Awesome Weekend!

Praise God for the opportunity to travel to the Alaska State Young Life Conference this last weekend!  It was so encouraging and motivating.  Where to start?

First, a big loud shout out to the many amazing people that watched our kiddos while we were gone!  Geoff gave them a ride to meet their Uncle Aaron, who spoiled them rotten that day.  That evening Auntie Margaret joined in and the boys stayed the night with Grandma Candy and Grandpa Mike.  The next evening, Grandparents Kellar met Grandparents Vander Stoep to do a switcheroo.  The boys stayed with my folks Saturday night and through to Sunday evening.  Then, my friend Madeline took the last shift and watched them from 6:30pm until we got home at 10:30pm, after Geoff once again did airport duty.  Whew!  That is EIGHT people who teamed up to love our kids and love them well.  It was incredible to take the kids with us to Chevak last month, but this time it was better for Nate and I to travel alone, both because of the cost and the format for the weekend.

The weekend really began at 1:30am on Friday morning, when my brother-in-law called to say my sister was at the hospital ready to have her baby!  Stay? Go? I wondered for about 10 minutes.  Duh, GO!  I concluded, and ended up being about 10 minutes late. (Doh!).

 Calvin James Stuart6lbs 13oz, born at 2:03am on 9/26/14 is a precious, beautiful little boy and was an amazing start to an amazing weekend!  

Sarah and Calvin

Later that morning, after getting home and getting a little more sleep, Nate and I took off on the direct flight from Portland to Anchorage.  Such anticipation in our hearts!  Such a wonder to follow the Spirit even when the objectives or outcomes the trip were not perfectly clear.

After arriving in Anchorage and getting keys for the two rental vans, we met a young woman named Jennifer who was on the same flight as us from Portland to Anchorage.  Jennifer is a young woman from Savoonga, Alaska and she deserves a paragraph all her own!  We first heard about Jennifer about eight years ago when our YL friends came to stay with us in Chevak.  At the time, she was attending Mount Edgecumbe High School and taking part in Young Life there.  She had written a few poems that somehow or another I got ahold of during their visit.  Beautiful poems.  Deep and rich and full of the realities of life in a village.  I actually ended up sharing a couple of the poems with my middle school reading classes, after trying to get in touch with Jennifer via Facebook with no success.  Five or six years later, I heard her name again – as a graduate of George Fox University!  The same college Nate and I attended.  Long story short, she is now working on her Doctorate in Psychology at George Fox.  We were able to spend some time with her this weekend, and hear more of her heart for Jesus and for helping others overcome hardships.  All this to say, we now have a new friend.

The first stop of the day was a meeting for all of the Rural Alaska folks, along with Brent and Aaron.  We pinched ourselves as we hugged John and Theresa, Nicole and Grant and Morris again, after seeing them only a month before in Chevak!  God hand-picked these 5 folks to represent those from Chevak who have a heart for the young people.  They were an encouragement to us, to the other rural Alaska folks, and to the leaders from all around the state.  We have no doubt that they will be faithful to God’s call on their lives.  I would like to return in a future blog post, to describe these individuals in more detail.  For now, just know they are awesome, fun, faithful, and lovers of Jesus and kids.  They are our friends.

Chevak 5

Morris, Nicole, John, Theresa and Grant

The five representatives from Chevak.

We were also blessed to meet this couple and their sweet daughter.

Aaron and Emily

Aaron and Emily Routon

Aaron and Emily Routon have worked with Native Youth for over a decade now.   I introduced him before.

Now, I would like to include Aaron’s summary of what was learned over the weekend because he captures it so well.  Also, so that those of you who are not familiar with how YL works (like me a week ago), can learn how it works!

1.) It is all about relationships!  Young Life is ALL about relationships.  Our number one priority in Young Life is for people to have a GREAT relationship with Christ!  Our relationship with Christ is foundational to our life and is the key to reaching other people.  It is important to work on and invest in your relationship with Christ because our life and joy come from that relationship.

