Samaritan's Purse staff and volunteers built a church in the remote village of Koyuk over the summer of 2023. Explore village and church life in this special place up north in Alaska.

God's Country

Up north in Alaska, where the forests and the tundra can swallow two states the size of Texas, there sits a little village on the banks of the mighty Koyuk River. Here, on the near side of the Seward Peninsula, about 90 miles east of Nome as the crow flies, the river drains into Norton Bay, then into the sound of the same name, and eventually into the Bering Sea.

In this village, not quite 300 Native Alaskans carry on their subsistence lifestyle. That means living off the land and the water—season by season—and being thankful for the bounties they yield at the times set by the Creator. Duck eggs, smoked salmon, moose steaks, blueberries, cranberries, seal oil, and much more.

It’s not like it was 60 years ago, because now homes have electricity, running water, and many have large freezers. And there’s even a local retailer in town with staples and delicacies from all over, including candy bars and frozen French fries.

Nevertheless, though times change, the Native Alaskans of Koyuk take pride in their culture—most are from the Inupiat tribe—and their choices and their setting. Most villagers still live off hunting and fishing and gathering from the earth. Though some people travel occasionally, Koyuk lies far off the road system and air transportation is, in general, prohibitively expensive. Nothing arrives here except by plane or by barge. Koyuk is where these people are planted and where they will succeed or fail.

Some parts of rural Alaska are stuck, knee-deep in an endless muddy, bog. Not Koyuk. The village is a beautiful place with trees and hills and rocks rising as a backdrop. You can walk down to the beach in minutes and watch where the fresh and saltwater mix, the river and its tributaries meeting the sea. Down there in the summer, you’ll hear the guttural croakings of the ravens, the piercing cries of the sea gulls, and the melancholy trilling of the sandhill cranes. It is a land richly blessed with natural resources.

"My dad called it God’s country," said Wallace "Wally" Otton, former mayor, airport manager, and decades-long resident.

Game is abundant and Koyuk is scenic, but the state of the village’s only church building in 2022 was anything but pretty—it was, in fact, near collapse. Faith comes by hearing the Gospel, and it’s the church—the people of God—who proclaim this Good News to all ages. And, for gathering and preaching to occur in this special community, in this remote place, that means the church needs a warm, safe place to worship together. But there were not enough resources in the community to fix the dilapidated structure.

A Divine Appointment

When Samaritan’s Purse staffer Luther Harrison went to Koyuk to assess damage from Typhoon Merbok, which hit coastal Alaska in Sept. 2022, he expected to find homes that needed repair. He did identify some, and they were eventually repaired. But, the vice president of North American Ministries quickly discovered an even greater need.

He met resident Grace Morris and soon knew that Koyuk would be the site of the next major Samaritan’s Purse construction project in Alaska. Why? Her impassioned request was simple: We really need a new church building.

Grace, 72, has an infectious smile, an endearing laugh, and an overflowing love for the Lord Jesus Christ. A 30-year member of the church, she was truly concerned that the existing structure could collapse anytime. She remembers telling Harrison: “You better build us a church. We need a new one, go check inside.”

Harrison did check inside. A new church was the only solution. “Meeting Grace as we were walking down the road was truly a divine appointment from the Lord,” he said.

The state of the church’s four-decades-old building was one of disrepair. Freezing and thawing had torn apart the foundation. Part of the ceiling was collapsing. There were gaps in the floor. It took at least a day—usually longer—to heat the building, at significant cost, so midweek events had to be held elsewhere. On winter Sundays, even with the heat on, it was sometimes so cold inside you could see your breath. Because of the frigid temperatures, the water had to be turned off.

"Well, we didn’t feel good at all about it," said Pastor Don Cross. "It wasn't safe. A lot of people in the village were apprehensive about their kids going into the old church."

