Making Inroads in the Last Frontier
For Jeremiah and Sharnay Niemuth, “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” is not a catchy title for a reality television show. But their adventure as Assemblies of God U.S. missionaries in the 49th state does entail long subzero winters and brief, sweltering summers.
The Niemuths are Intercultural Ministries missionaries who pastor a small but growing congregation comprised mostly of native Gwich’in people of Fort Yukon. The northwestern Alaskan village is indeed “frontier” remote, a place accessible only by riverboat or small plane, and where 35-below zero seems like a balmy winter’s day. The Niemuths have two children, 6-year-old Lucas and Araya, 2.
Indeed, Fort Yukon, 8 miles above the Arctic Circle near the confluence of the Porcupine and Yukon rivers, is no place for the faint of heart. Still, while Fort Yukon may represent a raw, tough and icy existence, the hearts of many of its 583 souls are warm toward the Niemuths and their one-room church of 30 adults, plus dozens of children.
Jeremiah and Sharnay, having just graduated from the Masters Commission program in North Pole, Alaska, first came to Fort Yukon in 2008. The local church — having endured decades of a near-revolving door history with pastors, many of whom stayed less than a year — had almost closed.
“The Yukon Flats Mission District basically needed somebody to hold down the fort,” Jeremiah recalls with a chuckle. “This was our ‘problem church’ in the district, and I was too young and ignorant to know what a problem church it was.”
He and Sharnay began with just two parishioners in a ramshackle, 70-year-old building without plumbing, and barely heated by a single wood-burning stove. A year later, seven adults and a small youth group huddled inside.
After a year of this stewardship, Jeremiah asked district officials how the search for a permanent pastor was going, fully expecting he and Sharnay would be sent to another assignment. District officials told Jeremiah they had found a new pastor: him.
Eight years later — joined by his younger brother Joshua Niemuth and Cheyenne Norberg, both missionary associates — Jeremiah, Sharnay, and their extended congregational family are working to erect a new church. The building, at 4,800 square feet, will be more than four times the size of the current structure; have two staff apartments, a furnace to warm it through the coldest months; and indoor plumbing and restrooms.
Along with the Niemuths and their parishioners lending muscle, carpentry and other on-site construction, the Alaska Ministry Network has pledged district-level support to the $350,000 project.
When completed, Fort Yukon Assembly of God will have room for 100 worshippers, ending the need for two Sunday services in the old, tiny sanctuary. The Niemuths hope to see the congregation’s steady growth continue; they also will expand outreach efforts to eight, even smaller neighboring native villages — if you consider Arctic Village, population 150, neighboring, being 100 miles north of Fort Yukon and accessible only by boat or plane.
Niemuth has been able to reverse the near extinction of the AG church by moving outside the four walls. That meant patience, building trust with the village elders, and seeking their counsel.
“We call it ‘going through the front gate,’ acknowledging their authority and positions in the village,” Jeremiah says. “You learn to sit and listen to elders and not interrupt, letting them share their stories, respecting them and the ways of their people.”
The village tribal and town councils contribute to youth camps, anti-drug and alcohol programs, and other events in which Fort Yukon Assembly joins with other churches to make a difference.
Though small, Fort Yukon faces many challenges typical to inner cities: substance abuse, poverty, joblessness, and single-parent homes. Subsequently, Jeremiah and Sharnay have become parental figures to some kids.
John E. Maracle, chief of the AG’s Native American Fellowship and an AG executive presbyter, says the Niemuths have done a tremendous job in the Alaskan bush, a mission field with over 100 isolated and disconnected communities.
“I’m grateful to God for using them out there, where nobody else wants to go,” Maracle says. “They pastor not just a church, but the whole village. This is what we really need in native ministry, pastors willing to go to the hard places, out in the wilderness, the last frontier.”