2.)  Young Life is a team of people bound together with a purpose to share the greatest story ever told (the Gospel) with young people.  Young Life’s mission statement is to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their faith.  Young Life is a team of people who each use their gifts and talents to reach out to kids.  The team of Young Life has people who pray for kids, people who minister to kids, people who support and organize things for kids and for leaders to do, and people who can pay for the expenses that are required.

3.) Young Life has a few strategies to reach kids:

a.) “Contact work”- going where kids are in order to show them that they are valuable and demonstrate how important they are to God…. Each kid is worth it.

b.) “Club”- an event that draws in all kids in… Young Life wants to reach the kids who don’t care anything about God.  By hosting fun events and helping to make kids feel welcome we can create a setting where kids are more able to hear about God.  At the end of these times, we talk about Jesus and all the wonderful things about him.  We pray and trust the Holy Spirit will draw the kids.

c.) “Campaigners” or Bible Study- Going deeper with those who want to know more.

d.)  “Camp”- Some shared experience with a leader that is fun and that gives the leaders a chance to share about Jesus.  Traditional Young Life camps are AWESOME and it is like “Kid Heaven” with so many great things to do and great food and things that make kids feel special

4.) Adapting the strategies to fit your home community. Young Life principles need to be adapted to each community to fit the people of that community.  It is important to remember  that Young Life emphasizes that:

  • Prayer is foundational to what we do

  • Ministry works best in teams

  • Going to where kids are and initiating with kids is key.

Great summary, Aaron.

Here are a couple more photos from the weekend.  I promise to continue to share more about ALL that we learned and ALL the our great God is up to in the huge state of Alaska.

whole group

All of the folks at the state retreat

rural group

The Rural Alaska Team.  Pray for these folks!


Part 2: On the Upcoming Weekend, a Decade-Long Story, and Introductions

Part 1 here.

It was an unreal feeling flying away from Chevak after our 5th year of teaching there for “the last time”, knowing somehow it would not be the last time.  Funny how God gives hints as to what may come.  At the time, we just knew that our hearts would forever be broken and aching for the young people there.

Native Alaskan youth could be described as an un-reached people group in many ways.  Often churches in the villages are conducted in the Native language.  In Chevak, most folks under the age of 30 do not know the native language, yet the Gospel is, in large part, preached in that language.  You see the problem.  In more recent years, there has been more preaching in English, but that is another blog post for another day.  Praise God.

Added to the lack of access to the Gospel, is the utter hopelessness experienced by many of the young people.  The number one demographic for suicide in the country is Alaska Native males between the ages of 15 and 24.  Tragic.  Nate and I know several young men who considered that their only option.

We carried along with our new life beyond Chevak, relocating to Washougal, Washington; adding Sam to our growing family the following spring.  I kept in touch with our former students on Facebook, offering advice from afar about boyfriends and classes, keeping abreast of village news and reaching out in any way possible.

In 2010, we made a trip to Chevak.  We were told “Welcome Home!” and invited every evening for dinner to a different home.

Pictures from our 2010 trip to Chevak

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We were able to see some Chevak friends off and on in Portland and Seattle.  In 2013, Nate made this trip to Anchorage for a funeral.  We sent messages, cookies and graduation videos, especially as “my classes” began to graduate, some students whom I had had for 4+ years in a row while teaching in Chevak.  We did our best to stay in touch.  We processed and blogged what we learned there.  And through it all EVERYONE who would give us an ear, we would tell them about our beloved Chevak.  (Thank you to all of you that listened with interest and sometimes even tears!).

Last year, we received a call somewhat out of the blue.  It was our old buddy Brent Cunningham.  He was calling to tell us that he had been moved to a new position as the Young Life State Director for Alaska.  He knew that God was calling Young Life to expand its ministry to include all of the young people of Alaska.  God gave him a picture of a map of Alaska with 248 beams of light shooting up, those 248 beams being the villages of Alaska.

Brent asked if we would be willing to pray for Chevak.  He shared the awesome news that Chevak had been calling him and asking for Young Life to be brought to their village.  Unreal!  Praise Jesus!  (Sign us up!  Or back up.  Or just keep us signed up!)   We knew we were not being called to move back to Chevak, but we offered up what we did have, our experience, our love, our prayers.  We asked Brent to keep us in the loop.

