Category Archives: ADN Articles

10 things I’d love to see churches address in 2017

Churches are complex groups of people who develop their church’s DNA — often over the course of many years. Many are heavily influenced by their pastor of the moment, “lifers” in the congregation, or core denominational beliefs that may change as they develop or morph over time. During the course of my many local church visits, I’ve seen some meaningful change over the years, but some issues I’ve noted every year seem to be impervious to change.

For many years now, I’ve been sharing my lists of 10 things I’d like to see churches tackle seriously in the new calendar year. This list will be my last published in Alaska Dispatch News but I’ll continue to write about them and other pertinent visit-based observations on my website, This list is in no particular order, but these items are widely recognized to be significant in attracting new believers, retaining members and sustaining church growth.

1. Hospitality should be world-class.

A major reason a church guest will never return occurs when they receive a sense they are not welcome when visiting a new church. It’s easy: Just don’t open church doors for them, establish eye contact or genuinely welcome them with a handshake and smile while handing them a bulletin or order of service. It’s every member’s responsibility, not just a designated greeter’s. I’ve only heard one pastor deliver a sermon, in all my Anchorage church visiting years, that talked about the importance of hospitality.

2. Music should be relevant and respectful.

Every church has its own musical styles, from the Church of Christ vocal-only music with no instruments, to some Pentecostal and evangelical churches with killer music groups blasting up to 115 decibels for sustained periods of time. I’ve noticed, for the most part, that the louder the music, the longer the play time. Usually the contemporary music is a medley of mostly unfamiliar songs to which people stand and listen to the group perform. That’s silly. It’s even sillier to perform 30-45 minutes of such music that’s unconnected to anything else in the service.

3. Sermons should be Bible-based with great takeaways,

Sermon series seem to be the flavor of the moment in many churches. They may last weeks or months. Many pastors seem oblivious to the research that indicates millennials, for example, are concerned with issues such as science and faith, sexuality, fostering relationship building, and hypocrisy, and feel the church fails to address these issues, to name a few. David Kinnaman’s well-researched book “You Lost Me” provides the data to back up these concerns. Yet, I’ve never heard a single sermon address any of these issues. Little wonder this group feels religion is failing them.

4. Meet-and-greets are not guest-friendly.

Many churches practice this mind-numbing exercise to make themselves believe they really care about guests. Incredibly, some churches still ask guests to stand up and identify themselves, when research indicates this practice singularly discourages return visits by guests.

5. Visitor parking should be plentiful and convenient.

Visitor parking spaces, of a sufficient number, say, “Welcome, we were expecting you!” Yet, too many churches have too few of them. Like designated handicapped parking spaces, they say, “We value our visitors.”

6. Guest packets are a must.

Every first-time guest should receive information about the church, its beliefs and practices, and information about learning more about it. Unless churches learn to know people walking in their doors, they’ll never know who is or is not a first-timer. These information packets are often more effective when accompanied by a memorable gift such as a freshly baked loaf of bread, a great candy bar or a coffee card. I’ve received fewer than 10 such packets in all of my hundreds of Anchorage church visits.

7. Offerings must exclude visitors.

A very common practice is to shove the offering plate under every guest’s nose without exception. Guests should hear clearly that they are not expected to give. Some churches take up multiple offerings, making it doubly important to remind guests, who are not members, that they’re excluded from giving to offerings.

8. Follow up with every visitor.

It’s a delicate matter getting information from new church guests. Many will be checking you out before they commit to sharing information. Others will gladly share that information if their visit seems to be going well. The field is divided whether a personal visit or some other type of follow-up, such as a letter or phone call, is best. However, the value of a guest visit to a church lessens with each passing day. Make that after-visit connection quickly.

9. Websites are important connectors; treat them accordingly.

I’ve seen some major improvements in church websites over the years but an often-overlooked fact is that most people consult them for two things: location and times of services. That information should clearly be showing at the top of the page when your main site comes into view. Many websites have taken the approach of using rapidly changing graphics to entice the user. Often that can confuse instead of help. All church websites should be updated weekly, if not daily.

10. Phones – make them work for your church.

Calling churches is currently, in my opinion, a waste of time. Even during office hours, it’s a rare occurrence if a real person answers. Often, a messaging system will answer the phone and give numerous options about what you’re looking for: worship times, location, staff, etc. Personal contact may be the lifeblood for establishing a relationship with a person needing what a good congregation can offer. Personally, I’ve discovered that messages left are returned less than half of the time.

This is my last ADN Church Visits column. I want to thank ADN for filling a void in church and religion coverage starting in 2008 with my blog and then in a weekly print column in early 2014. Over the years I’ve tackled a variety of issues regarding church culture and matters of faith. Though this column will no longer be published at ADN, I’ll be regularly updating my website with similar posts of my visits and religion issues. I’ve stepped on a few toes but I write truthfully and honestly. My opinions are my own but I back up my writing with other knowledgeable experts and research. Thank you for reading my column. I invite you to visit my website,, which contains all 8 1/2 years of my ADN writing and many more useful resources on music, mission and topical indexes (and ADN has indicated they’ll be keeping my ADN-blogged and column writing, online into the future at

Happy New Year to each of you!

The value of Christmas is deep and remarkable

When many of you read this, Christmas Eve preparations will have been made. Churches will be ready for you with multiple services; this annual event will be celebrated with great joy. Music, candles, pageantry, sermons and goodwill will herald the end of Advent and entry into Christmas.

Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches will not hold Sunday services. But, according to Christianity Today, “Eighty-nine percent of pastors say their church will hold services on Christmas Day. Leaders of Lutheran (94 percent), Church of Christ (93 percent), Baptist (91 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (91 percent), and Holiness (92 percent) churches are most likely to say their church will hold Christmas Day services. Pentecostals (79 percent) are less likely. Small churches and large churches are slightly less likely to be open for Christmas.”

Some argue against churches having Christmas Day services, especially when Christmas falls on Sunday, because Christmas Day is a family day. Presents need to be opened and family Christmas traditions need to be observed and perpetuated.

The purpose of Christmas Eve services is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in imaginative and multiple glorious ways. For many churches, these services are their most heavily attended of the year. Many evangelical churches now actively use them for evangelism, i.e., attracting new adherents. And what better way to use them. But for many, Christmas Day is an afterthought.

