Willow United Methodist Church in Willow, Alaska, is small in number, but mighty in serving.

Life in Willow isn’t easy. Winters are long, cold and dark. Summers, with about 20 hours of daylight, are when much of the work has to get done.

Willow UMC
Willow UMC church members serve their community with fresh food boxes in the winter when fresh goods are hard to come by and expensive. Photos courtesy of Rev. Christina DowlingSoka

The town is about an hour and a half north of Anchorage and has a population of about 2,000 in the whole “metropolitan” area. Willow UMC hosts about 50 people on a “good Sunday” and about 35 or 40 on a regular one. They have one adult Sunday School class with about a dozen members.

Husband and wife co-pastors Joe-d and Christina DowlingSoka arrived in Willow last July after 25 years of service in the Holston Annual Conference in Tennessee. Both said it was exciting to see the many ways Willow members joyfully serve the community.

Rev. Christina said she and Rev. Joe-d inherited a church already strong in service when they arrived. The former pastor, Rev. Daniel Wilcox, and Deaconess Fran Lynch had long tenures at the church and had modeled service to the Willow community.

She said the congregation sees serving others as a tangible way to show the love of Christ. They want to be the hands and feet of Jesus as they cut firewood, stock the food pantry, distribute food baskets, volunteer in the local school and public library, and offer warm fellowship to those who are far away from family.

Rev. Joe-d preached through the book of Luke last fall. He said there is no better book in the Bible to describe how Jesus and the disciples blessed the people by service. Using scripture as a foundation, the people learned about being current-day disciples. He teaches the truth of the adage “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Several of the church members are retirees from the lower 48 who came to Willow after they retired. Rev. Joe-d said like himself and his wife, many of these retirees had always dreamed of living in Alaska but didn’t have the opportunity to move there until after retirement.

Willow UMC
A VIM team from Columbus, Nebraska, came to serve at Willow UMC and wound up as part of the town’s 4th of July parade. Church pastor, the Rev. Joe-d DowlingSoka, marches behind the cart.

It’s a blessing to the church, Rev. Joe-d said, that most of these people have been life-long United Methodists, active in their churches. They came to Willow with good training in discipleship, in Scripture knowledge, and a history of service. When they got to the church, they hit the ground running, fully anticipating getting involved in the church’s ministries. They believe that serving is what you do when you love Jesus.

With a large portion of the membership being retirement age, there are few young children in the church. But the teenagers, several of whom were confirmed last summer, are strong members with good leadership skills.

UMC Volunteers in Mission teams come in the summer to help chop tons of firewood that is distributed to people throughout the winter. These teams help with repairs to the church and work in the food pantry.

Rev. Christina said these teams’ contributions are beyond blessings. The work they do is critical for giving the church the means to serve throughout the winter.

Both the church and its food pantry receive funds from The Advance. Contributions primarily fund salary support for the pastors, enabling Willow UMC to have full time pastoral leadership. Funds for the food pantry allow the church to offer not only food, but also emergency assistance, holiday projects like the Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets, and program and salary support for food pantry director Ola Williams.

Willow UMC
A VIM team from Columbus, Nebraska, came to serve at Willow UMC and chopped and stacked firewood for the church to use and share during the long, cold winter.

Showing Willow, Alaska, the love of Christ means getting outside the church building and being the hands and feet of Jesus. Helping those in need, whatever those needs are, is discipleship in action.

As we grow in our process of being disciples, we will begin to see that we are ministering “with” others, rather than just “to” others. Discipleship requires relationship. When we model Christ, we invest our lives in the lives of others.