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What God Is Doing In ... Alaska


The Land of 'One'

by Linda D. Johnson

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'We have one grocery store, one gas station, one flight a day (in winter), one post office, one police officer, one taxi, and one restaurant.'


"You might call this place 'one' Kake," says Major June Nicloy, a Salvation Army officer serving in this small Southeast Alaska community-population, 400. In Kake, you won't find a big-box store, a mall, a movie theater, or even a fast-food restaurant.

June and her husband, Major Scott Nicloy, have been the pastors (corps officers) of a Salvation Army church in Kake, on Kupreanof Island, for more than two years. They've also served in the community of Hoonah, a few hours away by ferry, where Major Londa (Loni) Upshaw has been the corps officer for nine years.

Hoonah, on Chichagof Island, has double the population of Kake, and in the summer, when cruise ships stop in, it seems like a bustling metropolis by comparison. Local people-most of them Tlingit Indians-have accommodated tourists with exhibits and shops in an old cannery building and a native dance performance in a cedar lodge house.

Once the short tourist season is over, Hoonah and Kake have a lot more in common again. Most people live off the land by hunting and fishing and need assistance for basic services. At the Salvation Army churches, the people's tithes pay for electricity and little else.

Tent-makers

So the officers rely on "tent-making" ministries. That term comes from the Apostle Paul, who literally made and sold tents to support his mission.

"I'm a workin' girl," says Loni Upshaw, recently named a "Trailblazer" by the Army's USA Western Territory. She's part owner in a café, Grandma Nina's; she manages the "Hoonah Hideout," a cabin rented out to tourists and hunters; she substitute teaches; and she cooks for the school cafeteria and even visiting Olympic wrestlers at "Iron Man" camp.

Any money she earns goes back into the operation of the corps (church). That's also true for the Nicloys. Scott spends mornings in his Salvation Army office and afternoons as a counselor at the Southeast Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) clinic. Working on a Ph.D., he is studying the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on native people.

There's a lot to study in such isolated communities as Hoonah and Kake, where people die in logging and fishing accidents, have lingering mental health issues from war service, or are affected by such problems as alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and incest.

Still, these Salvation Army officers love their ministries.

"We'd like to serve out the rest of our officership in Alaska," says June. She and her husband began their service in California and Hawaii but have served mostly in Alaska and on a remote Pacific island, Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Scott says he likes the slower-moving lifestyle in rural Alaska, and that he and June don't long for modern conveniences; in fact, they choose not to have a TV (though they do have cell phones and Internet).

Loni has a TV, but she uses it as a kind of nightlight.

"I'm so cheap, I don't keep lights on, even at night," she says. That's because, on Hoonah, electricity runs over 50 cents a kilowatt hour compared to 20 cents in Juneau, Alaska's nearby capital.

Loni doesn't like to pay for heat either. She's hoping that the new wood stove just outside the chapel will heat the new corps building, which also includes her living quarters. She splits wood herself-by hand, with an axe and maul. Sometimes, she gets some help from people who "work off" their Grandma Nina's tab. With no bank, Hoonah operates purely on cash and the barter system.

By necessity, Loni has learned to do many things. She can not only change a tire but plug one while it's still on the rim; she can replumb a sink, rewire phones and cables, and solder pipes.

"The one thing I won't touch is electricity," she says.

The Nicloys, who began their Alaska service in the Norwegian-Tlingit community of Petersburg, also have developed some know-how. Scott, who once worked with Mennonites in California, bakes bread once a week. Once a month, he makes three kinds of dough for corps pizza parties. Leftover dough is made into sticky buns, bread, and rolls people can take home.

"It is a ministry of trying to add people to our rolls by adding rolls to our people," Scott says.

In both Kake and Hoonah, the officers are known and respected.

"People see us as the community pastors," says Scott. Though there are five churches on Kake, the Nicloys are often called on to help in a crisis.

"Once I got a call at 2:30 in the morning to exorcise a house," Scott says. "Someone had just died, and [the family] thought the spirit was still there."

Loni is currently the only ordained pastor in Hoonah.

"I minister to everyone," she says.

When she's driving around town, just about everyone waves. If they don't, she honks or stops to talk.

Loni's entire 17 years as an officer have been spent in Alaska. To her, every place else in the United States is "down South."