Be sure to check with your church to ensure it is holding Christmas Day services before going. Last week, over coffee with a pastor, he revealed he’d made the mistake some years ago of going to a church retreat during a weekend assuming all members would be there.

Unfortunately, no notice got posted on the church door. Upon his return, he discovered some people did come for a Sunday service and left with the impression the church was no longer in business. This also happened to me when visiting a local church. It turns out they were away at a camp meeting but the door had no notice of it.

Most Catholic and Orthodox churches hold both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. As always, it’s best to check church websites or call to ensure when services will be held. I fondly remember, as a then-member of the Anchorage Concert Chorus, singing for the Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral several years ago.

It’s truly a beautiful service with brass, choir, organ, timpani and piano focused squarely on the birth of Christ and culminating with the partaking of Eucharist. To be able to participate in this “extracurricular” event was an honor I’ll always remember. This might be a good year to experience this beautiful Mass along with this elite musical group.

As a choir singer for most of my life, I can personally attest to the amount of effort church music directors put into the preparation of music for Christmas services. In some churches with large choirs, the choir itself can represent a sizeable portion of those present for services. Choir members invest significant amounts of time preparing for this special music, and enjoy the participative efforts of their singing.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I urge you to experience Christmas celebrations of other faith traditions. It always amazes me how rarely Christians allow themselves permission to experience Christmas through the eyes of another faith.

Maybe they are fearful of eternal damnation if they do so, or are so tied to their personal congregation that they feel nothing could be better. I’ve experienced Christmas in various areas of the world, and through the eyes of various cultures. It’s fascinating to do so, and gave me new insights and appreciation for practicing my own faith in ways that were enriching.

Growing up in a Christian family, even if we did not go to Christmas Eve service, we always commenced Christmas Eve festivities with a Gospel reading of the Nativity story. It’s an enriching story and needs to be read in its entirety to catch its fullness.

I like Luke’s version the best, and Luke 2 is the place to start. Matthew’s version of the Nativity starts at Matthew 1:18 and is preceded by the genealogy of Jesus. Try reading with some different translations to capture the scope and sway of the text. The King James Version, even with the Elizabethan English, still captures the imagination. These days I often enjoy the English Standard Version for its translation accuracy and beauty of language.

My experiences with Anchorage Christmas services have always been an enjoyable part of my church year. No matter where I go, churches seem to be on their best behavior during this time. Many years, I’ve gone to multiple churches to experience their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

I’ve been particularly blessed when churches offer “Lessons and Carols” services during Advent or at Christmastime. I see that First Congregational Church is offering such a service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Also, Holy Family Cathedral will be offering this type of service on Christmas Eve at 11 p.m. Zion Lutheran offers its own Christmas Eve service of “Lessons and Carols” at 7:30 p.m. These types of services are beautifully rendered with readings, carols and special musical presentations.

As I wind up my writing year, this will be my next to last column for the Alaska Dispatch News. Next week I’ll present my “10 Things I’d Like to See Anchorage Churches Address in 2017” column. My “10 things” columns at year’s end have been something I look forward to writing and will continue to do as I confine my church writing to my website, The site also contains all of my ADN blog posts and columns for the past eight and a half years, approximately 530 articles.

As we complete Advent and transition into Christmas, I wish each of you warm Christmas greetings. May the peace and hope brought by the birth of Jesus’ attend your ways at this time, and into the coming year.

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Three churches, three approaches to Christmas

Last Sunday I attended three separate services. After focusing on Advent this month, I wanted to experience services at evangelical churches not observing Advent. While I believe Advent, rightly observed, can be an antidote to the crass commercialism hijacking Christmas, evangelical churches should also be urging their parishioners to keep focused on the true purpose of Christmas, Jesus.

Anchorage Baptist Temple

This megachurch, Alaska’s second-largest with approximately 2,500 members, is always a feast of sight and sound. Everything seems to be larger than life with an enormous center-stage video screen, flanked by two large video monitors to the right and left. Spirited singing by choir and congregation was underway as I entered the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

The music was a blend of Christmas carols, along with some modern classics such at the “Little Drummer Boy.” Hymnals are not needed as the words are projected on the screens, which use incredible animation to bring the words to life. A vocal group composed of Anchorage Christian Schools youth sang a number of songs, and a singer sang a lovely song.

The stage was decorated with the traditional icons of the season. I counted six decorated Christmas trees on the stage, plus eight more lighted trees in the choir area. There were stacks of presents, teddy bears and candy cane poles all over the stage.

Throughout the service reminders were given about the Christmas pageant to be held this weekend, donations to ABT’s bus Christmas store, and sacrificial giving to the church’s 2016 Christmas Miracle Offering. I was bothered when the Rev. Jerry Prevo mentioned the purpose of this offering as being for employees of the church, the school and church missionaries.

Prevo made a very hard sell for this offering, the likes of which I’ve only seen in one other church — a certain prosperity Gospel church in Anchorage. The goal was $30,000, and I was concerned they were thinking more of each other this time of year than those desperately in need of physical and financial assistance.

Prevo presents well-prepared sermons. He interrupted this one, “Two Kinds of People,” to show a dramatic 12-minute short film to illustrate his talking points. The video illustrated people who respond to invitations to help and those who do not, which he later typified as the “lost” and the “saved.” My ABT visit showed me a “Christmas as usual” attitude with much giving expected, heavy appeals to give to the Miracle Offering, and a significant emphasis on the upcoming Christmas pageant, quite a contrast to my next two church visits.

Baxter Road Bible Church

Less than a mile from ABT, lies Baxter Road Bible Church. The church offers two services on Sunday: 10 a.m. and noon. Arriving at the noon service a few minutes late, I found Communion already being served. The church’s musical group is enjoyable to listen to and sing along with; it presented hymns and carols of the season, typical of non-Advent practicing churches.

Children presented several songs. No matter how good or poor the singing is, this is a time of wonder for the adults. Many of us have been there before, and can only remember the faces smiling back at us.

The Rev. Bob Mather’s sermon, “Preparing for Christmas,” was Bible-based, giving practical advice about preparing our hearts for Christmas. Though this church is a little over a 10th the size of ABT, it’s opened its heart for years to giving during December without urging.

Using the theme, “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus’,” the congregation dedicates 100 percent of December church income to community nonprofits and other religious organizations members suggest. These organizations are actively doing the work Jesus referred to in his teaching.