At this point, Young Life hired someone to direct the rural ministries portion of their ministry.  So, here it would be appropriate to introduce another important person to this story.

Name:  Aaron Routon

Occupation: Director of Rural Alaska Young Life Ministries

Passionate Pursuer of Alaska Native Kids and Jesus


Let’s start by saying, we’ve never met Aaron.  Not really.  Aaron, Nate and I all attended the same university, but he was two years ahead.  I may have met him, or his identical twin brother, I’m not sure.

What we ARE sure about is how much God can use shared passions to create a feeling of family.  Aaron is our brother and friend.  We feel so privileged to be able to join him as God uses his life to reach the unreached.

Here’s a little self-description, which Aaron sent out to all of the Native folks traveling in from the villages to the conference this weekend.  “My name is Aaron Routon and I was born to a pastor in Kansas.  When I was 9 we moved to Portland, Oregon where I finished school and college. I was a youth pastor in a Covenant church in Portland before moving to Sitka to work at Mt. Edgecumbe High School.  At MEHS I worked in the dorms for 5 years before I went back to school and got my teaching certificate.  I then taught school for 2 years in a drug and alcohol treatment program for Native Alaskan teens, and I also taught 1 year in the middle school.  Two years ago the state Director of Young Life asked me to work at MEHS and reach out to rural villages…My heart is for these young people.  I know that Christ offers hope, freedom, strength, joy, and love.  I want all the people I know to experience the life that Christ has to offer….”  We can’t wait to meet Aaron this weekend!

So, we are almost up to date now.  Thanks for bearing with me.  10 years is an awful lot to fit into a blogpost!   You can simply browse through this blog to read the most recent updates from this summer leading up to our visit to Chevak last month, and our purposes for heading back up to Anchorage in a couple of days..

And even after all of these words, I still have not a had a chance to tell you about the stories of the five folks from Chevak who we will see tomorrow!  I will leave that for another day.  For now, their names:  John and Theresa Pingayak.  Their daughter, Nicole Pingayak.  Grant Slats.  Morris Aguchak, Sr.  Please keep these dear folks in your prayers.  I will be posting pictures and updates next week.

Thank you for your prayers for this upcoming weekend!  Here are a few specific ways you can pray:

– For our kids who will be staying with grandparents, aunts and uncles and church family.  Please pray especially for Levi, who at 2.5 will have a hard time being away from us for so long!  Pray for the everyone watching our kids because, Lord knows, it can be tough.

– For the men and women leading the conference, like Brent and Aaron, that God would speak through them, that folks would be encouraged and that God’s work of discipling people would be propelled.

– For the Native Alaskan folks that God would provide wisdom as they begin to lay the foundation for how this can look in the rural context.

– For our five friends from Chevak: John, Theresa, Morris, Nicole and Grant, that God would give them special insight into how the youth can be reached in their specific context.

Part 1: On the Upcoming Weekend, a Decade-Long Story, and Introductions

Waaqa, (hello) everyone!  It’s been a while.  The morning after returning on our flight from Chevak, Nate started his first day of in-service, so we have been off and running with the usual whirlwind of back-to-school activities as only a household of two teachers, two grade schoolers and one toddler can be.  It has been hard to stop and take the time to continue processing our trip to Chevak and all that God taught us while there.  Thank you for your patience!

Today, I will start by looking ahead…to this weekend!  Nate and I will be leaving Friday morning and heading up to Anchorage for the Young Life Alaska State Conference which takes place in Wasilla.  There, we will be meeting with at least 5 folks from Chevak (more introductions later), Native Alaskans from other villages, and hundreds of faithful followers who love Jesus and love young people from around the state.  The conference will generally focus on Discipleship and how it looks.  For folks from the Bush, special time will be set aside to ask how villages can use the tools offered by Young Life to bring the Gospel to the young people in their own village through discipleship.  So. Pumped.

