Alaska’s Two Covenant Schools

by Paul Swanson

Rural Alaska is defined as the vast regions of the State not connected to the North American road system and is primarily populated by Alaska natives. In 1887, the Covenant Church began missionary work in one of these rural regions. Only the Orthodox, the Presbyterians, the Friends, and the Moravians, along with the Covenant were doing missionary work among the Alaskan natives at that time. Somehow the Covenant either chose or was assigned the villages around the Norton Sound. Today the church in most of these villages is the “Covenant” church.

The vast majority of rural Alaskans exist by subsistence living, meaning they subsist on fishing, hunting, and berry gathering. However, many young people are resisting this way of the Elders. With television, computers, and video games they dream of other life styles and opportunities, but few leave their village. Opportunities for employment in the villages are very limited. The reality is that more and more young people are losing their lives after high school graduation, to alcohol, drugs, sexual abuse, and suicide.

Many Native Alaskans along with others had the vision of a two-year discipleship college, mainly for Native Alaska youth. In 2000 the vision became a reality with the establishment of Alaska Christian College (ACC) in Soldotna. Keith Hamilton was called as president and in the fall of 2001 he and the staff welcomed the first class of 22 students. Sixteen of these were Native Alaskans and three were Native American Indians from the lower 48 States. This year’s class of 42, of whom 39 are Native Alaskans, is the largest class yet.

The mission statement says that the college exists to “prepare young people for whole-life discipleship…. This is accomplished through offering a faith-centered and general studies education, providing a culturally relevant community that cares for the individual needs of each student, and modeling Godly character in everyday living.” Academically the school is challenging. Each student takes 18 credit hours per quarter and participates in at least one mission trip to the Bush (rural Alaska). At the present the school is in the process of getting full accreditation.

Many students come with a lot of inner strife and deep wounds. ACC continues to be a mission; a place where grace is expressed regularly. It is also a place of healing. The school’s New Hope Counseling Center plays a big role in this healing process.

Students graduate after one year with a Certificate of Biblical Studies. A number, however, desire to stay on for a second year in which they continue studies at ACC and also enroll at the U of Alaska Community College which is just next door and thus can earn an A.A. degree.

The second school, Amundsen Educational Center (AEC), located, as is ACC, in Soldotna, is the fulfillment of another vision. For years Roald Amundsen, Maynard Lundberg, and Don Bruckner, all veteran missionaries in Alaska, and Dr. Robert Fortuine had a dream of a vocational school where Native youth could develop skills that would enable them to provide financially for themselves and their families in rural Alaska. They desired that this education be done in a positive Christian environment where students could learn about the saving, life changing grace of Christ, and be encouraged and strengthened by a community of faith. This vision is clearly stated in the school’s mission statement: “Our Mission: Recruit a small group of primarily Alaska Native students from Rural Alaska each year…. Bring them into a village-like Christian campus to live together with a team of mission-minded instructors…. Enable and equip them to build an entire house together while growing in their faith in Christ…. Provide them with the tools to deal with life’s hurts and develop successful life-skills.”

Each of the last two years the students have built a house together. With a qualified instructor to guide their work from framing and pouring the foundation to the final preparing to sell the house, the students do all aspects of the home construction themselves. With this opportunity the AEC students have the unique opportunity to build an entire house as a team and gain the confidence that they have skills necessary to be employed in the Alaska construction industry.

Like ACC the Amundsen school is beginning its seventh season. This year there are four first year students who will work to achieve the Certificate of Resident Construction and one second year student who will work for the Advanced Certificate. All the students are Native Alaskans. AEC is authorized by the Alaskan Commission on Post-Secondary Education to offer these certificates. The Executive Director of this school is Mark Hill who has worked in the Alaskan Bush with the Covenant Church for a number of years.

Both of these schools are connected with the Covenant Church of Alaska. ACC is an official institution of the Alaska conference. AEC is a partnering ministry of the Covenant Youth of Alaska.

I have spent the last three summers working with the Covenant Church in Alaska. Two of these summers brought me to both of the schools. I worked on building projects and when school started in the fall, as resident counselor at Amundsen Educational Center. Much of my time, however, was spent at the Covenant Bible Camp at Unalakleet visiting and preaching in some of the Bush churches. At Covenant Bible Camp I met and worked with a number of graduates of these schools, especially graduates of Alaska Christian College, and in that context I observed their commitment, maturity, and dedication. Even though the schools have been in existence for fewer than ten years their reputation throughout Rural Alaska and in the Native villages is very positive. I am very impressed with the leadership, the mission, and the graduates of both of these schools.

Byron Bruckner, who grew up in a missionary home in Alaska and is now Director of Youth Work for the Covenant in Alaska, reminded me that the Covenant has a strong history of education in Alaska. Desiring to prepare Native youth to live in a rapidly changing world they began Covenant High School in Unalakleet, a premiere school which produced the first native medical doctor, the first native lawyer, the first native Senator and the first native 747 pilot along with many of the village and church leaders in Western Alaska. These two schools, ACC and AEC, continue this tradition of sound academic and vocational training within the context of Christian discipleship. In the six years of its existence Alaska Christian College has had over 150 students. Some of these have gone on to college, a number are in the military, one is at Annapolis, and many are active citizens in their villages and in their churches.

When one looks at the staggering needs, especially of the young people in these rural areas as they face the ravages of alcoholism, drugs, sexual abuse, and boredom, questions arise, “Has the work of the missionaries been to any avail?” “Does the Church have any real impact on these communities?” Quoting Bruckner again, “One has only to look at those who have excelled in Native leadership and you will see that most have had the positive help, support, and influence of the ministry of the church in their life.”

Working with some of these young people at the schools and at Bible camp I often heard testimonies or comments saying, “If it wasn’t for the Church ministries and my relationship with Christ, I would be dead or in real trouble.” I see these two schools and the work of the Covenant Youth of Alaska as one of the Covenant’s most exciting mission fields. The need is not only for financial support for student scholarships to the schools and camp, but also for dedicated young people who are willing to give a year or so doing cross cultural ministry as youth leaders in villages in rural Alaska.

[*Mark Hill, Executive Director of Amundsen Educational Center reported: “Three months after graduation, May 5, 2007, four AEC graduates were working in the construction trade or seeking further education. Jordan has joined the staff as an Assistant Instructor.” For more information about opportunities for service and experience in Alaska, you can contact Keith Hamilton, President of Alaska Christian College:KJHAMILTON@aol.com; Mark Hill, Director of Amundsen Educational Center: mark@aecak.org; or Byron Bruckner, Director of Covenant Youth of Alaska: byron@cyak.org — Ed.]

Paul Swanson, former much-appreciated teacher at Minnehaha Academy, is a member of Bethlehem Covenant Church.

See all articles by Paul Swanson