Last year, Baxter’s December’s giving reaped over $90,000, more than twice what ABT has set as its 2016 goal. No sales pitch was necessary Sunday morning for this cause at Baxter. The congregation doesn’t need it; it’s one of those things they do without urging. Mather, pastor at the church, has often told me: “The more we give, the more blessed we are.”


Alaska’s largest church at around 3,500 members, ChangePoint leads by example in the local community. I tend to find the music overly loud at ChangePoint and don’t visit as often as I could. However, the Sunday 6 p.m. service found a smaller crowd, and music easier on the ears than normal. My decibel-meter measured most of the music at 90-98 decibels, a sharp reduction from previous services.

As I entered, I was greeted at the door and welcomed by a member. I noticed the church’s OnRamp life group was collecting practical gifts for children at McKinnell House, Salvation Army’s temporary family shelter, during November and December. What a sensible ministry!

Before the sermon,the Rev. Scott Merriner, executive pastor, introduced Adam Legg, newly appointed executive director of Love Alaska, and Rick Steele, executive pastor of operations. Legg is in charge of an exciting new venture that joins two previous ChangePoint initiatives, Grace Alaska and Priceless.

Grace Alaska took on some major projects in town such as getting the Downtown Soup Kitchen started, and providing automotive services for single mothers and widows through Rightway Automotive. Priceless is a service to women involved in human or sex trafficking. Approximately 70 women have been referred to the program, which provides them access to over 120 trained mentors in 18 local churches.

Love Alaska will now be a separate organization not subject to ChangePoint’s structure. Members of ChangePoint will be encouraged to support these efforts to address areas of brokenness in our community along with members of other churches. A third initiative of Love Alaska will be Chosen, a program which focuses on mentoring youth as they leave the foster care system. ChangePoint’s annual Uncommon Gift Offering will be taken Sunday to support Chosen. These changes are exciting for Anchorage and ChangePoint is to be commended for making them happen.

Student ministry pastor Adam Brown’s message was the second in a series titled, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His particular message was subtitled, “The Wonder of Real Treasure.” Using Matthew 6:19-24, he said “real treasure is what we think it is,” noting we must each choose our treasure — temporal or eternal — and to chase our master whether it be God or money.

I thought this was a powerful message from a church that is making a difference in our community. As we look at the consumer-driven brokenness of Christmas, it was refreshing to hear this message on Sunday, a real antidote to consumerism.

Advent and Christmas are much more than consumerism

As we move through this time of Advent, and pre-Christmas, my various visits to church services and religious events have been instructive, mostly offering signs of Advent hope.

Attending Clear Water Church the Sunday before Advent, I saw them taking steps to incorporate the spirit of Advent. Karen Gordon, a teaching acquaintance, making her way to greet me after the service, mentioned she and artist husband Steve had recently switched from another church. I asked to see him. He was making his way toward us from children’s sessions where he’d shown them how to create Advent wreaths, complete with candles; Steve and Karen work with elementary children. That morning 24 wreaths were made: 20 for elementary school families plus four for preschool families. Steve said it promotes Advent as a family social occasion.

“Growing up,” Steve said, “Advent was devotional family time that brought faith to my home, not just at church. It’s a tradition that brings value. God can direct what comes of that. Advent inspires kids and families to talk about their faith.”

Steve’s also been instrumental in creating a puppet show for the children that depicts real-life drama. This Sunday, their Christmas puppet show will be enacted from the viewpoint of the donkey, teaching valuable spiritual lessons.

I asked pastor Mark Merriner about Clear Water’s Advent focus. He mentioned his wife had sparked his interest in Advent several years back and they’d begun observing it in a quiet fashion in their home. Clear Water is making Advent an element in each of its services during December. Various members take a few minutes to share personal thoughts about Advent, using teaching points or a story about something that happened to them.

First Sunday of Advent, I attended services at First Presbyterian Church. It was a rich experience with warm greetings, Advent candle lighting, meaningful congregational and choral music, and a sermon on “holy waiting” that had a sticky factor. Pastor Matt Schultz stressed that Advent was about waiting. As Schultz concluded his message, he urged the congregation to consider waiting a few minutes before eating meals, and waiting again before laying heads on pillows before going to sleep, to ponder what waiting and Advent’s theme of waiting really means. In my mind it was an excellent application of his remarks.

On the second Sunday of Advent, I attended First Covenant Church of Anchorage. This multicultural church close to downtown never ceases to amaze me. They were friendly to me from the time I entered until I left. I like this church’s mixture of music. This morning, their praise band of six led the congregation reverently through four traditional and contemporary songs including “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” “Joy to the World,” “Mighty to Save” and “Come Lord Jesus.” These were not played at earsplitting decibels and were enjoyable to sing.

They recognized Advent with a reading and lighting of the second Advent candle, the peace candle. The theme for second Advent embraces the prophets who foretold the birth of Jesus. Pastor Max Lopez-Cepero was on vacation, and in his absence, the sermon was given by Kristi Ivanoff, wife of Curtis Ivanoff, superintendent of the Alaska Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Kristi, an accomplished student of Scripture, used Isaiah 7:10-16 as the basis for her sermon titled “Sign of Immanuel,” underscoring the day’s theme. A recording of her sermon is available on First Covenant’s website.

A luncheon invitation capped my Advent visit to this social justice-oriented church. I believe they “walk the talk” of Advent throughout the year.

Last week’s column mentioned an Advent concert at St. Patrick’s Parish on Dec. 2. Attending, I was not prepared for the breadth of the music and the skill of the musicians performing. Additionally, there were Advent readings and lighting of each of the four Advent candles: hope, peace, love and joy. I was not prepared for the length of the concert but found it to be a great Advent blessing. The small admission charge, which went to Catholic Social Services to benefit Brother Francis Shelter, was worth it. Many people brought donated warm-weather gear to benefit those in need. Kudos to St. Patrick’s Parish and the many musicians from the community for their hard work in creating this Advent treat.

The sad part of this evening was that St. Patrick’s, by my estimation, was only half full. I fear that many in our church community are too involved with the consumer-driven side of Christmas to be bothered with attending such events. Christian historian John Pahl, writing in his insightful book “Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces,” says: “If places as well as events shape the contours of piety, then clearly a trip to the mall can have an impact on the contours of one’s faith. Personally, I have rarely left a mall inspired to be a more generous and caring person.”

