrived at the church about 10 minutes before the service started. I saw no parking lot attendant or greeters before or after the service. I entered the church through the main front entrance and no one greeted me. People were ordering and enjoying coffee from the coffee stand, yet no one seemed to notice me as I entered. Next, I proceeded down the hallway to the auditorium yet no one greeted me in any way. Entering the auditorium, I picked a seat in the middle section toward the back of the church.

The worship team, finished with their practice, was on the platform forming a circle for prayer, which lasted until just before the service. I like the practice of asking God’s blessing on the musical portion of the service. Musicians and singers can get hurried forgetting to do so, but I believe it’s important, both for the participant and the observer. The service began with music performed by this worship band of six, and continued for more than a half-hour. In starting, the leader said, “we encourage you to stand,” a positive request; usually I hear “stand” or “please stand.” The lights were turned way down, highlighting the band performers, a tip the music was primarily a performance. On the positive side, I noted their sound levels were down significantly from my previous visits, rarely exceeding 100 decibels. Toward the end of their set, one of the musicians broke down, tearfully talking about having a bad week, and that she was “impressed” to perform again the song they’d just sung. This brought back memories of an inspirational gospel-bluegrass “sing” I’d attended where the performing group played their last song over and over again, with tears and crying.

After concluding, the music group continued playing behind the following speakers. Personally I dislike this practice; it seems many contemporary churches have transitioned into a soundtrack mentality. Doing so tends to create primarily emotional — versus rational — responses, whether it’s an altar call, an appeal for funds, or prayer.

Someone, who did not give their name (a poor practice in any church), introduced the various speakers. The first offered words of encouragement, urging people to “fall in love with Jesus.” The next encouraged people to, “Take a moment and engage God where you are,” but by raising their hands to show it — strange jargon for a visitor new to this church. The speaker after that gave her testimony, and started singing “You are awesome in this place,” telling people to stand and welcome the Lord with mighty hand-clapping. A final speaker spoke about evangelism. Altogether these speakers lengthened the service by about 30 minutes, without, in my opinion, adding substantial value.

Finally, the ushers were asked to come forward to receive the morning offering. All were told that “giving is a holy moment,” and we would not be asked to come forward to give this morning. Instead, large buckets were passed. Next, a series of video announcements were shown about a variety of church-related activities — a break from the more common practice of holding such announcements until the end of a service, where they are less disruptive to the flow of worship.

The pastor was finally introduced with this strange announcement “Put your hands together and welcome our pastor ______.” I can’t even begin to imagine Jesus, the Apostles, or Paul being introduced this way. His 45-minute sermon was delivered dynamically — and mostly extemporaneously — with much walking of the platform. I enjoyed the sermon, but it was overly long and I was distracted by the repeated used a key phrase — also the title of the sermon — throughout the sermon; I counted 15 times he said this phrase, but it may have been more. No matter how good the sermon was, this phrase wore on me. Another irritant was an audience member kept saying, “wow!” or “oh yeah!” throughout the entirety of the sermon — in sharp contrast to the rest of the congregation, which was mostly unresponsive.

Many churches, not just charismatic ones, forget the basics when it comes to holding church. I wonder how many more guests might become members of churches like this if they were just treated in a more friendly manner. Based on how this church treated this guest, it will be a much longer time until I revisit them.

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

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)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

The old Alaska traditions surrounding Orthodox Christmas

Last week I attended Orthodox services at St. Alexis Mission in celebration of Christmas. The Orthodox Church in America counts nearly 90 churches across Alaska, and congregations here, and in Canada and 14 other countries, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, a practice harkening back to the church’s beginnings. The church in these regions follows a modified Julian calendar. (Locally, Greek and Antiochian Orthodox celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 using the Gregorian calendar for dating Christmas.)

In Alaska, Orthodox churches conduct Divine Liturgy services at 9 a.m. When a place of worship becomes too small, they do not add services but form a new body, i.e. mission, for the purpose of raising a new church. St. Alexis Mission meets at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association headquarters building on East International Airport Road. This temporary meeting space requires them to pack and store everything after services, no simple feat. Orthodox services involve the use of many icons and Eucharistic items which, in the temporary space, cannot be left in place.

The Very Rev. Jonah Andrew is assigned to the the mission, where he is sometimes assisted by the Very Rev. Michael Oleksa. Although Oleksa is retired, he is active in many other activities outside of St. Alexis. Andrew was in Tyonek celebrating Christmas at St. Nicholas Church, so Oleksa was the celebrant at both services I attended.

