By Stan Friedman
DETROIT, MI (June 28, 2013) – Pastor Nathan Toots, one of the most influential leaders in developing the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska (ECCAK), was honored with the Irving C. Lambert Award today during the 128th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
The award generally has been given to recognize excellence in urban ministry, but Debbie Blue, the denomination’s executive minister of the Compassion, Mercy, and Justice, said it was appropriate for Toots to be honored.
Irving devoted himself to the needs of the urban disadvantaged, working to unleash any resources available, whether they be local community, national, or church,” Blue said in an interview. “He cared for any persons in need and supported programs that honestly sought to meet that need. This spirit of commitment must be evident in the life, attitude and actions of the person chosen to receive The Irving Lambert Award.
“This truly exemplifies Nathan. The needs in Alaska are most definitely along the same line as those on the margins in the lower 48.”
Toots served as pastor of Shaktoolik Covenant Church and Scammon Bay Covenant Church, and as associate pastor at First Covenant Church in Anchorage. He also served as associate field director for ECCAk.
Field Director Curtis Ivanoff accepted the award on behalf of Toots, who was unable to attend for health reasons.
“Nathan’s ministry in Alaska has had a wide and deep impact, leaving a legacy of courageous faith in Christ,” Ivanoff said. “Nathan reflected the compassion of Christ in the way that he advocated for those who suffered abuse and who had deep struggles of despair.”
Toots was instrumental in establishing an annual day of prayer for the Alaskan villages to be delivered from suicide, Ivanoff said. “He was a champion for youth ministry, affirming many of our young leaders to help give them wings to their faith and mentoring many along the way. He helped us live out the unity that we have in Christ, helping people to bridge the gap between Alaska Native and western culture, speaking truth into those challenges.”
Former Field Director Rodney Sawyer said Toots provided invaluable assistance in making sure the bridges were built.
“Nathan really helped me when handling delicate situations in particular bush church settings,” Sawyer said. “I always passed all written correspondences through his wise eyes to ensure that I was being culturally sensitive. Almost without fail, he provided wisdom in wording to ensure that there were not narratives that could be taken wrong and misunderstood. He was a cultural craftsman for words out of the ECCAK office.”
Toots sought the advancement of educational and occupational opportunities for Native Alaskans. He was one of the driving forces for starting Alaska Christian College. He served as the school’s board chair for many years.
“He gave us the perspective we needed- the perspective of an Alaskan Native elder pastor to guide and direct our steps during some of the most critical decisions of ACC’s history,” said the school’s president, Keith Hamilton.
Toots was a strong proponent for women in ministry. “This also played itself out with his wife, Isabelle, who was often a part of counseling couples who were experiencing problems,” Sawyer said. “Nathan was well aware of his wife’s contribution in spiritually discerning matters beyond his insight.”
Isabelle died June 17.
Toots grew up in a small village after being adopted by an elderly couple. “They could neither speak nor write the English language; however they modeled Christ and taught the teaching of the scriptures by asking questions like, ‘What did you learn in Sunday school?’ or ‘What did the preacher preach on?’ ” Toots once wrote.“
Despite those role models, Toots said, he began a “rebellious lifestyle” that started when he was a teenager and lasted more than 20 years. Those years included a bitter divorce and several DUI arrests, fallouts from his alcoholism.
Toots said his life turned around on December 19, 1973, when “my memory took me to my former years of growing up in the church; and for no apparent reasons, tears began to flow. Following the long evening of not being able to determine the cause of what was happening to me, I concluded that God might be speaking to me and trying to get my attention.
“After much contemplation, I knelt at the foot of my bed and prayed an awkward prayer asking Jesus to come into my life, pleading for forgiveness and deliverance from alcoholism.”
The way he responded to the belief among many Native churches at the time that Toots’ divorce disqualified him from any leadership role was emblematic of his entire ministry, Sawyer said.
“I never heard Nathan preach from the scriptures on this, but rather, over the years, his life and testimony allowed for his opposition to see the hand of God on him. Consequently, his exemplary life was his sermon on this matter.”