Many are caught up in a frenzy of shopping for each other and themselves at this time of year, because they’ve lost sight of the fact that Christmas is not about giving to each other. The World Bank estimates that more than 700 million people live at or below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. The Christmas story is about recognizing the gift of love that was given to us and sharing it with others, but not in self-gratification. Another just-released book, “The Christian Wallet: Spending, Giving and Living with a Conscience” by Mike Slaughter, a United Methodist pastor at the at 4,000-member Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio, addresses this topic.

I asked Slaughter why so many pastors are silent on this issue.

“Many pastors have taught a ‘me-centered’ gospel,” he said. “It has been reduced to how God can bless you, prosper you and increase your wealth. This emphasis only fuels the debt cycle that many of our folks are experiencing and fails to heed Jesus’ call of self-denial. One of the mantras that I continually remind our folks is that we are to live simply so other people can simply live. I challenge folks to spend as much on the ‘widow and orphan — the least and the lost’ as they do on their own families each Christmas. Note the emphasis on ‘equal amount.’ Is this not what Jesus meant when he said do unto others as you would have others do unto you? By this practice our people have built 294 schools in Darfur that has impacted 35,000 children as well as agricultural and water projects.”

What a challenge from a Christ-centered spiritual leader who has also appropriately written “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving like Jesus.”

Two faith traditions, one common cause—helping others

As the holiday season progresses, various faith organizations are gearing up to help others in our community. A pair of significant events this weekend are worthy of note. The Reform Jewish community and local Presbyterians are holding separate, but similar events this Sunday to raise funds for worthy organizations.

Mitzvah Mall, Congregation Beth Sholom, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday

If you’ve not experienced Mitzvah Mall, you’re in for a surprise. Imagine coming to an event that raises money for local nonprofits without the giver receiving anything in return. It’s something akin to a cash call at a gala. An annual event at Congregation Beth Sholom since 2008, it continues to grow.

“This is something that the congregation has done for a number of years,” explains Rabbi Michael Oblath. “We just provide the space, and gain nothing from it other than knowing that we can contribute a little bit of time and effort into bringing people into a place where they may talk to strangers or friends, meet new people, and, most importantly, bring a little joy into other people’s lives. We do it, just because it’s nice… and a good thing for the community… just seems like it’s the right thing to do. I’ve always seen it as a way to give a double gift… one to a friend, and one to someone that you may never know or meet.”

Intrigued by the word “mitzvah” in the event, I asked Oblath to explain the meaning. “Mitzvah translates as ‘commandment,’ so the commandments, as the guidelines and path to how we live our lives, reflect both relationship to God and to the world, even including humans,” he said. “Within the Reform movement we tend to conceive of the performance of the commandments as the way to achieve the healing of the world. That is the same notion as achieving peace and harmony in life… not just an individual’s life, but basically life in general.”

The way it works is local nonprofit organizations are invited to participate at the Mitzvah Mall and then chosen on a first-come/first-serve basis. Each organization is provided with a table for staff who present their organization. Those attending make contributions to any organization present in someone’s name. That person receives an elegant gift card noting the gift has been given in their name. The conversations I’ve had with nonprofit representatives at past events have helped gain a better understanding of their mission.

According to Penny Goldstein, organizer of Mitzvah Mall, the non-profits represented will include Alaska Botanical Garden, AK Child & Family, Alaska Innocence Project, Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center, American Diabetes Association, Anchorage Project Access, Bean’s Café/Children’s Lunchbox, Catholic Social Services, Equine Assisted Therapy of Alaska, FISH (Fellowship In Serving Humanity), Friends of the Library, Helping Hands for Nepal, Joy Greisen Jewish Education Center, Lemong’o Project, Malawi Children’s Village, Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center, Pedals for Africa, Turnagain Community Arts Alliance, United Jewish Communities Alaska and Victims for Justice.

“If you want to send someone a present,” Goldstein says, “and are tired of the materialism or just can’t figure out a good present, here is your remedy. We have calligraphers to fill out lovely cards that you can send in lieu of, or with, other presents. It is a fun event. We have birds (two owls and a sandhill crane, plus a therapy dog) as well as human representatives of those agencies. We also have music!”

Coffee, hot chocolate, and tea are offered without charge, but no food is being offered. The event is about giving and learning more about the fantastic work being done by multiple nonprofits many may not know much about. Congregation Beth Sholom is located at 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. (just west of Carrs).

First Presbyterian Church Alternative Gift Market, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday

A similar event to Mitzvah Mall is First Presbyterian Church’s Alternative Gift Market. Open from 9:30  to 1:30 p.m. Sunda,  (except during worship, which begins at 11 a.m. and lasts about an hour) it offers gifts from a variety of mission partners First Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and Yukon Presbytery. Now in its third year, it’s slightly different from Mitzvah Mall.

According to organizer Danna Larson, the market is  “a combination of alternative giving and supporting agencies by buying fair trade products. We offer a fair and just way for our congregation to shop at Christmas, either through organizations that sell fair trade products or those that provide opportunities for one to donate in someone else’s name.”

This year’s partners include Bean’s Café, Downtown Soup Kitchen, Anchor Presbyterian Church (homeless ministry), Presbyterian Hunger Fund Equal Exchange (fair trade coffee, teas and chocolate), Yukon Presbytery: Gambell (new church building), Haiti Artisan Network, Presbyterian Church (USA) Gift Catalog (featuring different projects to donate to in honor of someone), Pal Craftaid, Emergency Cold Weather Ministry at First Presbyterian Church, Two Spirits Carving Studio (cooperative studio for Native artists), and Presbyterian Women.

For refreshments, Presbyterian Women are hosting a Christmas bake sale. A soup lunch that raises support for Downtown Soup Kitchen will be offered. In years past, I’ve purchased Haiti gifts and a variety of soups; both make great alternative gifts.

Curious about the focus of their ministry, I asked Larson for more information. “AGM is an appropriate nonprofit response to consumerism and provides a fair and just way for our congregation members to shop at Christmas and choose gifts that will make an important difference in helping people in our community, our nation and our world,” Larson said “In addition, congregation members have an opportunity to learn about the ministries represented and the importance of supporting those who are involved in fair trade practices. Often times, connections made at the AGM lead to other involvement in the local agencies represented.”

