Even in summer, Togiak, Alaska, is effortlessly quiet, mostly empty of human voices. The stillness is punctuated occasionally by the rattle of all-terrain vehicles, gulls overhead, and that beautifully haunting, hollow call the ravens make from roof crests and lamp posts. A few dogs may bark aimlessly and sometimes a plane lands with a buzz on the airstrip.
Perhaps it’s a quiet that the village naturally maintains around non-natives who inevitably find their way up to the tundra for fishing, hunting, curiosity, or, in the case of Samaritan’s Purse, to construct a building and parsonage for the Togiak Moravian church.
Togiak is not the kind of place that you stumble upon by accident. It takes weeks to arrive here by boat or barge and is therefore only accessible to most people by air. You land in Anchorage, hop on a prop plane, then, almost three hours later, land farther west at the edge of one of the world’s largest wildlife refuges. You step onto the gravel tarmac. A gentle breeze sweeps across the tundra and brushes your face. Togiak. Population: 817.
When you say you’re going to Togiak, people correct you. “You mean Kodiak?”
For many Americans it seems unimaginable to live in a village of 800 people. Our neighborhoods are bigger than that. Our schools are bigger than that. Some of our congregations far exceed that size. But Togiak is among the largest villages in Alaska, a state that’s more than twice the landmass of Texas but with a population (735,132) smaller than Austin spread among layers upon layers of beautiful, unforgiving landscapes.
There are plenty of other places in Alaska where the native Yupi’k of Bristol Bay might feel comfortable living. In fact, many from Togiak and surrounding villages have moved elsewhere in the state or in the lower 48. But for those who’ve stayed or returned, the way of life and the land itself draws them.
Twenty-four-year-old Rose Gosuk says she enjoys the quiet and the richness of the land. As summer comes to a close, she’ll escape to the tundra to harvest berries and to relish the remaining mildness of this wild place that stretches on for hundreds of miles into increasingly remote terrain.
It’s a land where austerity, solidarity, and tradition are rewarded with survival. There’s a Yupi’k word for this silent survival: nallunguarluku. It means to pretend it never happened.
“I always describe Togiak as a sort of bird’s nest that’s been shaken up,” Rose Gosuk said.
“Everybody’s going about life, and they’re a little jumbled. Sometimes relationships here are toxic, and people are bitter at a distance because they can’t talk about certain subjects. They feel they’ll shame their family. And when you want to talk about it you‘re being hushed and being told ‘no, no, no, that’s not right.’”
“I always describe Togiak as a sort of bird’s nest that’s been shaken up.”
“But you can’t excuse behavior or what happened just because they’re family. That’s more harmful than talking about it. Talking about it may hurt, but then you’re able to finally heal from it.”
Had the Gospel of Christ not infiltrated the Gosuk home, they would have joined the silent majority of Yupi’k. But because Jesus Christ found Rose’s father, Twilly, the Gosuks talk openly about the sin that had entangled their family in cycles of addiction and abuse. Twilly was the son of shamans, Yupi’k witch doctors, and when he accepted Christ his family shunned him.
Twilly is still deeply in touch with the spiritual side of the land he inhabits, because he sees God’s Spirit moving against what seemed a predominant darkness in Togiak and other native villages. Years ago before placing his faith in Jesus, Twilly sat in their living room in a drunken stupor with a rifle barrel in his mouth. When he pulled the trigger, the rifle shot the ceiling. Something unseen had saved him from himself, just as, now, Someone unseen is making His presence known.
There are two distinct areas of Togiak—the “downtown” area by the canneries lining the shore of the Togiak inlet and the area on the hill where new construction is taking place. When Samaritan’s Purse came in the spring of 2016 to construct a new church building and parsonage, the land set aside by tribal officials for the church was the exact spot where believers in Togiak had dreamed it would be.
“I’ve spoken with many people who said they’ve had visions of a church on the hill,” Twilly said.
In September 2016, following months of work and hundreds of Samaritan’s Purse volunteers cycling through the region, we dedicated the new Togiak Moravian Church building to God—a sort of beacon in tundra between the old and new areas of Togiak. The 6,400-square-foot, 11-room worship building will provide the church and community with a well-insulated and heated space with indoor plumbing—luxuries missing from the old building, which made it difficult for large and extended gatherings throughout the long winter months.
“This is the most beautiful thing that’s happened to Togiak in a long time,” said Thomas Dock, an elder at the church and the son of one of the church’s early pastors.
This is one of 26 construction projects Samaritan’s Purse has completed in remote parts of Alaska. And in the words of Margie Frost, it is more than just a building and luxury comforts.
“I’m praying that it will bring more people closer to God—especially our youth, our younger generation,” said Margie, who heads up the Sunday School at the Moravian church. “I really think we need God more than ever, because there are so many different things affecting our younger generation that they’ve never had to deal with before. This includes drugs. I even hear word of heroin in our village, and that‘s never happened before.”
Togiak is a dry village, which means you can’t buy alcohol here. But of course it finds its way, along with illegal drugs, in among the many shipments of goods entering the village by the boat- and planeload. As the hunting and fishing season closes and the people of the Togiak settle in for winter, life will take on a different tempo. Increasingly there will be less for young people to do, and this is when temptation will increase. With only 60 full-time jobs in the village and with subsistence work coming to a standstill for the year, the importance of Gospel engagement grows with the incoming cold.
“When there’s not fish and nothing to harvest and everybody sort of has nothing to do, people start remembering their grievances,” said Rose Gosuk. This, Rose said, can turn people against each other and drive people toward substance abuse. “I think this new church building is important because it gives us something to be proud of, and I think it will draw people. And I hope people will go to church because they want to and not just because they’re supposed to. It’s supposed to be a place where we can talk openly and where we can learn to rely on each other.”
More than 250 people showed up for the dedication of the Moravian church’s building and parsonage, an astounding number in a village so small and in a church where attendance is much smaller.
“Everyone’s excited about this church. They’re talking about it. They’re proud of it,” Rose said. “Having something to be proud of is very important. You see a rundown church or you see a rundown school and you feel that you’re kind of unimportant. I know it’s not supposed to be necessary, but having something to be proud of is kind of important. Having a sense of pride in where you come from is important, too.”
The new building is visible from all over Togiak and even from other villages. Margie Frost says having such a visible, physical presence in the area is encouraging her and other leaders to work harder.
“I want to provide these kids with a safe haven so that they feel God’s love and they also can see it in us,” Margie said. “I pray that as they experience that, that it would lead them to hunger for God, and His Word and for God’s love.”