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Overcoming Suspicions

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  Nathaniel Olemaun hopes to return to his hometown in a couple of years with a degree in elementary education. In addition to teaching, he plans to become a missionary to Alaskan Natives in Barrow.

A student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the member of the Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, U.S.A. chapter is preparing for his future discipleship assignment by forming a small group during the fall semester.

“Alaskan Natives trust a Native more than other people,” says Olemaun, a member of the Inupiaq (commonly known as Eskimos) people. “I already know the community and how people will react.”

The plan to spread the gospel across rural and isolated Alaska by training students to become bivocational missionaries stems from University of Alaska-Fairbanks Chi Alpha Director Paul Burkhart’s eight years of experience as an Assemblies of God world missionary in Southeast Asia.

While serving overseas, Burkhart, now an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary, identified locations that were hubs for villagers. Then he and his team mobilized indigenous Christians to reach their families and friends in those areas.

One convert who evangelized his father saw him get saved and filled with the Holy Spirit. The father led numerous people to Christ as Savior, and together they baptized more than 200 people, even though an AG missionary never visited their village.

“When we looked at where indigenous people gathered in Alaska, we saw that the idea of establishing ministries in hub cities and mobilizing people to go back to their villages was the same methodology we could use here,” says Burkhart, who pioneered the Chi Alpha work in Fairbanks two years ago.

“We’re trying to raise up indigenous people to reach their own communities,” Burkhart says. “Alaska has more than 100 villages without a pastor or a gospel presence. There are huge challenges — geographic, historical, and cultural differences in various villages.”

Despite the obstacles, the ministry is bearing fruit. Since 2014, more than 100 salvation decisions and over 70 water baptisms have occurred at Chi Alpha chapters in Fairbanks and Anchorage. In addition, participants have raised more than $60,000 for missions.

This spring, Burkhart took seven students to Southeast Asia, where they learned that one house church he and his wife, Crystal, helped to form has grown to 250 people.

A primary reason for Burkhart’s plan to mobilize Alaskan Natives in outreach is the mistrust and suspicion the state’s first peoples have toward outsiders.

Burkhart recalls the time he had a pleasant visit with an elder in one interior village — until explaining that he was a minister. The elder demanded that Burkhart get out of his house, viewing him as an imperialist white man who had stolen land and wanted to change him.

Such resistance to Western forms of Christianity appeared in Southeast Asia, too. In order to reach locals there, Burkhart says, the gospel needed to be explained in the context of Asian culture. Likewise, Christians shouldn’t import Western practices to Native Alaska; they have to model a culturally consistent and reproducible form of discipleship and faith, Burkhart says.

In addition to overcoming cultural barriers, bivocational natives can reach villages where the small population size makes it impractical to use traditional missionary or church-planting methods.

“If we can raise up an army of disciple makers who take responsibility for the people they love, this state can be changed,” Burkhart says.

The Chi Alpha director says a leading prayer need is for access to more villages and that student disciples will respond to God’s call on their lives.

Olemaun is praying that people will attend the chapter’s small groups with an open heart and a desire to learn more about the different cultures at the university. Olemaun learned about this kind of acceptance through participation in Chi Alpha, which has made a huge impact on his life.

“You meet new people, experience bonding, and strengthen your walk with Christ,” says the junior education major.

Pictured: AG U.S. Missionary Paul Burkhart

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