Unusual Church, Unusual People -- It Works Unusually Well
To say that Little Tutka Bay Bible Fellowship, located near Homer, Alaska, is an unusual church is more than just a bit of an understatement. Simply pausing to consider even a few of the unique aspects of the church building and the church body likely would leave many with just two words in mind: Only . . . God.
And as far as Pat Daigle and his wife, Ann, are concerned, “Only God” pretty much answers all the questions about the church they founded, because according to them, it sure couldn’t be anything or anyone else . . . and as Pat shares the story, “Only God” becomes easier and easier to understand.
Growing up in northern Maine with no true knowledge of Christ, Pat Daigle had an encounter with God when he was 21. After spending three years studying the Bible, a conversation with an AG pastor found they shared similar beliefs. Daigle began attending the church and growing as a Pentecostal Christian. His Catholic father summarily disowned him for the next 20 years.
Despite the rejection at home, Daigle found great acceptance at the church, becoming the adult Sunday School class teacher when he was still just 24. Not long after that, during a pastoral transition, he became the weekly Sunday evening service speaker. And as he also provided transportation for University of Maine students to the church, that arrangement led to him being introduced to Ann.
“Ann was born and raised in Homer,” Daigle says. “It is pretty remarkable that she ended up in Fort Kent!”
In just a few months, the couple knew they were meant to be, and soon wed. Shortly after, they felt God directing them to move to Alaska, with the eventual purpose of reaching the people in the Little Tutka Bay area.
“I left my government job and we headed to Alaska — I had no real idea what that entailed,” Daigle admits, noting that they worked in a cannery and slept in a tent when they first arrived in Valdez. That fall, they moved to Homer and a few weeks later, began a home Bible study.
“When we held our first Bible study that first Sunday, 11 people attended,” Daigle says. “We learned God had sent us in answer to the prayers of some people in the area.”
From 1986 to 2000, the Daigles held church in various homes and places. During this time, Pat also earned his Christian workers papers and became the junior high and high school wrestling coach — having had experience as a collegiate wrestler — in addition to his job as a lifeboat inspector.
“We came to the point where we were too big to meet in a home, so we moved the group to Ann’s sister and husband’s cabin on the isthmus,” Daigle says with a bit of foreshadowing laugh. “Well, it was 24 feet by 16 feet and we had some 40 people attending in the summers . . . we joked that we offered claustrophobia pills at the door.”
During this time, Daigle says God started giving him a vision of building a church. For seven years he prayed about it — for the door to open in God’s timing.
“I check and service lifeboats on ships — there are only about 200 people in the world who do that,” Pat says. “I had worked four straight months, 15 hours a day, and then my nephew from California calls me and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to come out and help you build the church you’ve been talking about.’”
Worn out from months of long hours, the timing seemed totally wrong for Daigle, but instead of refusing the offer, he turned to God.
“I knew this was something I couldn’t do, so I just told God, ‘This is Your church; You’re going to have to do it,’” Daigle says. “Although I was completely overwhelmed, God made provision.”
The Daigles already had a piece of land for the church on the isthmus — at high tide it was an island, at low tide it was an isthmus, connected to shore. It was a beautiful, picturesque place to build, but also on solid rock.
That summer (2003) they put the pilings in place and got ready to start the floor. There was just one problem: they were short on skilled labor.
“A pastor in Homer then gives me a call,” Daigle says. “He has this group of 40 people from Missouri who had come to work at the Alaska Bible Institute and there were just too many carpenters in the group — he wanted to know if we could use some!”
That night, Daigle drove to Anchorage and picked up two of his brothers, a sister, and their children and returned to Homer. With many skilled hands at work, the octagonal floor and walls of the church were quickly constructed, and by the end of five days, the roof was on the church!
“The following summer, a group of men from a Montana church came and put in all the windows and doors,” Daigle recounts, “and then we jackhammered the rock under the church and built Sunday School classrooms.”
Later, the youth group, which the Daigles had been leading for the past 20 years, came out and helped with putting in the insulation. Daigle says it took about three years for the church to be completed.
Now, it’s likely safe to say that the walkout basement, octagonal-shaped, large-windowed, log church — complete with deck— is one of the most picturesque and uniquely situated churches in the country, with the Daigles simply pointing to God’s provision over and over again.
Responding to God’s call can be a difficult and seemingly sacrificial choice as it’s often accompanied by challenges that those who don’t have that specific call may not understand.
The Little Tutka Bay Bible Fellowship had — and has — plenty of those challenges.
