After my first year of college, I worked for a summer in Southeast Alaska as a Presbyterian Volunteer in Mission with a group of other college-age students from across the U.S. It was 1979, and my first ever mission experience. We were sent to a variety of settings and remote villages throughout the Alaska panhandle, mostly to lead Vacation Bible Schools at Presbyterian churches. My assignment was to the towns of Wrangell and Skagway, plus the Rainbow Glacier Camp near Haines as a summer camp counselor.
I wasn’t a likely candidate for this VIM program. In my application I’d written that I wasn’t a church member or church goer, and furthermore that I was skeptical about Christianity. The truth was that I’d come away from my freshman year full of incoherent thoughts, a distorted sense of self-importance, and an impulse for questioning authority. By accepting me that summer, the Presbyterian Church extended God’s grace to me in an amazing way, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
The first part of our orientation was in Juneau, and the second part on a mission boat named the MV Anna Jackman. (MV stands for “motor vessel.”) What I remember most about our orientation was how I openly identified myself as an atheist. On the Anna Jackman, we slept in cramped bunks below deck, and I was overcome with seasickness. It was certainly worth it, however, because coastal Alaska was a paradise of sights and sounds. The friendly skipper steered up inlets alongside waterfalls, glaciers, and to areas where sea-life could be viewed up close.
The boat stopped near a stream where salmon were spawning. Throngs of fish were dying after having laid their eggs. Hiking along the stream’s edge with another volunteer, I shared with him my many doubts about the Christian religion. He patiently heard me out, seeming to get my points of view. Unfortunately I can’t recall his name. Back at the dock, prior to boarding, he turned to me and said, “Philip, I’d like to pray for you. Is that okay?”
Struck by the boldness of this gesture from one of my peers, I answered, “Sure, I guess so.” On that spot, he placed his hand on my shoulder, and thanked God for me. He prayed that somehow I’d come to know Christ through my travels and experiences, and that my life be filled with spiritual peace. At the time I didn’t realize how important that moment was for me. I didn’t become a believer in Christ right away, but I sensed that somehow God was embracing me. And my fellow volunteer’s action stayed with me, how he cut through my intellectualizing with something as simple as a heartfelt prayer. The rest of the summer in Alaska contained lots of meaningful events and encounters, but in the long run nothing made an impression like that prayer alongside the Anna Jackman.