Into the Heart of Alaska

When Brent Cunningham responded to God’s call to leave his 10-year teaching career in the Seattle, Wash., area to become a full-time Young Life staffer, he put a spin on a time-tested Young Life principle. For Cunningham, “meeting kids on their turf” means meeting them on their tundra. He and his fellow leaders have traveled into the “bush,” or the rural interior of Alaska, to be with kids in their homes, eating walrus and seal and experiencing life at 30 degrees below zero.

A wilderness experience
Six years ago when Cunningham, then a volunteer leader, picked up a little book called The Prayer of Jabez, he knew he was in trouble before he turned to page two. “I wanted something more than a comfortable life. I was drawn to being in a position of complete dependence on God,” Cunningham said. He wasn’t sure quite what that meant, but he knew he “didn’t want to do anything but be around kids all the time.” And so, Cunningham began to explore full-time Young Life work.

That journey eventually led him, his wife and two young daughters to Sitka, Alaska, a city of 8,800 people located on the outer coast of Alaska’s Interior Passage, where the wilderness he encountered was foremost a spiritual one. The first four years in Sitka were personally very dry, and the hardest years of his life. “I experienced no worldly success,” Cunningham said. “I saw very few lives changed. I was totally humbled. And I was changed, because I experienced Christ in my struggle.”

Then, two years ago, Cunningham entered the halls of Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a state-supported, college-prep boarding school for 400 Native kids from 120 villages who have no similar educational opportunities at home. There, Cunningham met kids who traveled as far as 1,000 miles to attend school in Sitka for a nine-month school year.  The adjustment for these kids is enormous. Many have never been away from home. Most have never seen a real city or the mountains, towering trees and rainfall Sitka is known for. Some have never lived in a home with running water. And as for cafeteria food? The families of these Native kids catch or kill 70 percent of what they eat at home. And though most kids have a church or two in their village and believe God is real, few of these Native kids have known Him to be personally and deeply interested in them.

Finding fruit in unexpected places
Cunningham began to change that when he and his leaders began getting to spend time with Mt. Edgecumbe kids. There Cunningham met Jason, a freshman from the village of Tuntutuliak. Jason went to camp following his freshman year where he realized that being a Christian was not boring, but instead, fun and life changing.

Kids like Jason are drawn to Christ and many make faith commitments, but following Christ in their villages as a new Christian is a challenge, Cunningham said. Drug and alcohol use is prevalent in the villages among both kids and adults. And because the use of drugs and alcohol is so widely accepted, to choose otherwise is bold. The result of widespread substance abuse is fragmented families. Very few kids go home to intact families. “A healthy Christ-centered family is rare,” Cunningham said. “Kids are often raised by their extended families.”

For Jason and Cunningham, a friendship that began with casual conversation has become a relationship of depth and trust. Jason, whose father lives in another village and is not involved in Jason’s life, said, “Cunningham is like my father figure.”

In April 2007, Jason traveled with Cunningham to Seattle, Wash., to speak to members of the Young Life Board of Trustees. The trip was an adventure for Jason who photographed everything he saw and said he was “living like royalty.” At the meeting, Jason shared what Young Life has meant to him and then Jason prayed in Yup’ik, his native tongue.

Jason said, “I thanked God for bringing me here to meet these wonderful people. And I thanked Him for letting me experience what other kids have not so that I can share with kids my own age and inspire them and tell them how God has changed my life and made me a happier person.”

In a language that means “real people,” Jason prayed words that echo the heart of Young Life since its beginning in 1941 and the call that led Cunningham and his family to Sitka six years ago — that every kid would be seen as “real” and that each would know the love of Jesus who seeks them out, even in the bush of Alaska.