Perhaps the most obvious challenge is made more clear when reading the directions to the church from the village of Homer — it includes driving on Freight Dock Road, walking down a boat ramp, along a dock, and then boarding the church’s 35-foot boat, the Dina Marie.
“It’s about a 45-minute trip by boat to the church,” Daigle explains. “In rough weather or in the winter it can take a little longer when the wind is up or there’s ice in the harbor.”
From the Dina Marie, passengers transfer to a flat “mini-barge” to shore to make the walk ashore less complicated. Then there’s the walk to the church access ramp and stairways over uneven rocks — high heels are not a wise choice. And those who attend are staying for lunch as there’s just one way on and off the island (by boat); the church provides sandwiches and requests attendees to bring a side to share.
A second boat brings people from Seldovia, located across the bay from Homer, during the summers when the weather is typically more cooperative. And as retired schoolteacher and congregant John Szajkowski puts it, “The boat ride, the bay, the mountains — it’s really a beautiful setting to prepare your heart for church.”
However, summers are short and the average high for July (the hottest month of the year) for Homer is about 61 degrees. Winters are milder than one might expect, as the bay helps keep temperatures relatively moderate for Alaska, but on average there are nearly 170 days where the temperature dips below 32 degrees and 146 days with precipitation . . . so, it’s a bit different than being dropped off at the church’s front door under a portico or awning during challenging weather.
“When the weather starts getting marginal, which it does about this time of year,” says Szajkowski, “we can get big water (such as 15-foot seas) in the bay. Then Pat and Ann host church at their house in Homer – they just open it up to anyone who wants to come.”
Daigle also shares that there is wildlife to be aware of, sharing about the time a bear got into the church through an unsecured door and ate a bunch of bread and muffins. Thankfully, the bear departed before anyone returned to the church.
Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for the church is the regular turnover. Although Szajkowski and fellow attendee, Maynard Kaufman, both attest to powerful and anointed preaching by Daigle, the time commitment, inconvenience, and environment all require extra effort to attend the “island church,” leading many to come for a while, but then often moving on to a church that takes less of a commitment to attend.
THE SILVER LINING
“Why here?” might be a question anyone called to a remote ministry would ask. But within the difficulties surrounding attending Little Tutka Bay Bible Fellowship is also the reward for the Daigles.
Due to its picturesque location, the longevity of the small ministry, and the uniqueness of arriving by boat, the church regularly draws many visitors, especially in the summer months, as many people in the surrounding area know about the island church by firsthand experience or word of mouth.
And when new people attend — even just for the experience of the unique location and boat ride — the Word of God is spoken into their hearts and lives.
“What happens in that church is truly miraculous,” Szajkowski says. “It’s a handful of 20 regulars, but in the summertime, we can have 60 or more as people from foreign countries and many other states just ‘show up.’ You never can tell what God is going to do or who He is going lead to the church — it’s a continual surprise and blessing to see what’s going to unfold at the church.”
“He (Daigle) spends a lot of time seeking God — asking God what He wants him to talk about every week,” Kaufman confirms. “Then, when he speaks, he sticks completely with Scripture and what Scripture says.”
And Daigle echoes those words, noting how God has often given him just the right words or the right message to speak in order to make a significant impact upon lives. He recalls one Sunday that he felt he had really missed the mark with the sermon, but following the service, a visitor came up to tell him his message hit home.
“He told me, ‘It was as if you have been in my living room and heard everything I have said to my wife and children for the past year and a half,’” Daigle says. “In his Christmas card two years later, he wrote that they were still dealing with the things I said in that sermon that day. Then, 15 years later, we received another Christmas card from him saying the same thing.”
Daigle admits that he doesn’t heavily promote that the church is associated with the Assemblies of God, but that is by design — the people who attend regularly know it’s Pentecostal preaching that they’re coming to hear; the people who are visitors on an “adventure,” come not knowing what they’re going to experience.
“One Sunday, we had 50 people and only 15 of the core members were there,” Daigle says. “I was preaching on speaking in tongues and every one of the others who came that day attended churches that preached against it. After the sermon, one of the visitors came up to me and said,
‘Our church doesn’t believe in speaking in tongues, and I sat there (in the pew) and I fought you every step of the way, but in the end, you prevailed!’ God does those kind of things.”
The Daigles realize that their church will never be a megachurch and that they’ll need to continue to rely upon God to meet their and the church’s needs. However, they encourage others to not be afraid to go to the remote locations God may have called them to.
“It is in my heart that if we would say that Christ would have come and died on the Cross for just one soul,” Pat says, “then likewise I should be prepared to give my life away to reach that one soul as well.”