Harrison's encounter with Grace kicked off a process that unfolded beautifully over many months in 2023: from demolishing the old building in late spring to dedicating the brand-new facility in the early fall. Samaritan’s Purse staff arrived in April to begin setting up a bunkhouse, a kitchen, a toolshed, internet access, and more for the volunteer teams who would come over 15 weeks from late June to early October. More than 100 individuals traveled up from the Lower 48, and all had to be flown back and forth across Alaska’s interior by our Mission Aviation Services. Samaritan’s Purse planes made more than 50 round-trip flights from Soldotna to Koyuk in 2023, transporting both people and materials about two hours in the air each way.

Samaritan’s Purse staff members and volunteers—whether staying a week, two weeks, or months—quickly tried to serve the village of Koyuk, learn from faithful Christian elders, and also point new friends to Jesus Christ.

In addition to overcoming logistical challenges and actually building the church, our teams chose to serve the town in different ways at different times. For instance, Wally had his porch reattached and foundation leveled by our team. “It was a pleasant surprise. The town notices that kind of thing right away,” he said.

Our team made many other such house repairs—fixing windows, stairs, oil stands, and more—over months of service. “They’ve fixed up a lot of houses,” said Frank Kavairlook, 72, president of the Koyuk Native Corporation. “Samaritan’s Purse did a lot for us. God bless them gentlemen and ladies.”

“They've fixed up a lot of houses, they stopped their church project and did something that needed to be done.”

—Frank Kavairlook,President of the Koyuk Native Corporation

Frank said he took note of Samaritan’s Purse commitment to help wherever needed. When a widow’s fishing boat was sinking by the beach—someone forgot to plug it before leaving, our team stepped in to bring it ashore and drain the water. “They stopped their church project and did something that needed to be done,” he said.

Another time this meant patching a resident’s flat tire at the town’s landing strip. One time, a team helped a man flip his newly painted wooden boat—a task made easy only thanks to many strong arms. The commitment to go above and beyond also included working on heavy equipment for the town, which was greatly appreciated by local leaders.

The people of Koyuk watched closely as the Samaritans Purse team constructed their new church from June to October. They saw over 400,000 pounds of materials arrive by barge via the Koyuk River, and then witnessed as hands and feet transformed it into a brand-new worship center. The village observed the quality of the materials and workmanship that went into the construction, and the quality of the volunteers themselves. They watched the acts of service that occurred over the summer, day by day. Love abounded.

An Honor to Serve and Share

A team of Samaritan’s Purse volunteers from the Lincolnton, North Carolina, area served for a week in Koyuk in August. Their experience is just one example, just a few days among months of work.

They saw the city’s characteristic subsistence lifestyle in full swing as salmon were caught and smoked and moose were stalked by local hunters looking to replenish their freezer for the upcoming winter. Of course, the group spent most of their time completing a number of intensive construction tasks—hanging drywall and plywood ceilings in the church building, among several other projects. But, they also used their time wisely to invest in the community’s families.

Whether visiting the only two stores in town, playing basketball, or just hanging out, they were intentional about opening conversations about the church and Jesus Christ. “We’re inviting people to church and sharing with them,” said volunteer Scott Mann, pastor of New Vision Ministries in Lincolnton. “If you make a difference in one person, it’s worth it.”

The North Carolina team spent quality time on the playground with dozens of the village’s children, as long daylight hours and warm temperatures in August kept boys and girls outside until late in the evening.

“I love coming up here and building the church and teaching these kids about Jesus—and even the parents,” said volunteer Dalton Christopher, who has served on multiple Alaska construction projects.

“To be able to point people to Christ is such an honor,” said Kristin Holben, program manager for our Alaska Projects. She spent months in Koyuk serving with our teams last year and noted, “People open up more to us sometimes than to their own family.”

illustration of the new Koyuk church

Words From Elders

In addition to their work and witnessing, Samaritan’s Purse staff and volunteers took time to listen and learn from the residents of Koyuk, especially church elders. “The strength of the church is those faithful ones,” Pastor Don said.

