Members of Dillingham’s Moravian congregation crowd into the main room of their new church. A few look down from an indoor balcony on the second floor. The congregation sings hymnal lyrics displayed on TV monitors suspended at the front of the room. It’s the first service in the community’s newest church, and one organization built and paid for it.
“People have been walking all over Dillingham, doing not just this project, but other projects in Dillingham. They’re with an organization called Samaritan’s Purse,” said Andrew Berkoski. He’s a member of the church, and he started off the ceremony.
The Samaritan’s Purse is a non-denominational Christian organization. The website says it “provides spiritual and physical aid” in over 100 countries. Franklin Graham, a famous Christian evangelist and missionary, is the CEO. He’s the son of televangelist Billy Graham, who died in 2018.
This is the 30th project Graham has built in Alaska. Two years ago, the Dillingham Moravian Church submitted a request to the organization for a new church to replace the dilapidated church, which was built in the 50s. Simon Flynn is Dillingham’s pastor.
“The wiring wasn’t up to code,” Flynn explained. “The foundation was struggling. There was no insulation in it. The plumbing needed to be redone. The heating needed to be redone. When they built it – all kinds of code violations today. Especially in regard to elders being able to get in and out of the building and downstairs to the fellowship hall.”
The congregation currently numbers around 100 and barely fit in the old church. During construction over the summer, members met in the elementary school gym for service.
This isn’t the first church the organization has built in Bristol Bay. Samaritan’s Purse opened a church in Togiak in 2016. In an email, the media relations coordinator said that while the church-building program in Alaska is donor-funded, “Our teams make the decision where to build a church based on a ministry’s expressed need. We have a desire to support existing ministries who are isolated but are focused on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
During the first service, many people expressed their excitement and gratitude for the new building. Jeanie Timmerman has lived in Dillingham and worked with the congregation for decades. She said this church was the answer to years of prayer.
“We’re so excited. One thing we’re so excited by is the whole children’s program’s in here without, like, mice running around, and other things that happened in the old church. So we’re so grateful for that,” she said, laughing.
That day, project manager Mark Waters, and Kevin Lynch, the construction superintendent, stood in the church’s brand-new playroom. Waters said it took them only 16 weeks to complete construction of the church from start to finish. But the planning took a little longer.
“They were working on it a couple years,” Waters said. “They were supposed to build it last year, but for some reason or another they didn’t come up ’til this year, so we’ve been planning it out since January.”
The building cost approximately $2 million – the majority of which was paid for by the Samaritan’s Purse. The organization doesn’t run churches; they work with local congregations to build new structures.
Lynch said the 280 volunteers who built the church came from all over the Lower 48 and belonged to many different denominations.
“So every Monday, we got a new group of somewhere between 12 and 16 volunteers that came up on their money and on their vacations to build a building,” he said.
Berkoski thanked the Samaritan’s Purse by presenting the project leaders with wood cutting boards made of pews from the old church. During the service, the church’s Yup’ik choir performed by singing Christian hymns in Yup’ik.
Violet Warman has been living and working in Alaska since 1955 when she came to Dillingham to work in the Moravian Church, where she worked for years. She lives in Anchorage now. The opening service took place the day after her 91st birthday.
“What’s the meaning of the church in Dillingham? It’s home for me,” she said. “It’s just… I just… Anchorage is not home. It’s where I live. But Dillingham is home, and the people are my people. I love them so much.”
The Samaritan’s Purse plans to build more churches in Alaska next year.