The 9 a.m. Christmas service at St. Alexis, a simple service including Eucharist, was led by Oleksa and a small choir. Orthodox services, except for the homily, are celebrated with the congregants standing. The service was very musical with the choir and the priest intertwining voices during the liturgy. Often, Oleksa raised his voice in support of the choir, even harmonizing with them.

In the Orthodox tradition, Christmas is preceded by 40 days of fasting — no easy feat, considering the fast period starts before Thanksgiving, and runs through the New Year. The Christmas service was a standard liturgy with special introductory psalms. The Gospel was Matthew, the story of the Magi, and in his homily, Oleksa talked about the Magi, and the birth of Jesus, pointing to the Magi in the primary icon, which are depicted as if seen from afar to emphasize the length of their journey. After the Eucharist, St. Alexis’ star was twirled to the sound of liturgical hymns for this feast day. Several times Oleksa joyfully announced, “Christ is born!” To which all responded, “Glorify him!” After the service, all were invited to Oleksa’s house for more hymns, folk carols and breakfast.

Oleksa was the celebrant again when vespers was celebrated that evening at St. Alexis — this time with fewer worshippers, and a much smaller choir. It was a beautiful service with another brief homily in which Oleksa depicted the Christian ending to one’s life; painless and blameless. Another “starring” was held. Not even the Protestant churches mark this time and event with such gusto.

After the service, Oleksa invited all present to meet up and join for “starring” and hymns at Lois and Tomislav Vasiljevic’s home in Russian Jack. Separately, Oleksa told me Tomislav, who is Serbian, was also celebrating his family Slava. “Serbian Orthodox are unique in that they do not celebrate their patron saint or Name Day, but instead celebrate the feast day on which their family became Christian,” Oleksa said. “In Tomislav’s case it was over 1,000 years ago that their whole village became Christian. St. Alexis always takes its star there, and sings for Tom and his family, who also treat us to a meal.”

Worshippers sang traditional Serbian religious music, while Oleksa’s son twirled the star. After the meal, Vasiljevic asked Oleksa to pray a healing prayer for him, which Oleksa did while placing a cross on him.

As I started writing this column, I had the impression most Orthodox worshippers avoid the temptation to succumb to the commercial trappings surrounding Christmas. However, the Rt. Rev. David Mahaffey, bishop of Sitka and Alaska, shared a strong statement of support for those who hold true to church recommendations saying, “I admire all those who wait until January 7 to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, because all the commercialism and busyness that has become the trappings of Christmas, has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but more to do with the merchant’s pocketbook.”

“Alaska Missionary Spirituality,” a collection of 18th- and 19th-century letters, diaries and sermons of Orthodox missionaries in Alaska edited by Oleksa, explains starring as a “Native Alaskan term for traditional Julian calendar Christmas, combining elements of Ukrainian/Russian Orthodox hymns and folk customs and traditional indigenous practices. A pinwheel-shaped star, representing the Star of Bethlehem, with an icon of the Nativity of Christ in the center, leads the procession of carolers from house to house, where:

(1) In Aleut regions, they sing Orthodox and the traditional ‘“Many Years,’ often greeted with a rifle salute.

(2) In some Yup’ik Eskimo regions, all are treated to a lavish three-course meal (with the elders and church functionaries dining first). And in some households adults are presented with small gifts.

(3) In other Yup’ik areas, each household presents ‘to the Star’ their major annual contribution to the parish that the singers represent.”

I enjoyed my warm, in-depth introduction to Orthodox Christmas.

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

 

Beer and Hymns – November 22, 2015

Beer and Hymns, that fun fundraiser sponsored by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, will be held again Sunday, November , 2015.  Mo’s O’Brady’s restaurant in the Huffman Business Park adjacent to Carrs Huffman store will see the music starting at 6 p.m., lasting until 8 p.m. The format is that you come with family and friends, order a meal and beverage of your choice, and sing hymns led by Pastor Dan Bollerud.  I guarantee you will find new friends at this fundraiser for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA).  Credit cards are accepted and you will have not be sorry you came.

LSSA uses donations to fund food for those in need with weekly distributions in town.  I’m proud of what LSSA does in our community.  Find out more about their mission and objectives on their website http://www.lssalaska.org/.

See you there!