But, before I talk more about the future, it seems appropriate to go back in time about a decade…  [Cue wavy flashback music].  To a time and place far, far away…

A time with these two young pups decided they wanted to be missionary teachers, but realized with a thud that attending a private Christian university for undergrad and grad school would leave you considerably in the red… So, why not try being missionaries that happen to get paid pretty well by teaching in the Bush?


Yes, it seemed like a good idea.  When God made it clear through the very first school we interviewed with that, yes, it was indeed HIS plan, we packed up our bags and headed to Chevak, Alaska.

Man, it was hard.  Most Sundays were spent crying on the couch, missing our families, our normalities, our Starbucks, our weekends free from work, for crying out loud.  The kids were difficult to love.  They talked back.  They wouldn’t do their work.  A couple kids told Nate later that they are mean to teachers at first to see if they can get them to leave.

“God, are you sure this is your plan?  Help!  We can’t do this!  Lord, help us to love these kids!

That last sentence may not sound like much of a prayer, but they may have been the most powerful 7 word prayer we have ever said in our lives.  The Bible makes promises like this one in Psalms 34:7, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” As we have learned, this does not mean God gives us whatever we want whenever we want it.  No, it means that as we find our every delight and joy in Him, he will change the desires of our heart to match His own.

In other words, when we said, “God, help us to love these kids,” He said a big loud, “YOU BETCHA!”

Now, it’s time for some introductions.  We met this guy in line at the Anchorage airport Starbuck’s on our way back to Chevak from our third Christmas break there.  He was surrounded by some Native kids talking excitedly and sporting a YL sticker on his water bottle.

Name: Brent Cunningham.

Occupation: Former Director for Young Life in Sitka, Alaska.

Current Regional Director of Young Life for the entire State of Alaska.

Doer of such amazing escapades as this.

Die-Hard Lover of Jesus and People.


We introduced ourselves to Brent, then sat on a bench with him for two hours and shared our hearts with each other for Jesus, kids and, particularly, kids in the village.  We prayed.  We hugged.  We got contact info.  We grinned.  We all wondered where this new friendship might go.

The following school-year Brent called to see if he and a team of folks from Sitka could stay a few nights at our place while they came to visit Chevak in January.  Sitka is home to Mount Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school for some of the best and brightest Native Alaskan kids from around the state.  MEHS has a thriving Young Life program and many of the kids meet Jesus while there, only to return to the darkness of their village when through with school.  Brent and Annie (a friend of mine from GFU) and the rest were traveling to some of the villages to get an idea of what life in the Bush is like for these kids.

Each night and morning of their visit, we would have a little Bible study and prayer time.  Nate and I were preparing to leave Chevak that year because we had found out that fall that I was expecting our first child, so these times of prayer for Chevak felt somewhat conflicting in our hearts.

The last night, we spent a lot of time praying specifically for the kids in Chevak.  As we started to pray for them, a great fountain opened up in our souls.  Nate and I began to weep. But, we were not sad.  Brent asked us an important question. “God gives us tears for a reason.  Why are you crying?”

The only way to describe our tears is to say that God dropped into our hearts an overwhelming dropperful of His Ocean of Love for these kids.  

We had prayed and He delivered.  The desire of our heart lined up with His own and. BOOM. Love unspeakable and full of glory.  We realized that gradually and slowly, He had helped us to fall in love with these ragamuffin kids from a place called nowhere.

Brent and the rest took off the next morning.  Nate and I realized that God was calling us to one last year in the village, even though that meant ten months of putting our infant in childcare.  We left Chevak after the following school year, knowing that God was using that 5th year for His Glory to teach us much and display His love through our lives.

And when we left, we had a hunch He was not done with us there…

(Story Continued here).

Our Trip in Pictures

We’d like to finally share some more pictures from our trip to Chevak!  We posted a few from the first day of our trip on this post, and would now like to share some more of the other days.

Please forgive the chronological randomness.  It is getting late and I would like to get them posted!  We have more photos to add later, as well.

If you click on the first photo, the format will change to a slideshow and you can read the descriptions of each picture more easily.