First Presbyterian Church is located at 616 W. 10th Ave.

It’s heartening to see individual faith organizations, like these, stepping up to the plate to infuse new spirit and meaning into a holiday season that has become devoid of meaning for many. If your organization is doing something innovative in the spirit of the season, like these two congregations, let me know. I’m always happy to share the joy.

Is Advent all that important?

I grew up as an evangelical Protestant and my early years provided little exposure to the concept of Advent. Gradually, over time, I was introduced to it and now realize I’d missed much during those years.

I didn’t think Advent was important in those early years. In fact, I saw that Advent gave some evangelicals, who pointed to its absence from Scripture and its association with Catholicism, further reason to distance themselves from faith traditions that observed it. Now I believe Advent, properly observed, provides a buffer from the Christmas-driven consumerism that plagues so much of Christianity.

The term Advent is derived from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “arrival” or “approach.” It’s a term anticipating the coming of Christ at Christmas and marks the beginning of the liturgical church year in many faiths. Advent for Western Christianity starts with the Sunday closest to Nov. 30 and ends on Christmas Eve. This year, Advent begins this coming Sunday, Nov. 27. Several weeks ago, I described Orthodox  Advent, which began for most Orthodox traditions on Nov. 15.

With the beginning of the liturgical church year, new lectionaries are used. Lectionaries are preformatted readings for the liturgical year and are released in three-year cycles: year A, year B and year C. Many liturgical denominations use the Revised Common Lectionary, which begins year A in a new cycle this Sunday with these Scripture readings: Old Testament (Isaiah 2:1-5), Psalm (Psalm 122), New Testament (Romans 13:11-14) and Gospel (Matthew 24:36-44). (The Catholic Church lectionary may vary from the Revised Common Lectionary, especially with regard to feast days.)

The beginnings of Advent are traceable to the fourth century as seen in some church writings around 380 A.D. Later, the Councils of Tours (563 A.D.) and of Macon (581 A.D.) laid out specific guidelines for observing Advent.

Today, Advent is observed somewhat differently in Eastern (or Orthodox) Christianity and Western Christianity. The Advent focus for Eastern Christianity is the Nativity Fast and the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity is focused on the first and second coming of Jesus. During the four Sundays of Advent, Western Christianity uses a different theme each Sunday: hope, peace, joy and love. Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutheran and a few other denominations observe Advent.

Another Advent distinction is an Advent wreath in the sanctuary containing five candles. The encircling wreath represents the eternal nature of God, while the candles represent the light Jesus brought to the world. Each Sunday a new candle is lit according to that day’s theme, and the central white candle, representing Jesus, is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I look forward to each Advent Sunday and the lighting of the candle.

Some local churches have a family lighting the candles and providing the reading. Others have clergy doing the lighting and the reading. I’ve found both symbolically important but have been less than impressed when a priest or clergy merely lights the candles as an afterthought. If anything, the candles represent the light to the world that Christ brings and require an appropriately spoken word to encourage people to share that light.

Advent, traditionally observed, uses music that is distinct from Christmas carols. Advent songs are hopeful, watching, waiting songs that look forward to the coming of the Messiah. Examples include “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come Divine Messiah.”

A few local liturgical church pastors have rebelled in recent years, jumping right into Christmas carols during Advent. By the time we truly arrive at Christmas, we’re already so saturated with Christmas carols and secular Christmas music from churches, stores, malls and on the radio that Christmas Eve becomes anticlimactic. Too many evangelical churches do Christmas an injustice by singing carols the entire month of December. The true theme of Advent is one of hopeful watching and waiting for the coming of the Messiah to be celebrated each Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This period traditionally incorporated prayer, some fasting, and preparation of lives and hearts for the coming of the King.

The colors of Advent, for most denominations in Western Christianity, are purple, violet or blue and are used in clerical vestments and sanctuary furnishings.

A hopeful sign of progress is that a growing number of evangelical pastors are beginning to observe Advent in more traditional manner, giving a new impetus to its embrace as they lead congregations toward Christmas.

For me, Advent offers the ideal antidote to the consumerism that has already hijacked Christmas and its meaning from the church. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber offers a startling perspective on Advent along these lines.

“If you use the lectionary the first two or three Sundays of Advent, you’re not getting shepherds and angels and baby Jesus,” says Bolz-Weber. “You’re getting these crazy apocalyptic texts like the one that says two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will stay. That Jesus will come like a thief in the night. There’s something about seeing Jesus as a holy thief. Our first Advent together, I started thinking about maybe the idea of God breaking in and ‘jacking’ our stuff doesn’t need to be heard as bad news … There’s so much stuff that’s weighing us down that we actually need a holy thief to come and steal from us.”

Special Advent event at St. Patrick’s Parish

An evening of Advent music and reflections will be held at St. Patrick’s Parish on Friday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. This will be their 10th annual benefit concert on behalf of Catholic Social Services for the Brother Francis Shelter. They are asking for a donation of $7 per person, or $20 per family, to attend. Donations of coats, hats, gloves, scarves, boots, pants, shirts, sweaters, socks, long johns — any warm clothing items — are also requested. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to observe the spirit of Advent than by extending ourselves on behalf of those less fortunate. For more information, call 337-1538.

Orthodox Advent is almost here

Advent in the various Orthodox traditions is observed somewhat differently and at different times than Western Christianity. One significant difference is that Advent for Antiochian and Greek Orthodox begins Nov. 15, two weeks earlier than non-Orthodox faiths. Orthodox practice is to begin Advent 40 days before Christmas; this period is called the “Nativity Fast,” and comes before the “Nativity Feast” of Christmas.

Another significant difference is that the focus of Orthodox Advent is the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity focuses on the first and second coming of Christ. Also, Orthodox ecclesiastical years begin Sept. 1, while in the West, the religious year for Christians begins at Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.

The Nativity Fast is not as strict as the fast of Great Lent and follows the Orthodox principle of fasting to prepare the body physically and spiritually for the coming feast. The practices of fasting include simplifying life, curbing appetite, controlling desires, and intensifying prayer.

Thanksgiving comes during this period and I wondered how Orthodox Christians handle it.