Paying a visit to the Jehovah’s Witnesses

After 15 years of attending Anchorage churches, I still look forward to visiting new denominations or congregations. Recently I was able to add a new group to my list: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Many of us have been visited by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses distributing their literature and trying to engage us in conversation about religious issues. Recently, I visited a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation to see firsthand how they present themselves to one coming in unannounced. My primary motive was to see if they represented the degree of diversity, noted in Pew Research data and my last column, which ranked the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the second most diverse religious group nationally.

It was difficult locating local JW churches on the Internet. Instead of websites, I found Facebook pages for several Anchorage congregations. The closest congregation to me was the Sand Lake Kingdom Hall on Strawberry Road. Their Internet presence is an unofficial Facebook page without information about service times. Confused about meeting times, I finally resorted to the national website, jw.org, and used their locator. It’s not a friendly website, but eventually I found seven sites for Anchorage and Eagle River. That’s deceptive, though. Several congregations meet in the same Kingdom Hall but are listed separately. For example, Parkway, Sand Lake and Anchorage South listings meet in the same Kingdom Hall on Strawberry Road. All are shown as English language meetings, but some are conducted in other languages.

The website showed a 1 p.m. Sunday English service, which brought me to the Kingdom Hall on Strawberry Road. The grounds were spacious and attractive, with plenty of parking, and I saw many people streaming into the building. Jehovah’s Witness commenters had previously noted that I would be warmly welcomed, but no one greeted me when I entered, or during my visit. By mistake, I went into the first meeting room. Upon asking, I discovered I’d entered the Spanish language meeting by mistake. Directed to the other side of the building, I entered, but no one greeted me. People were talking with each other but I was ignored. One always wonders, when this happens, if they are in the right place — clearly an awkward feeling.

The meeting started on time with a leader announcing an opening hymn. People sang to music played by digital piano recordings. The leader didn’t introduce himself or welcome visitors, but referred to all as brothers and sisters. Members used a thin hymnbook to sing to the music. I noticed some parents pointing out the words to their children following the song. A speaker, Brother David Bresky, was introduced to give a talk about comfort. His talk frequently referenced to scripture — and frequently used the word “Jehovah.” This term supplants many other scriptural references to the deity.

I was surprised, though not unpleasantly, by the manner in which both the Spanish- and English-speaking congregations were dressed. It was quite formal with suits and ties for the men and dresses or suits for the women. Even the children were dressed up in their best.

Bresky’s talk lasted 30 minutes, after which another song was sung. Then Brothers Chip Boyle and Michael Tuminella took the platform to review that week’s Watchtower lesson. The Watchtower is a semi-monthly magazine published by JW national headquarters. It contains updates, inspirational articles, and four study lessons used during services. Brother Boyle read the lessons, and Brother Tuminella asked congregation members questions contained in the lesson, calling on those who wanted to answer. Several men had portable microphones to give to those answering the questions, a great practice so all could hear clearly. Amazingly, parents and children eagerly raised their hands to answer. I’ve never seen so much attention to a Bible lesson in any Anchorage church. It was great. The lesson, in which one or two paragraphs were read, and a response then called for in the form of a question, lasted more than 45 minutes and was comprehensive. Its theme was “Meditate on Jehovah’s Enduring Love.” After the lesson, announcements from JW headquarters were read.

A final song was then sung and the meeting adjourned.

I approached meeting participant Chip Boyle to introduce myself and ask several questions. He was helpful in answering question for this column. He and other participants function, without titles, as elders of this congregation.

I enjoyed my visit here. Their stancess on private scriptural interpretation, biblical translation and health issues, such as blood transfusions, have brought them into the spotlight nationally. Their voluntary witnessing has some detractors, but I applaud them for courage in sharing their faith. They are a culturally diverse group with 3,000 to 4,000 members in Alaska.

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

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)alaskadispatch.com.

In Anchorage, an ancient order celebrates investiture

Entering Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral last Sunday afternoon, I was greeted by the glorious strains of “Lift High the Cross” being practiced by an accomplished musical group. This was a foretaste of a wonderful experience to come centered around a centuries-old tradition harking back to the crusades in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. This celebration capped three days of ceremonial meetings of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Northwestern Lieutenancy of the United States composed of Northern California and the states of Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Alaska. With 13 council cities in the Lieutenancy, Anchorage hosts meetings approximately every 10 years.