How They Got Here

The three majors came to Alaska-and The Salvation Army-by very different paths.

June Steele Nicloy's parents were officers, but they moved often, so June didn't want that kind of life. Then, at a youth meeting, she heard God saying, "That's what you're going to do."

"I said, 'Forget you!' " June remembers. Her desire was simple: to work in a local Salvation Army corps as a secretary and help run programs.

That's what she was doing at age 21 when a car accident upended her life and wiped out most of her memory, except a particularly vivid moment when she had rededicated her life to the Lord.

"That picture is very clear in my mind, of kneeling there at camp, and my friends kneeling with me," June says.

After the accident, these words came to her: "God isn't finished with me yet." Then she heard the Lord say, "Listen to what you just said!"

That led June on a path to officer training school, where she met Scott.

He met Jesus when he was 12 at a Free Methodist church altar in rural northern Michigan. He found The Salvation Army through a "vertical file system" at the library.

"I found a folder about The Salvation Army and sent in a card," Scott remembers. He got a visit from an officer, Barry Swanson, and began attending the Petoskey Corps.

"The Salvation Army stuck for me because of the first Sunday night meeting I attended," Scott says. "There was a child playing the bass drum, and he obviously had mental retardation. Yet The Salvation Army had found a spot for him. That's what spoke to me."

Like Scott, Loni found the Lord when she was young. When she was in junior high, she lived in Germany, where her dad was stationed with the U.S. Air Force.

"I heard a sermon in German, and though I didn't know the language, when the pastor gave an altar call, I knew he was calling me up," says Loni.

Back home in Boise, Idaho, her hometown, Loni attended several different churches. Her four nieces were going to The Salvation Army, and there was a contest to get new people to come to Sunday school.

Loni's sister Darcy said, "Why don't you come?" She did.

"The officers were great at getting people involved," Loni remembers. Because she wanted to stick close to her nieces, 26-year-old Loni chose youth work, and at a Youth Councils meeting, an altar call for teens to become officers broke through to her.

Loni made her commitment, and it took her to Alaska. Besides Hoonah, she has served in Ketchican, Haines, and Klawock. On an average Sunday, her congregation numbers in the twenties.

It's a struggle, especially during hunting and fishing season, for people to come to church consistently.

"Sometimes, it's a choice between that and getting food for the family," she says. Even when people do come, it's hard to get them to commit to follow Jesus. In such a small community, a new Christian feels great pressure from everyone.

"They're waiting to see if the change will work," Loni says.

The Salvation Army came to Alaska in the late 1800s, in the person of Evangeline Booth, then commander in Canada. She sparked an evangelical fervor that birthed new Salvation Army corps throughout southeast Alaska.

Clarence Jackson, a Presbyterian and Native American activist, still supports The Salvation Army and has high hopes that it will grow once more. He's fond of the Nicloys, who live just across the street from his ocean-front home, especially because "they brought lots of music here."

The piano man

Scott plays piano in a "honky-tonk" style people seem to like, but his training-and passion-is as an organist. He owns his own instrument, which he has taken with him to all his appointments except Pohnpei, where the humidity and insects could easily have destroyed it.

Scott is also about to be "adopted" into Clarence's Tlingit family, a great honor. June was adopted just two days after she arrived in Alaska, but at the time, she didn't realize the significance, so she doesn't know her "lineage."

All Tlingits in Alaska are either Ravens or Eagles; within each group are clans and families, all traced through female ancestors. Loni was adopted as an Eagle into the Eagle's Nest clan and the Kaagwaantaan family.

In Tlingit culture, when someone dies, everyone-including all the ministers-participate in a "potlatch," a celebration of life that involves lots of meals and gift-giving. Upon the death of Grandma Nina (for whom Loni's café is named), the family presented Loni with a deer head and a bear hide.

In church, choruses can be in English or Tlingit, a language that very few people speak fluently today. Neither Loni nor Scott speaks it, but they try to imitate Jesus by using sermon illustrations that ring true with the people.

"I must preach the Good News using stories," says Scott. "Metaphors and images must now be my tools of the trade."

In a recent sermon, Loni spoke of a little boy who fell as he was climbing a mountain and grasped a branch on his way down.

"Hold on!" was her message that day.

On an island in the middle of Alaska's Icy Strait, Loni herself holds to her favorite verse: "Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal." (Isaiah 26:4)