This story was written by Sophie Tocktoo and Ava White
The village of Koyuk gathered to celebrate the grand re-opening of the village’s only church over the weekend (Oct. 7). Last fall, the building was heavily impacted by Typhoon Merbok and resulted in a closure. The church was rebuilt over the summer, entirely by volunteers.
Curtis Ivanoff of Unalakleet is the superintendent for the church in Koyuk. He reached out to Samaritan’s Purse, an international nonprofit, about an organization that provides physical aid to churches around the world late last year. Ivanoff says before the remodel, the church didn’t have running bathrooms, a water system, or even electricity.
“Some of the ceilings were coming down in a couple of the rooms.There were cracks inside the walls, mostly on the downside, or the river side of the building. So it was not safe.”
Russel Richardson is a foreman for Samaritan’s Purse and traveled to Koyuk in May. He says he knew exactly how much material was needed to build a church that would last a century. The Samaritan’s Purse, he says, is committed to building a new church in rural Alaska every year.
“Last year was in Scammon Bay. The year before was the COVID year, but before that was Dillingham and Ruby. We built, I think some are upwards of 30 projects.”
Beyond building the church, Richardson took it upon himself to help fix the homes of community members, fixing the internet, and helped with water and sewer issues. He used equipment from the Koyuk City Council, City Clerk, the IRA Tribal Coordinator and Council, Koyuk Native Corporation, water plant operators, and residents of the community.
“The first part is always the hardest, trying to be in a new place where we don’t know the people and trying to get help from people. And you know, ‘can we borrow your equipment? Can we borrow your trailer?’ Fortunately, the town just welcomed us with open arms and anything we needed.”
During his four months in Koyuk, Richardson built lasting relationships with the residents of Koyuk. He received the Inupiaq name, “Kakisaaq.”
Samaritan’s Purse confirmed the project in December and just three months later in March, the local pastor, Don Cross, and residents of the village began tearing down the old church.
Over a hundred (105) volunteers came to the village starting in May to help and construction lasted about 15 weeks. Each week, volunteers flew from around the country to help with the rebuilding of the church.
“Seven men every week, got off that airplane Monday morning and gave it their time and money to resources to come up here and work for free. We had five to six staff members at all times, manage that team.”
Kristen Holbern was one of those volunteers. She says the volunteer crew didn’t run into many challenges.
“I guess the logistical challenges of, you know, getting supplies here, and in a timely manner.”
Holbern had been in Koyuk since the beginning of June (June 3) and says her favorite part of the summer was the connections she’s made within the community.
“And each time I flew back [from getting supplies], the moment I saw Koyuk from the air I felt like I was coming home.”
Pastor Don Cross has been a pastor for the church for the last four years. He says the new building is already making a difference in the community. Cross says he hopes to fill the new facility’s full to capacity of 115 people. He says he has seen lots of new and returning faces since the beginning of the rebuilding of the church.
“It’s inclusive. It’s for anyone that wants help. I think there’ll be a lot of people that maybe don’t normally come.
He adds that the organization has made a lasting impact on the community of Koyuk.
Koyuk Covenant Church continues to provide gathering services, Sunday school for all ages, morning and evening service, choir practice, Tuesday night prayer group, Wednesday is Bible study.
Photo at top: Photo of the rebuilt covenant church taken at the grand reopening (Sophie Tocktoo/KNOM)