A Vigil at Arms had previously been held on Friday at Holy Family Cathedral, followed by Memorial and Promotions on Saturday at Saint Patrick Church presided over by Archbishop Roger J. Schwietz. The Sunday event was an Investiture and Mass presided over by His Eminence Edwin O’Brien, Cardinal Grand Master of the Order. The cathedral was almost completely filled by Knights and Ladies of the Order, clergy, and choir.

During the First Crusade, Jerusalem was briefly conquered by Christians from Western Europe, in response to a call from Pope Urban. Those conquerors created the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre at this time. According to the Vatican website for the order, “…in 1103 the first King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I, assumed the leadership of this canonical order, and reserved the right for himself and his successors (as agents of the Patriarch of Jerusalem) to appoint Knights to it, should the Patriarch be absent or unable to do so.” Armed knights chosen from the crusader troops were chosen for their valor and dedication, vowing to “obey Augustinian Rule of poverty and obedience and undertook specifically, under the command of the King of Jerusalem, to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the Holy Places.”

Ultimately the goals of the Crusades failed and control of the Holy Land reverted to Muslim rulers, but the Order survived and its role was strengthened over time by Pope’s Pius IX, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. Today its main purpose is to strengthen in its members the practice of Christian life, to sustain the work of the church in the Holy Land, to support the preservation and propagation of the faith there, and to uphold the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. In 2013, Pope Francis called and personally attended a special conclave of the order in Rome to better understand it, its works, and to strengthen it.

The Order’s Grand Master is appointed by the pontiff and reports directly to him. The current Grand Master is Cardinal Edwin O’Brien who presided over Sunday’s investiture ceremony. He is an imposing figure dressed in special ceremonial garb. Anchorage Archbishop Schwietz and Bishop Peter L. Smith, from the Portland, Oregon, archdiocese occupied the main platform, with Cardinal O’Brien officiating on the main level in front of the altar.

Several hundred knights and ladies of the order processed into Our Lady of Guadalupe to the strains of “Let Us Go Rejoicing to the House of the Lord,” followed by the cardinal, archbishop, bishop and other clergy. The number of clergy in attendance, particularly archbishops and bishops, was significantly reduced from Archbishop Schwietz’s 75th birthday and 25th anniversary in the episcopate celebration earlier this year. I was told this was budgetary and also due to so many senior Northwest Catholic clergy convening in Washington, D.C., for Pope Francis’ visit. After all were seated the formal investiture service began. A beautifully bound 40-page program provided the service liturgy.

A new lieutenant, Thompson M. Faller, was invested due to the sudden promotion of the former lieutenant, Mary Currivan O’Brien — the order’s first woman lieutenant in the world — to the board of the grand magesterium in Rome. Ten new knights, and 13 new ladies were invested. Each was robed with new vestments of the order after investiture; black berets and white capes with the red Jerusalem cross for the men; black mantillas and black dresses for the women. Five clergy were invested: two deacons, two priests and one bishop. They received special white stoles containing the red Jerusalem cross. The knights and clergy were dubbed by the Cardinal with a special sword formerly held by lieutenancy treasurer, Mary Ann Molitor’s father-in-law, a 4th degree Knight of Columbus, which subsequently passed to her son, also a 4th degree Knight of Columbus.

Ms. Molitor, who invited me to this occasion, said afterward, “This was such a special joyous occasion. I can’t remember any of our prior Anchorage annual meetings where we have been blessed by the presence of His Eminence.” Cardinal O’Brien’s well-delivered homily encouraged and charged discipleship to those gathered.

The musical portion of the service during the Investiture and following mass was performed by Anchorage Concert Chorus members, led by Grant Cochran, a brass quintet, directed by Linn Weeda, along with organist Janet Carr-Campbell, timpanist Robert Arms and cantor Katy Kerris. The Catholic Church is using some updated musical forms, including the “Mass of Renewal” by Portland composer Curtis Stephan. During the Mass, the liturgy was accompanied by this feast of music.

Order members are encouraged to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and about 80 percent do so. Members fund various projects in the Holy Land. An ongoing Northwest Lieutenancy project is the John McGuckin mentorship program at Bethlehem University, for which $20,000 was most recently given. This program funds selected students to come to the U.S., primarily the West Coast, to devote eight weeks to mentoring in their area of intended study.

What I saw and subsequently learned about this historic order has given me great respect for this tradition in today’s setting.

