Hope in the Wilderness

To say the predominantly Native American town of Bethel, Alaska, is remote is an understatement. Located on the west coast of the nation’s largest geographical state, Bethel is 400 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by boat or airplane.

The 7,000 inhabitants don’t live in a picturesque village depicted in Alaska travel brochures. Bethel’s low-lying flatlands are cold and wet much of the year, and with the brief warmer summer weather comes clouds of bugs. More than 11 percent live below the poverty line, and there are problems of homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, and domestic violence.

Yet Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries missionaries Anthony and Kristin Nelson, along with their seven children, are sharing the gospel through actions that, in a community historically leery of missionaries, speak volumes.

They launched what has become the Bethel Dream Center in September 2013, and making a difference ever since. They serve a hot meal, provide a bed on a subzero night, and give drug and alcohol counseling one soul at a time.

“From the beginning, our ambition has been to do the work no one else is doing, or wants to do,” Anthony Nelson says. “Most people who come to us are at the lowest moments of their lives.”

It began when the Nelsons moved into an aged, donated building.

“Maybe it should have been condemned, but we got to work, and God has sent all kinds of people to help,” Nelson says.

The Nelsons initially raised enough money to make some repairs and to build an apartment on the second floor. That allowed the missionaries to cut down on their overhead, and to reinvest money that would have gone toward a mortgage back into their ministry.

Still, the downstairs of the structure — where the Dream Center and its programs would be based — remained unfinished as funds ran short. At first, the Nelsons served hot soup to the hungry on the streets of Bethel, and when Alaska’s long, harsh winter came, the soup line moved into a first-floor hallway.

A building project by Samaritan’s Purse at the nearby Alaska Bible Seminary helped the Nelsons secure the critical first floor improvements needed to move the feeding program — along with a children’s ministry, youth, and other activities — inside a warm, welcoming environment. The Moravian Church, the seminary’s sponsor, initially donated the Dream Center’s building.

Samaritan’s Purse project manager Dan Burton suggested helping out the Nelsons when the organization concluded work at the seminary. The Nelson family cooperation with other denominations to address urgent local needs impressed Burton.

“We could see that Anthony has a lot more vision for the community than any other groups there,” Burton says.

The Nelsons have officiated at funerals for locals who have died too young, and offered words of comfort and hope in the wake of a string of suicides. The Nelsons believe they have helped make a dent in the toll of depression by working with others to listen to the suffering and counsel them in practical and spiritual matters.

One was Rose, a woman from one of the area’s 50-plus native villages who walked into the Dream Center early one morning as a desperate alcoholic near suicide. Anthony and Kristen prayed for her, listened, and encouraged her. Rose returned to her village, and Nelson soon received a text message: Feeling right at home. Awesome feeling. Don’t miss the alcohol at all, thank Jesus.


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