Iditarod outreach thaws Alaskans' hearts
NOME, Alaska (BP)--NASCAR has its Daytona 500. Colleges have the Final Four and the BCS. Baseball has its World Series; the NFL, its Super Bowl. For Alaskans, meanwhile, it's the Iditarod, or the "Last Great Race" as it's also called.
The grueling 1,049-mile trek starts in Anchorage on the first Saturday in March and then heads west across Alaska to Nome for 10 or more days. This year's race began March 7, with the winner, Lance Mackey, crossing the finish line March 18. The last racer crossed the finish line March 24.
Between Anchorage and Nome, 65 Iditarod racers and their teams of up to 16 Alaskan Huskies confront jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, miles of windswept coast and sea ice -- in temperatures far below zero. Factoring for the wind chill, this year's low was 140 degrees below zero one night. The wind often causes a total lack of visibility between the race's 25 rest stops or "checkpoints" 200 miles apart.
"The people who race in the Iditarod are tough, rough and sometimes wild people," said Brenda Crim, a North American Mission Board missionary and director of Baptist Campus Ministry at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
To Crim, the Iditarod is not just an Alaskan tradition dating back to 1973. The recently completed Iditarod was the fifth year that Crim, her Anchorage staff and 110 volunteers from across the United States have organized extensive ministry in conjunction with the race -- an effort that stirred some 132 Alaskans to make decisions for Christ.
At the ceremonial starting line in Anchorage, Crim and her team handed out 2,000 cups of free coffee and cocoa to spectators. Other ministries in Nome focused on senior adults and youth. One night, Crim and her team sponsored a chili supper and showed the movie "Fireproof" for free.
With temperatures in Anchorage and Nome always hovering at zero or below, Crim said tubes of Chapstick -- donated by Southern Baptists across the nation -- were popular giveaways, with more than 2,000 tubes given away just at the starting line. Crim said her living room is still piled high with Chapstick that she'll use in ministry in the future.
Since basketball is the favorite sport of Alaska's kids, several Iditarod ministry projects featured the round ball, including a "Crossfire Basketball Ministry" evangelistic exhibition which led to 60-plus decisions for Christ at a Nome-area high school. Another initiative: handling concessions at a Nome basketball tournament, with Crim returning the money to the community for a women's shelter and youth ministry.
Outside Anchorage, Nome and a few other cities, Alaska is largely a rural village-based culture, Crim noted.
"If we can turn around the villages, we'll turn around Alaska," she said. "People are hungry and responsive to the Gospel, whether they're senior adults, adults, kids or students.
"Once they accept Christ, they have to be discipled," she added, "but the challenge is that in Alaska they are so scattered. There are not enough Southern Baptist churches to send them to. In fact, in 130 villages, there are no churches of any kind."
Crim said there's no way she and her two Anchorage co-workers, Charlie Parnell and Spring Pungowiyi, can run all of their ministry projects during the course of a year, which includes a salmon-fishing outreach when the Alaskan salmon "run" each May. Spring is a NAMB US/C2 missionary, while Parnell is supported by his home church, Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview, Texas.
"Our volunteers and partners are so important to what we do," Crim said, "and it's so important that they come back year after year to work."
This year's Iditarod crew of 110 volunteers included students from Tarleton State University in Texas; the University of South Carolina; California Baptist University; Yorktown Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas; and Christ Community Church in Huntersville, N.C., which has committed to up to five years of support for Crim's Iditarod ministries.
Crim's biggest challenge preparing for the Iditarod each March is finding enough economical lodging and food for her volunteers, the logistics for which she has down to a science. "This year, we had to ship in 3,700 pounds of food just for my volunteers," she said. Nome Community Baptist Church, the SBC host church for the Iditarod ministry, houses up to 75 of the volunteers. Volunteers for the Iditarod ministries in 2010 will each pay a fee of $450 for lodging and meals.
"The Iditarod is not a tourist trip," Crim joked. "It's two weeks of 12-hour days. It's not an Alaskan cruise trip. Volunteers should be ready to strap themselves in because they're going for a ride!"
Brenda Crim is one of more than 5,600 North American Mission Board missionaries supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and the Cooperative Program. To view a video of her ministry, visit www.omxtv.com and click on the "Main Event" episode.
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.