AFACT celebrates Medicaid expansion

Last Saturday I attended an interfaith prayer vigil and Medicaid expansion celebration held at St. Anthony Catholic Church. It was a service with much prayer, music, scriptural readings, and a sermonette. It felt like a church service, but with a distinct purpose. I was invited by a friend, a member of a congregation belonging to AFACT, or Anchorage Faith and Action — Congregations Together. AFACT is composed of 14 Christian congregations representing a diverse array of backgrounds working to address quality of life issues in Alaska’s largest city.

AFACT’s statement about Medicaid expansion is here. It’s very straightforward. Based on biblical and Alaska constitutional grounds, it’s an issue of equality and fairness. When Gov. Bill Walker asked the Legislature to address Medicaid expansion, he was rebuffed. AFACT members lobbied in person, and conducted prayer vigils to bring them to their senses, but no action was taken. That’s when Walker stepped in.

I was absolutely riveted by Lutheran Church of Hope pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour’s remarks. She asked how many of us have a junk drawer in our houses. All hands went up.

“Most of us have a ‘junk drawer’ in our houses,” she said. ”It’s a place where we stick the odds and ends that are useful, but never seem to have a home. The Medicaid expansion gap in our state functioned as a societal junk drawer. It was the place where working, single adults fell; those who did not make quite enough to afford to buy into the exchanges and weren’t in dire enough straits to be covered by anything else.”

She was right; I’d just never thought of it that way.

Later, Seymour told me AFACT members were “drawn together through their understanding of Scripture. Again and again, Hebrew Scripture, the Gospels, and the Epistles remind God’s faithful there is no such thing as a social junk drawer. Every person has a place. Every person belongs. When people belong, they should receive the benefits of having a place in society. In our work as communities of faith together, this has meant working toward a medical social safety net that covers all Alaskans.”

She finally observed this was “part of the ongoing joy that is part of being churches working together. For AFACT congregations, a Baptist, a Catholic, and a Quaker walking into a bar together isn’t a joke. We are grateful to God that it is our reality.”

I turned to the Rev. Max Lopez-Cepero, of First Covenant Church of Anchorage, curious about its AFACT involvement. “Our congregation joined AFACT,” he said, “because we found a missing link in the way we were responding to people in need. Churches are often good at compassion ministry; raising money and food for individuals and families who have needs. But most churches pay little attention to the structures and public policies which cause those needs. We realized that compassion and justice are different facets of our call to love our neighbor. Compassion is working to help hurting people. Justice is working to end what hurts people. We wanted to give some balance to our care by addressing justice as well as compassion in our outreach. AFACT has a track record of working with churches to identify justice issues in keeping with our Christian heritage.”

For me, Lopez-Cepero really nailed it when he said, “There is a heresy in some churches that God does not want government to do justice for the poor; that this should be a choice for involvement made by individuals and perhaps churches. Those taking this stand seldom apply this idea to other issues of justice and morality. In King David’s last Psalm he offers a prayer for his son Solomon who is to become the new king. Several stanzas of that prayer refer to the responsibility of the government to bring justice to the poor.” (Lopex-Cepero refers to Psalm 72, sometimes thought to be David’s last. One verse reads,”May the King defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor.”)

I’ve visited some of those churches he refers to, as have some of you.

“AFACT is about people, the people we love,” said the Rev. Fred Bugarin, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church. “If Medicaid expansion serves a need, and in this case, a critical need for the 42,000 uninsured Alaskans, then our faith mandates us to act justly on behalf of these, our people in need.”

To me, Bugarin echoes the voices of so many Christians around the world, and especially the Middle East, who at this time, are dying for their faith. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing from the Middle East to protect their loved ones. Many in Europe today, are refusing aid and comfort to those in dire distress; governments stand idly by as thousands perish on their shores.

Next time you meet with your legislators, ask them if they are satisfied with their health plan. Assuming they’ll say yes, then ask them why they would stand in the way of helping those who are trapped by income and circumstance.

I stand amazed that our legislators continue to pour huge sums of our money into fighting this issue further in the courts.

There is much to criticize in churches today, but not the efforts of AFACT congregations who pursue a truly Christian ideal of social justice for those caught in the “junk drawer.”

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

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)alaskadispatch.com.

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 adn.com/churchvisits, stretching back to January 2014. My blogging, current and past, and these columns are available at churchvisits.com. 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 churchvisits@gmail.com 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,churchvisits.com.

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)alaskadispatch.com.