Alaska Calling

Alaska is not a place for the timid.”

That was the thought on Brent Cunningham’s mind at the Young Life Celebration in January 2016. “It takes people who are willing to be crazy obedient ... radical in their love and dependence on Jesus.”

As the regional director, Cunningham keeps his finger on the pulse of all 254 communities in the state. The simple fact of Alaska’s size creates a number of obstacles. More than twice the size of Texas, Alaska has only five communities with a population greater than 8,000. Eighty percent of the state’s communities can only be reached by boat or plane.

All these factors weighed on Cunningham’s mind in his pursuit of someone to place in Juneau. The state capital had proven to be a real challenge. He thought for months, “If we want to go to the next level ... we have got to get a staff person here.”

That’s when his Juneau volunteer leader, Adam Rice, appeared. As the only Young Life leader in the city for the last four years, Rice was running on fumes. Earlier that day, he ran into Matt Siebert, who was volunteering at the conference.

Matt saw Rice’s name tag and stopped him in the hall. “I told him my daughter works in Alaska,” he said. “I always thought it would be a great experience to live in Juneau.” So he peppered Rice with questions. “Do you have any Young Life going? What’s it like up there?”

The conversation only lasted two minutes, but it was enough to send Rice scrambling to find Cunningham.

The culmination of prayer and obedience

Matt had served on Young Life staff in the 1970s and ’80s in Pasadena, California, and Edmonds, Washington. His love for kids led him to start teaching middle school in Monument, Colorado, in 1991; he retired just five years ago. During these years Matt said, “I was able to establish a consistent daily quality time with the Lord. I had never really had that before. In the process, I kept asking, ‘What do you want me to do next?’”

He credits the five years he spent asking that question for what happened when Cunningham tracked him down a couple days after running into Rice.

“We just talked for half an hour, I gave him a little of my background, he told me a little about Juneau,” Matt said.

“We’ve had a prayer team in Sitka that’s met every Wednesday for the last 15 years praying God would raise up someone in Juneau,” Cunningham said. After all that time, it appeared things might at last begin to fall into place. A few minutes after meeting Matt, he knew he had his man.

“It was like, oh gosh, I don’t care if you’re 70. He then told me he’s 62, and he looks like he’s 40!”

Matt wasn’t ready to say yes. Not then. But the seed was planted. His wife, Barb, remembers how suddenly it all seemed to happen. When she first heard the idea, she wasn’t very excited. “I patted him on the shoulder and said, ‘Have a good time,’” she said.

Matt chewed on the idea for weeks. The decision had consequences, one of which meant leaving family, kids and grandkids, to go on a new adventure 3,000 miles away. “Do you really want to leave your grandkids?” he asked. “And of course the answer is no.”

Barb remembers how they both wrestled with the idea. “I love Juneau,” she said. Their daughter had led whale-watching tours in Juneau for years and the Sieberts had visited many times. She understood Matt’s attraction to the opportunity. “He is a very kind, caring, compassionate person. He loves kids. He wants them to know the Lord.”

They decided to start pursuing the matter with some intention. “I said ‘OK, we need to follow through, fill out an application,’” Matt said, “‘because God will shut the door if He doesn’t want us to be there.’”

God, they discovered, had no intention of closing the door. “Everything kept being a yes,” Matt said.

Cunningham remembers how it came together so quickly. “It wasn’t long before Matt was all in,” he said.

This past August, Matt Siebert took the long drive up to Alaska, caught a ferry and set foot in Juneau as the city’s first Young Life staff person. His job as area director started right away. “I’ve worked with kids my whole life, but I haven’t done contact work really for 28 years.”

“He’s at the school every day,” Cunningham says. “His age is a non-issue.”

“I can’t believe I get to do this,” Matt said. “It really is a thrill. And to think that nine months ago, [this] really wasn’t on the radar. And here I am in Alaska. You know, 3,000 miles away from where home was ... and we get to create something new, and something of the Lord. I just sense He’s already been here, and He’s been waiting for us to get here.”

God turns the next page

Barb joined him in their new home about five weeks later and the possibilities that await them have kindled new excitement. “Typically the parents stay put and it’s the kids going off all over the country. We’re doing the exact opposite,” she said. “There could be some crazy things God asks us to do. And we need to be open to hearing what He’s asking us to do and not necessarily stay with the status quo.”

Matt begins each day asking God to show him where to walk. As he learns students’ names, and as he meets more people in the community, he has started laying the groundwork for a deep ministry. “The big thing is I keep showing up,” he said. “We’re here for the long haul. This is an ultra-marathon. We’re going to do it right. If it takes time, which it’s going to, that’s what we need to do.”

“It is a miracle,” Cunningham said. He sees the arrival of the Sieberts as the culmination of God’s long, assiduous work. “Really, this is God’s story,” he said. “This is Him doing a work to reach kids all over Alaska.”

“We’re going to witness a lot of miracles, I think,” said Barb.

Matt views the work ahead with tireless awe. He feels the confidence of who God made him to be. “He’s the one who called me here and we’re expecting Him to show up in lots of different ways,” he said. “He wasn’t ready to show me until my heart was right. God can use you in kids’ lives no matter what your age is.”