“Because we are American, and Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and a special time of gathering friends and family for thanking God for all our blessings, we have a pastoral allowance to stop our fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the usual turkey and all the sides,” said Lesa Morrison, a member of St. John Orthodox Cathedral. “We do try to still remember that we are in Advent, and to not stuff ourselves completely.”

“During Advent, even though we live and move in a world that has highly commercialized Christmas, we can partake to some degree in the fun activities surrounding the Birth of Christ, while staying Christ-centered through it all,” says Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. “We are able to do this,” he continues, “because we willingly adopt certain dietary restrictions as a way of keeping us vigilant and aware of God’s presence at every moment.

“This is the point of prayer and fasting, and it is why Advent for the Orthodox Christians is a time of increased spiritual discipline — it helps keeps us centered in the midst of the craziness of the season.”

Echoing those thoughts, the Rev. Mark Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral says, “The usefulness of Advent depends on your perspective of Christmas. If the aim of a ‘holiday season’ is simply to seek cheer in winter through gift exchanges, office parties, and family gatherings, then Advent really has little place. The holiday celebrations can begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over and end in a party on New Year’s Eve.

“However, if Christmas Day itself is first of all a ‘holy day’ to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming one of us, then the grandeur and wonder of that singular event summons those who believe to prepare themselves through prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness, so that they might properly esteem and celebrate this day and let it change their lives. This preparation is the ancient purpose of Advent. Granted, it is difficult to go against the current tide in this regard, but perhaps even a modest effort to renew Advent among Christians could make the difference between a holiday that for many rings hollow and sad, and a celebration that brings true joy in the revelation of God’s great love for the world. If that is the case, it should be an effort worth making.”

Nearly all congregations in the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) will commence the Nativity Fast on Nov. 28, and end it on Jan. 6, celebrating the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 7 according to Bishop David Mahaffey.

“The reason is the Julian Calendar’s timing being 13 days behind the Western/Gregorian Calendar,” he says.

This presents some difficulties for Alaska Orthodox, Mahaffey states. “In general, in our country, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of family and company gatherings in celebration of the coming (what the word Advent actually means) of Christ. In Orthodoxy, periods prior to such a feast as Christmas are meant to be contemplative and inner-focusing on the significance of what is going to be observed. It is hard to do that when one is feasting and going to parties at the office or neighbors, or with family. This is why it is very difficult for the Orthodox Christian to keep true to his conviction of faith and still maintain good relations with those around him who are not observing the Advent season as he/she desires. This has led to a false dichotomy in which those on the Julian Calendar call Dec. 25 a secular holiday and Jan. 7 a religious one.”

Many Christians can learn much from Orthodox practices and observances. For me, it is pleasing to look at this early entry to Advent as an important antidote to the crass commercialism of Christmas.

Thanksgiving Blessing time is here for Anchorage and Mat-su

The local community really rallies to provide Thanksgiving meals for those without the ability or financial resources to obtain them.

“Food Bank of Alaska and the volunteer Thanksgiving Blessing leadership teams in Anchorage and the Valley are preparing to provide groceries for a complete Thanksgiving meal to 10,000 families this year,” says Karla Jutzi of the Food Bank. “A small army of volunteers will be handing out food at six locations in the Valley and six in Anchorage. Last year we served over 9,200 families.”

More than 1,000 Alaskans will prepare and distribute turkey and all the fixings  to the 10,000 families Karla mentioned at two Thanksgiving Blessing events in Anchorage and the Mat-su region: from 10 a.m. to  4 p.m. Nov. 19, at six locations in the Valley, and at six locations in Anchorage and Eagle River from 3 to 8 p.m. (at most locations) on Nov. 21. The locations for pickup of the turkey and fixins’ are zip code dependent, so recipients should know that first.

For the past month, local food distribution programs such as Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, New Hope, St. Francis House, Salvation Army and others, have placed fliers with this information in food boxes they distribute. Call 211 with questions about hours and locations. You can also find detailed information available at the Food Bank of Alaska’s website or my site, Church Visits.

Advent Conspiracy is an antidote to the over-commercialization of Christmas

Why am I writing about Christmas now since it’s not even Thanksgiving? So many retailers have had Christmas items for sale as early as August or September this year. Plainly stated, it’s marketing greed in a rush to capitalize on every Christmas dollar to be spent. The time to plan for a proper Christmas is now, not later.

A small group of pastors made a positive step in addressing this issue a few years back, creating an organization called Advent Conspiracy. Their website clearly states their premise in just a few words. “Can Christmas still change the world? The Christmas story is a story of love, hope, redemption and relationship. So, what happened? How did it turn into stuff, stress and debt? Somehow, we’ve traded the best story in the world for the story of what’s on sale.”

That’s the problem, and the Advent Conspiracy’s solution is elegant. Its website offers a suite of resources for churches, parents and other individuals to address the problem of the abuse of Christmas as an orgy of spending for ourselves and each other.

Advent Conspiracy is focusing this year on water, noting: “Today, 663 million of our brothers and sisters around the world lack access to safe drinking water. What if the way we celebrate Christmas this year changes this? We continue to hear story after story of churches and families participating in Advent Conspiracy each year to conspire to spend less each Christmas and give in ways that collectively fund hundreds of life-changing water projects worldwide. This year, prayerfully consider including giving to end the clean water crisis as part of your Advent giving.”

Advent Conspiracy’s website offers several short videos which help to bring its focus alive. I urge you watch them.

Christmas, the highest holiday spending time of year, promises to be so again, almost eclipsing last year’s record spending. However, there are clouds on the horizon. According to Fortune magazine, “shoppers will rally after Nov. 8. Election stress is a real thing. And it could hurt retailers as the holiday shopping season gets under way next week.

A National Retail Federation survey found that a majority of Americans will be cautious about Christmas shopping this year, with many possibly pulling back on spending, because of anxiety over the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential contest. What’s more, it’s hard for retailers to get a word in edgewise these days, potentially making their marketing less effective.” Christmas shopping is a nightmare for parents, driving many into debt and despair.

One local church has successfully addressed this problem for many years with its “It’s not your birthday” program. Baxter Road Bible Church began the program some years ago. It dedicates 100 percent of the income received during each December saying, “It’s our gift to Jesus because, after all, it’s his birthday we’re celebrating.” Last year they raised around $100,000 in December. The Rev. Bob Mather, senior pastor of the church, says the money “goes to the poor, the needy, and those going through hard times.” Much of it is spent locally.