Among the elders to hear from was 73-year-old Melvin “Duma” Otton, Wally’s brother. Duma was nearly killed in a construction accident in town about 25 years ago. He was airlifted to an Anchorage hospital where he spent several days in a coma. God spoke to him during that time, and not long after, at an Easter gathering, he was convicted of his sins and gave his life to Jesus Christ.

“You never know how God is going to work on people,” he said. “God worked on me. I was one of the worst here.”

Duma’s own testimony helped keep everyone focused on the ultimate goal of the church construction project. “The biggest thing is not just to attract more people in here (to church), but for more people to come to know Christ,” Duma said. “When you start attracting people and showing them that God is real, it makes a change in people’s lives. It changed my life, so I know it’s true.”

Another elder to get to know was Grace of course. She was also saved in middle age, in 1993, and is grateful that God now guides her steps. “I thank God He can change the vilest person in the world,” she said. “You have to lean on God to direct you, to help you, everything. Man is not the answer, but God is.”

“You never know how God is going to work on people, God worked on me. I was one of the worst here.”

—Melvin “Duma” Otton

Years after being saved, at a time when she needed comfort and encouragement, the Lord strengthened her in a special way while picking blueberries one hot summer day in 2004. She ended up on her knees, praying and thanking God that He called her His child and would use her as His vessel to love others. “He assured me that I would never be alone, that He would be with me,” she said.

It’s this assurance that has seen her through more recent years, as she persevered through illness and grieved the deaths of several close family members. “I would never trade this for anything, knowing that the Lord is good,” Grace said.

For others with Samaritan’s Purse, visiting Oscar Anasogak Jr. was a key to understanding ministry in this rural village. Oscar could be considered a village elder, though he is new to the Christian faith. He received the Lord Jesus Christ this summer through the witness of one our volunteers, and Samaritan’s Purse staff were faithful to visit him often. He started attending worship services as well.

“My health has gone down over the last year,” the 57-year-old said. “I had a stroke in September (2022). It made me start to think about where I’m going, what I’m doing.”

What does he think of Jesus Christ now? “I think He’s wonderful, and you can’t really put it into words,” he said. “It’s like a beautiful sunset and you can’t name every color.”

He’s heard from pastors before and didn’t doubt what they said, but he knows he now needs to put his faith into practice—to live it out. “It’s going to be a long road for me,” he said. “Some days are real good to me, and some days are not.”

Though he spent over a decade in prison, Oscar does not betray much bitterness. “Had I not gone to prison with my young and wild lifestyle, maybe I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. Five years a free man, Oscar lives in a yurt on the east edge of town. These days he’s looking to help others, find friends, and enjoy the beauty that surrounds him. “In the morning, when it’s sunny,” he said, “I’ll go out and hear the birds singing, which is really peaceful.”

Unique Culture, Common Challenges

To understand Koyuk, it is helpful to understand a little about Inupiat culture and how it is intertwined with the natural environment. Wally knows the local terrain about as well as anyone. Boating with him and two of his boys in mid-summer, he told visitors about the Koyuk River and its tributaries, the mountains and the seas.

He shares memories of his childhood, in the late 1950s and 60s: “I grew up camping. I miss camping. We would camp for a month at a time,” he said. They’d hang fish, pick berries, and enjoy the all-day sun of summer in northern Alaska. Maybe they’d hang out by Corral Creek and ride the domesticated caribou calves like a rodeo.

A lot has changed since then. The caribou are gone and long campouts are a thing of the past. But Wally still wants to instill in his boys principles that are critical to the Inupiat way of life. When they killed their first seals, they had to give the meat to an elder in the village. Sharing game with grandmas and grandpas, older aunties and uncles, widows, and the less fortunate is an important practice here. Meat is valuable in subsistence culture, but a truly caring community is priceless. Respect for the environment, concern for the aged, and a grateful spirit are some of the fundamentals that bind the village together.

