Youth in an Alaska city have a new gathering place where they can spend time and learn about Christ through Samaritan's Purse
Seemingly every other building along Front Street in Nome is a bar or liquor store. Running parallel to the chilly Bering Sea, Front Street bustles with activity. The late night slurred yells sometimes spill over into the daylight, as drunks stumble their way down the often icy sidewalks.
This is no place for children and teenagers to hang out. The problem is, Nome doesn’t have many places for youth to spend their free time.
But with the help of Samaritan’s Purse, a local church is changing the face of Front Street.
Samaritan’s Purse helped rebuild Nome Covenant Church on the corner near the edge of town. Then we helped the congregation purchase the former gift shop next door and remodel it into a gathering place for the town’s youth.
After opening earlier this year, the word is out about Checkpoint Youth Center. The center is open five nights a week to junior high and high school students. The kids drop by after school, poking their heads through the door to see who might be there.
Most evenings, James Ventress waits to welcome them in among the couches, foosball table, board games, pingpong table and fully equipped kitchen. The kids and teens can drop in to play games, eat a meal, study, and learn about God.
A former California resident, James is bringing some of the state’s legendary warmth to Nome. Not actual, heat-giving sunshine, but the heart-warming kind, has begun to characterize the small gray and blue building next to the finish line of the Iditarod sled dog race. With a quick welcoming smile, he chats with kids he has never seen before when they show up, getting to know them. The regulars drop by and fill him in on how their tests and sporting events went, or how their family is doing.
“For many years, before I even came to Nome, it had been in the heart and the passion of our pastor and our church to have a youth center on Front Street as a place where young people, teenagers from the community, would have a safe place to go and learn about the Lord, come to love Jesus, and grow in their knowledge and faith,” James said.
Nome Covenant Church had the desire, but simply didn’t have the resources. Their own church building was falling apart, held together by wire cables strung from wall to wall. Still, they had faith that one day their hope would be fulfilled. They even had a stack of plywood of building materials for the youth center they referred to as their “faith stack.”
“We really conceived of it as being a home away from home,” James said. “When [the kids are] here, we want them to feel like this is also their home.”
The front half of Checkpoint is full of couches, bean bags, and lounge chairs, just like a living room. Books and board games spill from the shelves. Through two sets of French doors, several tables and chairs flank the full kitchen, which is usually busy cranking out hot meals.
“Sometimes it’s PB&J, but we try to cook some rice and some veggies and something nutritious every night of the week,” James said. “Kids come and they gather around the counter and there’s tables and stools and there’s a countertop and so we gather together, we pray, we share a meal, and we fellowship.”
Checkpoint offers a Bible study two nights a week. Wednesday nights are more advanced lessons for Flipside, the church’s youth group. Bible Club on Tuesday nights is what James refers to as a “beginner’s class” – an evangelistic, basic lesson for kids who don’t regularly attend church.
“A lot of the kids that come [on Tuesdays] don’t come from a church family or a church background, and so they’re hungry and they’re looking for big answers to big questions,” he said. “They’re asking significant things about life.”
Adults are always there to mentor the kids. Their care and concern is obvious as they help with homework, join in the games, or just simply lend a listening ear. And before every meal, they are there to ask how they can pray for the students.
“This building is really significant to our church’s youth ministry because there’s a lot of kids in our community that are kind of invisible,” James said. “Maybe not invisible, but they’re just not on the radar. They don’t do well academically or they don’t play sports. We want to go out and find those broken kids and say, ‘Come eat with us. Come be with us. Come sit with us. Come laugh with us. Come cry with us. You’re welcome here.’”
Growing up in Nome comes with a unique set of challenges that many kids in the lower 48 states don’t understand. Alaskan winters are long, bleak, and infamously dark.
Kids in Nome face the sobering reality of what the locals call “suicide season”—the three months of the year when the sun barely rises. That, along with prevalent substance abuse, can tear many families apart.
But with Checkpoint, the church is able to reach out to the kids in the community and give them another outlet for dealing with their issues.
“I like that you can just escape from everything that goes on outside,” said Sam Cross, who often hangs out at Checkpoint with his brother and sister. “You know, the elements, how cold it is, whether it’s raining, snowy; and you can just come in here, meet people that you don’t know, and have fun. At this building, it’s more about getting to know your neighbor and learning how everyone, no matter what story they have, is just as important as anyone else.”
James said that kids who come to Checkpoint are “hearing real answers about real problems; and not just the surface problems about life in general but ‘Why does my life feel empty?’ and ‘Why is there a hole in the middle of me?’”
“It’s starting to make a difference and there are kingdom questions and kingdom answers for kids that are standing on the threshold of the kingdom of God,” he said. “They’re knocking on a door and they’re wanting to come in and some of them don’t even know it yet but Jesus is opening the door.
“So we’re just glad that somebody actually provided us with that door and made it happen so there’s an actual building and they can come in.”