By Stan Friedman
EAGLE RIVER, AK (April 18, 2012) – The 14-year-old girl stood before other campers at Covenant Bible Camp and told them of the emotional pain that had tormented her and nearly pushed her to suicide.
She then read to them Proverbs 3:5-6 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (NIV). Weeping, the teenager said she was learning more and more the truth of the verse and God’s love for her.
Later, as we walked the grounds of the camp, other teens would say how important it had been for them to hear the story of hope from someone who suffered just like they did. They, too, had seriously considered committing suicide.
The girl was one of the many ministered to by the staff of Covenant Youth of Alaska (CYAK) as well as others in the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska (ECCAK). Despite all their efforts, however, the suicide rate in Alaska among teens and young adults remains alarming and often is referred to as “epidemic.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m just holding back the tide,” says Dan Krause, a former youth pastor who is planting Chugach Covenant Church in east Anchorage.
The desire to turn the tide is why ECCAK has set aside May 1 as a day of prayer and fasting among their congregations. A resolution approved by the ECCAK Annual Meeting in 2011 calls for an annual day of prayer, “for our children and our families that we may be delivered from the peril of suicide in our communities and be healed from the pain that we endure from those whom we have lost already.”
In a letter sent to ECCAK churches about the day of prayer, Field Director Curtis Ivanoff writes, “We are aware of one too many stories of loss – there is hardly a person who has not been touched by it in some way. But we are ambassadors of the good news of the Savior who has conquered the grave, of a living hope in Christ Jesus. My hope is that the prayers lifted up will spur us on in love and good deeds to shine the light of Christ in the face of the darkness of death, not just on May 1, but every day.”
Byron Bruckner, CYAK executive director, says teens and young adults in Alaska are more apt to consider suicide as an option for dealing with their pain because they all know people who took their own lives. Major contributors to the suicide rate are widespread unemployment, alcoholism and sexual abuse in the villages.
“The dramatic loss of language, tradition, and culture in successive generations has made it increasingly difficult for Alaska Native young people to find a sense of self-worth in their cultural identity,” says Ivanoff. “This ongoing pattern has also perpetuated the cycle of depression and suicide.”
Several pastors at the recent ECCAK Annual Meeting said that, ironically, the sense of isolation has increased in remote villages as they connect to the wider world through the Internet and see the broad gap in opportunities.
ECCAK churches are being asked to spend focused time considering how they might further address the issue beyond the efforts of their current ministries. “In recent years, counseling services have expanded at Alaska Christian College in Soldotna and has contributed to students finding healing, says Ivanoff.
“Fledgling mentoring programs also hold promise,” says Bruckner. “Covenant Youth of Alaska works with local churches to create opportunities for young people to share their stories and enter into discipleship relationships. These relationships often take place around productive activities at the center of the culture like hunting, fishing, and practicing hospitality.”
Ivanoff adds, “ECCAK is composed of local churches where people are grieving, healing, growing, and serving together. Our Living God is moving in Alaska to bind up the broken hearted and overwhelm death and despair with life and hope.”