The amount of $10,000 is dedicated to a Haitian mission the church has supported for years, vetted by one of the congregation. The focus of that mission is feeding and helping the poor, clothing them, and providing health care. The mission is led by a Haitian minister. I’ve been unable to locate any other Anchorage church that is so generous at Christmas. A few might dedicate one offering in December, or take a second offering for this purpose. Mather observes, “The more generous we are, the better off we are.” The faith and generosity of this warm group of Christians always amazes me. They walk the talk, and have grown rapidly as a result.

Christmas can be a teachable moment for parents with their children. I believe it offers families an opportunity to develop an awareness of the true meaning of Christmas, rather than a narcissistic display of spending that satisfies only ourselves, and does little for mankind.Other useful resources and film links about Christmas are available on my website Church Visits.

Anchorage’s next archbishop to be installed Wednesday

In August 2015, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz submitted his resignation to Pope Francis I in accordance with papal law. After 14 months, an archbishop-designate for the Anchorage archdiocese has been selected. Bishop Paul Dennis Etienne was recently introduced to the community in a news conference. He is currently the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

His installation will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The installation will be preceded by evening prayer at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Holy Family Cathedral. Both ceremonies are followed by receptions. (A copy of the official invitation is available here.)

The Mass will begin with Archbishop Schwietz presiding. The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Christophe Pierre, will read a proclamation from Pope Francis designating Etienne as the new archbishop. He’ll then show it to the archdiocesan consultors for agreement. At this point Bishop Etienne is now archbishop and will be led to the cathedra (bishop’s chair) and be presented with the crozier. Bishop Etienne will then preside over the remainder of the Mass. Eight to 10 other bishops will be present, including all three Alaska bishops. It promises to be an impressive installation.

After the installation, Schwietz will have the title archbishop emeritus. He’ll continue to pastor St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River where he’s been pastor since his resignation.

“I leave with a tremendous sense of gratitude,” he told me. “The people have been so gracious, welcoming, and cooperative. They’ve been so caring for me. It’s been a wonderful experience. I lay down those responsibilities with regret but look forward to the leadership of the new archbishop.”

In anticipation of a full audience at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, the archdiocese has announced the installation Mass of Archbishop-Designate Etienne will be streamed live online at

Thomas Merton a focus of upcoming lecture series at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Thomas Merton’s life and writings have had a huge influence on millions of people for the past 70 years. Before his untimely passing in December 1968, Merton visited Alaska looking at potential new retreat sites during September of that year. “Merton in Alaska,” published posthumously, documented his wide-ranging travels in Alaska, many talks, and ruminations via his letters and journal. I consider this book to be a spiritual “must-read.” (I’ve written about Merton and his time in Alaska in several previous columns.)

On Nov. 4-6, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church will host a series of talks, titled “Contemplation and Action: Insights from Thomas Merton,” by Merton scholar Rev. Hugh Grant, who will be brought to Anchorage  through the generosity of The Caroline Penniman Wohlforth Lecture Series. The talks promise a welcome change from our contentious and damaging election cycle.

Caroline Wohlforth passed away five years ago but her contributions to Alaska are well known by many. She pioneered the “open classroom” model which resulted in Chugach Optional School. The Committee for Alternative Secondary Education was started through her efforts and those of others, out of which grew Steller Secondary School. She was also a member of the Anchorage School Board, serving as president for two years. A co-founder of KSKA, she also served Planned Parenthood, Thread, and F.I.S.H. A member of St. Mary’s, she led out in the Bible Workbench process, a concerted Bible-study program, editing and contributing to it for many years. The 27th Alaska State Legislature honored her posthumously with a resolution stating “Caroline has left an indelible mark on Alaska and will not be forgotten.” Caroline’s influence lives on through this pioneering lecture series.

After she passed, her husband, Eric Wohlforth, established a foundation to bring noted speakers to St. Mary’s, and other churches, on behalf of the community. The first speaker in the series was Rev. Robin Myers, an author and clergyman from Oklahoma, who spoke about the challenges and advantages of building inclusive Christian communities. The second speaker was Mark Osler, law professor at University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, who spoke on social advocacy and his book “Jesus on Death Row,” which challenged the death penalty based on the experience of Jesus Christ as a criminal defendant.

In choosing this year’s speaker, Wohlforth  was deeply influenced by an Easter sermon he heard Rev. Grant give earlier this year at his church on Orcas Island where he was a guest speaker. Titled “Learning to Love our Whole Selves,” it presented clear thoughts such as “You probably don’t need me to tell you that Christianity over the centuries has been distorted, used as a means of social control and wielding power instead of a safe haven for weary souls longing for peace and a sense of belonging.” And, “Everyone gets a seat at the table, even if some need more help learning how to behave. The table becomes the place of wholeness and healing and incorporation. At the table, everyone belongs. Everyone gets a seat.”

Recalling it, Wohlforth said, “The sermon made me think of the fact that I want to live more intensely with much greater awareness of what is happening in my life. For me this refers to the quality of the thought conversations I have with myself as I react to the daily events of my life. Fred Buechner, a favorite writer of mine, talks about the need to ‘listen to your life.’ I interpret this to mean that for my thought conversations to work (and ‘to work’ means producing some ‘inner change’) requires that I listen more intensively and consciously to daily life events of family, friends and community.” Wohlforth especially recommends author/theologian Buechner’s book, “Listening to Your Life.”

Graduating from General Theological Seminary in New York City with a Master of Divinity, Grant was ordained a priest in 2008. He is also trained in psychotherapy and is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in Washington state, conducts wilderness retreats, and has a keen interest in mysticism. Prior to moving to Washington state, he served for five years in a New York City parish. He currently resides on Orcas Island, Washington.

Rarely do Anchorage churches go out of their way to bring thought-provoking speakers to town to challenge our ways of thinking, and to give us new perspectives with which to view our lives of faith.

On Nov. 4, at 7 p.m., Rev. Grant will speak about “The Spiritual Path of Contemplation and Action: Insights from the life of Thomas Merton.”

Grant’s talk on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 10 a.m.,”Practicing Contemplation and Action: A Quiet Day for Self-Inquiry and Devotion,” is more practically focused.

On Sunday, Nov. 6, at 10:30 a.m., Grant’s delivers a final session, “Further on the Spiritual Path.”

