While Anchorage debates how it will shelter unhoused residents this winter, hundreds of people are still sleeping at the emergency shelter at the Sullivan Arena each night as they try to move out of homelessness.
As they await jobs or apartments, some shelter clients have been studying the Bible at a weekly meeting, finding purpose and camaraderie during a difficult time in their lives.
“My life changed, and my heart,” said Seth Daniel Fotsch about the group. He’s been staying at the Sullivan Arena since last week.
Moses Aguilar, who leads the group, said he saw the need while working with clients at the Sullivan kitchen. Aguilar got permission from the city and Bean’s Cafe officials to start a ministry inside.
“I noticed there was a lack of churches reaching out to the poor,” he said. “She said that she thought it was a really great idea.”
With that, Breaking the Chains Ministry was born. It’s been around for about five weeks.
On Monday evening, about 10 people flipped through Bibles around a foldout lunch table in the middle of the mezzanine at the Sullivan Arena. Nearby, people picked up meals from the concession stands. Others watched action movies in the lounge area. The study began with a prayer from Aguilar.
“The highest calling that you’ve given anyone, Father, is to share the gospel message with, with the poor. So, Lord, what greater place to be than been right here at the Sullivan arena,” he said.
For Aguilar, helping Sullivan guests find God isn’t dogmatic. He experienced the power of his belief firsthand in how it helped him break from his addictions, he says. A year ago, he arrived in Anchorage and stayed on a cot on the Sullivan Arena floor for several weeks. He got linked up with service providers and Response Church, a local ministry. He’s moved out of the Sullivan and has a full-time job.
The next hour and a half, Aguilar read verses and lead discussions. Sometimes there were disagreements about Biblical interpretation, but Aguilar sounded more like a long-time pastor than someone who recently completed an 8-month theology course. He said his purpose is embodied by a Bible verse, Galatians 2:20.
“I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me,” he said.
During the study, a few passersby stopped and listened. A few pulled up a chair, opened a Bible and jumped into the discussion. After analyzing text, the last few minutes are always reserved for corporate prayer.
Connections to life’s tribulations are close at hand for his group — perhaps more so than for most churches.
“I pray for all fanatics that are using meth and needles. I pray for my cousin Julie, who got released from prison early because she’s got four months left from cancer. I pray for all of us, God,” said Scotty Allen Ball, one of the parishioners.
A worshipper who gave her name as Angel, her English name, and An, a Yup’ik name, said the group has motivated her to pursue her goal of finishing a 2-year degree at Alaska Christian College in Nikiski.
“I’m gonna wake up early every day,” she said. “And I’m sure God’ll lead me to where I need to be.”
For some, the group feels serendipitous for a difficult time in their lives.
Worshipper Fotsch, 44, didn’t have a place to live when he arrived in Alaska from Idaho in April, so he found a camping spot in the woods near Taku Lake. He was a few years out from a suicide attempt and then a near-fatal car wreck that left him hospitalized. One day a few weeks ago, something hit him he couldn’t explain.
“I fell on my knees and started crying out there in the wild,” he said.
Fotsch decided that despite his PTSD from childhood abuse, it was time to check into the Sullivan Arena’s mass shelter. That’s when he met Aguilar.
“He’s freaking a godsend,” said Fotsch, who said he hadn’t practiced religion for decades, and only learned to read four years ago. Now, he feels filled by the Holy Spirit, he said. He no longer cares about his material possessions, which were recently stolen when he was camping in the woods.
“It’s an uncomfortable feeling. But it’s a good feeling,” he said. “And I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m still not used to it.”
The only thing he regrets is that his mother isn’t alive to see him find God.
Aguilar said that while the ministry is still small, he wants to see it grow. He’s working with his church and mentors to put together a discipleship school for people coming out of homelessness or prison.
“Through my life and example, there could be many more like me coming from something like this,” he said. “And we can see a lot of change happening even with this shelter.”
This story has been updated to correct a reference in a quotation and to correct the name of the ministry.