Many people are concerned that some of these things are being lost.

“What we learned from the elders is verbal [oral],” Frank Kavairlook said. But today, the youngsters “don’t know that they’re supposed to be absorbing these things” from their parents, grandparents, and others. They are always looking at their phones, Frank said, and watching TV.

“The young generation is so caught up with technology they are forgetting the good things about life,” Oscar bemoans. “They have more respect for the world that’s on their phone than the world around them, their company.”

Pastor Don acknowledges the challenges, but said, “There’s a sense of community here that’s still intact. People help each other out.”

Focus on the Youth

As thankful as church leaders are for the physical building, they see beyond it to new ministry possibilities. “My hope is that others will join us to gather at the church. We will have more Sunday school students,” Grace said.

Reaching all the children in the village is a major goal for the congregation.

Most of the church’s faithful have an earnest desire, or “heart,” to reach the young. This including Rosemary Weston, Duma’s wife. “Life is not easy in the village,” she said. “Around here you have to learn how to survive.” You need to know what to eat, what not to eat, and how to care for the meat. “You’ve got to be real careful,” as hunting and fishing here are not for greenhorns.

Then there’s another level of difficulty to daily life in the bush. “They (young people) get stuck in the village and get bored,” Rosemary said. This is a drawback to the subsistence culture. In order to continue living off the land, the village must stay small, because even a place like Koyuk has only so many animals for so many hunters. With a population under 300, the city thus can only offer its youth a few legitimate career paths.

A lack of hope, especially when combined with other issues common to rural Alaska like domestic abuse, substance abuse, and mental illness, takes a tremendous toll on the young. Suicide is a too frequent tragedy. Duma and Rosemary lost a son years ago—“Even now I miss him,” she said—and that is why they are so committed to help any young person who seeks them out, even in the very middle of the night. “After they talk to us, they say the feel better,” she said. “We know people are running around today, because we were able to listen to them.

“I tell the health aides and church leaders you need to stop and talk with the people who need help,” Rosemary said. “You may be saving somebody’s life by doing that. Life is too precious to lose.”

Among the hopes and plans for the new church are a youth group, a feeding program, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, and more Sunday school classes for children. Without heating problems, the building will be open for use throughout the week, instead of just on Sundays.

“God will draw His people to the church,” said Beda “Bim” Prentice. She and her husband John, who goes by “Bucky,” have seven children, serve in church leadership, and share a heart to help both the elderly and the youth of their Native community.

“We need to draw in the young people and others to Christ,” she said. “They’re our future leaders.”

“The workers have connected with our people on a personal level, and we've been seeing different people at church, so it's really exciting.”

—Pastor Don Cross

As the new church building went up, the time was ripe for revival and renewal in Koyuk. During construction, attendance at church services—held at the town’s municipal center—increased from the 30s to near 70. Samaritan’s Purse staff and volunteers were consistently inviting people to church and sharing the Gospel.

Pastor Don said, “The workers have connected with our people on a personal level, and we've been seeing different people at church, so it's really exciting.”

The congregation rejoiced as 14 people were baptized in September, just before church construction finished. “We need to keep that spark going, so other people can come to know the Lord,” said Grace, who was among those baptized.

Day of Celebration

It’s 28, but feels a lot colder, because of that north wind,” Duma said, acknowledging the mighty Koyuk River is already partly frozen.

That’s the weather situation a little before noon on Oct. 7, 2023, as the conversation quickly turns to the day’s big event—the dedication of a brand-new church built by Samaritan’s Purse.

“Is it warm in there?” someone asked.

“Real warm, it’s nice,” Duma said.

And that’s why the new building was built after all. To provide a safe place for people to gather and proclaim the Gospel. Warming the old building was like running the heater in your car on a very cold day with all the windows rolled down, said Corey Lynch, director of Alaska projects for Samaritan’s Purse. Pointless. It was freezing inside the old building in the winter, and winter is very long here. Most days the building sat unused.

