Severna Park Methodists Lay A Foundation In Alaska

Group Helps Buildchurch Overlooking Glacier

June 18, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Volunteers from the Severna Park United Methodist Church expected toget good and wet when they went to build a church in Alaska last month. After all, it rains 300 days of the year there.

But during their 11-day sojourn laying the foundation for the first Methodist church in the Mendenhall Valley in Juneau, it rained only once.

"We were lucky," says Mel Merritt, a local homebuilder who directed the 27 volunteers. "We were blessed."

The group, one of severalmission teams building the church this summer, finished the foundation work ahead of schedule. Spectacular views of snowcapped mountains surround the new church, which overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier. But the location posed special challenges for the builders, Merritt says.

For one thing, the area is subject to occasional earthquakes and,because of the glaciers, winds that can reach 225 mph. The structurehad to have a special foundation and extra details to hold it together.

The glaciers also produce ground that's littered with huge chunks of glacial gravel, making construction even more difficult. "We were moving boulders a foot in diameter, shoving rocks around when we put the dirt back in the foundation," Merritt says.

In this Last Frontier, the mission team moved 162 yards of earth by hand.

For some of the volunteers, scrounging sleep during the brief hours of darkness between midnight and 4 a.m. was the toughest challenge.

"At 11 p.m. it was still broad daylight, and you didn't want to go to sleep," Merritt says. "And then you'd wake up at 4 because it was bright out. A lot of people didn't get a lot of sleep."

The job was worthdoing, though, simply because it fulfilled the biblical command to "go out and help other people," Merritt says. "And you have the opportunity of meeting people in interesting places."

The church began as a dream of John Campbell, a Methodist missionary who went to Juneaufive years ago to start a ministry.

With the help of John's wife,Bonnie, and his mother, 75-year-old May Campbell of Glen Burnie, Campbell started Aldersgate Methodist from nothing and worked to make itgrow to today's 100-member congregation.

But until this summer, the members had no place of their own to meet.

The Baltimore UnitedMethodist Church conference came to the rescue by sending Volunteersin Mission teams, such as the Severna Park group.

Half a dozen other Methodist teams from the Baltimore-Washington area will finish the construction work in shifts during July and August, says Warren Ebinger, pastor of Severna Park United Methodist.

Ebinger, who also went on the trip, says the church raised money for traveling expenses by organizing weekly brunches for the last six months. Each team member also kicked in an extra $300. The Severna Park church put up the money for construction materials of the 4,000-square-foot building.

Merritt, a homebuilder in Anne Arundel County, isn't a novice at volunteering his services. He also works as a construction supervisor with Habitat for Humanity in the county.

But visiting Alaska was a rare opportunity, he says.

"It's very easygoing there, very egalitarian. You'll see two-bedroom duplexes next to four-bedroom executive mansions. It's like they're still living with a frontier spirit there, helping each other out. It's quite a change."

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