All sessions are at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Tudor Road and Lake Otis Parkway, and are free of charge. (For more information contact St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at (907-563-3341.)

“Our vision is that St. Mary’s might be a resource for spiritual growth for anyone in the wider community” says St. Mary’s rector, Rev. Michael Burke. “It doesn’t matter what faith community that you belong to, or none at all. Come on in. No matter what your perspective is, you’ll probably find someone here who agrees with you.”

In response to my question about what portion of his lectures will focus on Thomas Merton’s work, Grant indicated he plans on devoting one-half to two-thirds of them to Merton. In seminary, he studied Merton, recalling that “The Inner Experience” had just been published. Grant said he was “struck by the interplay between Thomas Merton’s being drawn into the monastery and his inner/outer life.” Merton’s humanity and devotion to the spiritual path proved to be an inspiration to Grant.

“The more we’re called to contemplation, the fruits are action,” he says. Merton wasn’t sure of mystical experiences, Grant noted, but his life seemed to be punctuated by them (he’ll talk about three of those.)

A number of Merton devotees will be attending these lectures. Last year an informal chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society was formed here and representatives will be on hand to offer membership and meeting information to those interested.

The church gardening year is over with some astounding results

It’s been a great gardening season for local gardeners, if not without some challenges. A very late fall has stretched out the growing season almost a month longer than normal. Leaves have now fallen and the soil is quickly freezing, but not before some local church gardens managed to reap marvelous harvests benefiting those who depend on food pantries. My April 30 columnbriefly mentioned the new garden of Lutheran Church of Hope, constructed on church woodland and under the tutelage of member and master gardener Don Bladow.

Bladow, with the help of his wife, an ELCA hunger initiative grant and the support of a dedicated team of volunteers, has turned that land into a highly productive garden. All of the produce grown on it was transported directly to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska three times weekly, for distribution to scores of their clients. Approximately 20,000 square feet of land was cleared and rotivated, and about 8,400 square feet was planted with a wide variety of vegetables. Surprisingly, the site is very sandy, giving the soil good drainage and root penetration ability.

Don Bladow at the Lutheran Church of Hope’s garden (Courtesy Don Bladow)
Don Bladow at the Lutheran Church of Hope’s garden (Courtesy Don Bladow)

An avid woodworker, especially with regard to wood turning, Bladow converted as many of the birch trees as possible to bowls. Two hundred were sold at the church, raising funds to supplement the initial grant the church received for the project. He plans to make more bowls over the winter for sale in the spring at the church. Of various sizes, they’re light, both in color and weight, and a beauty to behold. It’s satisfying to hold one and realize you’ve become part of the project by your purchase. Bladow also made and donated 100 bowls to Bean’s Cafe’s annual Empty Bowl event. I consider his effort on the bowls alone as a concerted demonstration of putting one’s faith to work.

A lifelong Lutheran, Bladow says he got the idea for the garden project from the 2015 Alaska Lutheran Synod Assembly, which featured a hunger theme. He began thinking about ways to use the space behind the church. That year, he constructed and planted five elevated garden boxes but found they were not successful. After that, he immediately began clearing the lot.

Taking the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ online master gardener class, he also approached Julie Riley of the local Cooperative Extension Service for help. She offered him assistance with regard to clearing the land, testing the soil and amending the soil for best fertility.

With the help of  20 to 25 individuals — including church members, local master gardeners, the Turnagain Elementary PTO and friends of the church — he installed fencing, constructed a garden shed for equipment storage and planted the garden. Potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, parsnips, kale, chard and three types of zucchini were planted in 2016.

“There is no way I could have done all that needed to be done without help from the congregation,” Bladow said. He gives much credit, especially for tending the garden, to his wife, Bonnie, who is also an active volunteer at the “Listening Post” program.

The results were astounding: 2,350 pounds of produce went to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, and this was only their first year.

Bladow attributes Jesus’ words as the driving force behind his efforts: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

He added, “If I can feed people the results of this garden, my life has been a success.”

“Don’s work, along with other volunteers’, was amazingly dedicated and faithful,” remarked Lutheran Church of Hope pastor Julia Seymour. “Each harvest brought a joyous ‘Glory to God’ response. The garden and those who committed to it are a true revelation of how prayer goes beyond words into the actions of our hands and feet. The garden helps LCOH love our neighbors in word and in deed.”

Unfortunately, many local church gardens start small and stay small, producing a small amount of food for pantries. Such smallness might indicate a lack of faith, of vision or of a spark plug like Don Bladow to get it done. What if more churches got very serious about planting the abundant unused acreage around their facilities, turning it into productive use for others?

“We’re so blessed to be able to provide fresh, locally grown produce to our clients who use our food pantry,” said Alan Budahl, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska’s executive director. “This produce helps us to supplement the produce we buy each week, in order to give our clients a better choice. We’re very excited about the growth in gardening in our faith-based community in Alaska.”

“Many people love rhubarb, so don’t throw it away but bring it in to us, leafy tops removed,” Budahl added “Our clients love it. Consider finding the video ‘Just Eat It,’ which is excellent in showing how much food is tossed away in America.”

Budahl said that LSSA is investigating putting a garden onsite at the pantry, and have a social work practicum student help them work through the various methods of growing in Alaska. (Budahl said he’s willing to help any faith-based organization get started, and mentioned that startup grants are also available to help. He can be reached at 272-0643.)

Another successful large first-year garden can be found at Christ Church Episcopal on O’Malley Road just east of the zoo. They actively planted more than 1,000 square feet on the rear half of their property this year, sending the produce weekly to St. Christopher’s Food Pantry in Muldoon. Christ Church’s Rev. Katherine Hunt indicated many parishioners also brought their excess produce such as rhubarb, crabapples, lettuce and squash to go to the pantry. They’re planning on doubling their planting area next spring. (Contact them at

Don Bladow has also offered his help to other churches in getting started with their gardens. He may be contacted at He also maintains a useful blog of information and pictures. (Pictures of Lutheran Church of Hope’s “Harvest of Hope Memorial Garden” shared by Bladow may also be viewed on my website

To the many other churches in the area that offer plots for community gardens, I offer hope and encouragement to continue. I strongly believe they help build community.

Now is the time for faith-based organizations to plan for their 2017 gardens.