Of course, a few hardy and faithful souls did attend Sunday service—collapsing roof or not, but even they would admit their prayers had long been for something better. Those pleas were finally answered with the first service in their new building, a day of dedication to the Lord.

“Our dreams became reality,” said 78-year-old Gabriel Dewey, a village elder and church leader for many years.

New Building, a Gift from God

Curtis Ivanoff, superintendent of the Alaska Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, spoke at the dedication and noted that the Samaritan’s Purse ministry in Koyuk went far beyond construction.

“I think there was a real intentional effort to go beyond these walls and bless the community at large,” he said. “I heard over and over again how Samaritan's Purse blessed the community. And that was very encouraging.”

As Corey Lynch addressed the dedication audience, he hammered home the message behind both the labor and the love of the Samaritan’s Purse team.

“It’s all about Jesus,” said Lynch, who serves as director of Alaska projects for Samaritan’s Purse. “I want to build a building that will last for a hundred years…[and] the one sole purpose is for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a story that must continue, because it changes lives.”

Samaritan’s Purse staffer Russ Richardson spoke shortly after Lynch, again emphasizing that the work is about far more than a building. “The church may last 100 years, but when someone asks the Holy Spirit into their lives that impact is eternal,” he said.

Richardson, who spent from early spring to fall in Koyuk, handed over the keys of the new building to Pastor Don who preached from Psalm 122, John 4, and Hebrews 10. As the pastor read the story of the Samaritan woman and Jesus, he extended an invitation to the community, “The doors of this church are open to everyone, wherever you’re at.”

There was joyful hymn singing in English and Inupiaq at the dedication, and there were many tears and hugs. Then the feast began, as 160-plus people enjoyed fried chicken and local delicacies, including berries, caribou stew, and muktuk (whale skin and blubber). Wally and Duma and Frank and their families were there. Oscar was there. Grace wanted to be there, but had to fly out with her husband after he was injured in an accident.

The unveiled building has a special Triodetic foundation consisting of a steel platform that sits on top of the soil. This system keeps the building level regardless of the heaving and sinking caused by the region’s freeze-and-thaw cycle. Solid materials and superior insulation mean heating will no longer be a problem. More than 130 people can be seated inside and the new center features a sanctuary, kitchen, fellowship hall, pantry, and more.

“It’s a big blessing to be getting a new church here,” Pastor Don said.

The festivities took place just a couple weeks after the church’s baptism service. Annie Adams, the church’s children’s choir leader, was baptized and also played a big role in the dedication service. This summer she found fellowship with our team, regularly sharing meals together. She looks forward to meeting multiple times a week with her church family in the new building.

“We can have a warm, cozy place to gather and worship and fellowship all through the winter,” she said at the dedication. “We can use it for Bible study and prayer group. We can have our minds refreshed as we meet through the week.”

More Work to Be Done

Since 2006, Samaritan’s Purse has completed 35 projects in Alaska, mostly in remote areas off the road system. The structure in Koyuk is the 13th church rebuild we have finished. More than 3,500 volunteers have served with us so far.

“There's over 250 villages here in the state of Alaska,” said Luther Harrison. “We just have got to keep moving on and finding churches that are willing.”

The body of believers in Koyuk now have a beautiful, energy-efficient place to continue worshipping and ministering in their community for years to come, Harrison said.

“This is going to be a building where His Word is preached, His Word is proclaimed,” he said. “We want to make sure that the next generation has a safe place where they can follow suit and have that relationship and walk with Christ.

“We thank God for the volunteers and donors who made this possible.”

To God be the glory!

Please keep the church of Koyuk and the people of Koyuk in your prayers. Pray that many residents will put their faith in Christ and that existing believers will be strengthened and emboldened to shine as lights in the darkness.