Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Kitchen Ministry

By Simon Gonzalez, Samaritan’s Purse web editor

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2.

My personal “cloud of witnesses” just grew by two people. Freshly inducted into my faith hall of fame are Carolyn Bennett and Renae Temperle, the cooks who fix meals for the staff at Samaritan Lodge Alaska in Port Alsworth.

Carolyn, 62, is from upstate New York, near Albany. Renae serves alongside her husband, Wayne, who is the head of maintenance. They originally are from Michigan, but have lived in Fairbanks for 10 years.

Both started working here as volunteers, serving other volunteers who came to Alaska to build the facility that’s the foundation of Operation Heal Our Patriots, the new outreach to wounded military members and their spouses. Both stayed, joining the small staff that operates the lodge.

I met the two wonderful women during a trip to Port Alsworth to cover the dedication of the new facility and to document the first four couples to come here.

Carolyn and Renae work behind the scenes, cooking delicious food for the staff who minister to the guests.

“This is the hub of the place,” Carolyn said. “Renae and I are the grease.”

Along with meals, they serve up wisdom, encouragement, and prayer.

“For me, it’s all about people,” Renae said. “The kitchen is where people come. Nurturing is a good word. But it’s not just nurturing by food. It’s talking with people, and praying with people.”

My first experience with their nurturing came the night before the dedication. I was sitting in the dining hall, trying to work, and feeling stressed because the Internet was down. Carolyn told me not to worry. God is in this place, she said. Relax, and enjoy His presence.

It was good advice. God was present in the majestic mountains and lake surrounding the lodge. He was present in the love shown by the staff to the guests, and to each other. He might even have been present in the marvelous cookies that are available 24/7.

And He definitely was present in the testimony of my two new friends.

Carolyn came to Port Alsworth as a volunteer assistant cook in August, intending to work for a month. She agreed to stay until December. She went home for a month, then was asked to came back in January and winter over.

Working for Samaritan’s Purse was more than just a job. It was service, and missions work. But winter in Alaska is brutal. After having a brief taste of it in December, the decision to return wasn’t easy.

“When I first came up here, I said come on, God, let’s go to Alaska. It’ll be fun. Come, follow me,” she said. “It was fun in August. You can do it in your own strength. When it got cold, and dark, and they asked me to come back, I had a crisis of faith. But God said, trust me.”

In winter, it gets dark by 11 a.m. Temperatures reach 40-below zero. And colder. Trusting God proved to be more difficult than expected.

“I went back in the middle of January in my own strength,” she said. “Then, after a couple of weeks, I laid on that kitchen floor and said I can’t do this anymore, God. It was a trial. But all winter long, God would send what I consider love letters. It could be a sunrise, or a person speaking encouragement, or a letter. He was saying, ‘I’m here. I know what you’re going through.’

“You’re a pot on the potter’s wheel. You’re starting to look good. Then he knocks you off the wheel, and breaks you, and starts to form you all over again. It’s a never-ending process. The whole idea is you’ve got to listen. And then you’ve got to do it. It’s been an incredible spiritual journey. It’s kind of like the refiner’s fire.”

At one of Carolyn’s low moments, when she was feeling overwhelmed, she cried out to God. She needed help. Renae was the answer to that prayer.

Renae had served with Samaritan’s Purse at other project sites in Alaska, in Crooked Creek and Kwigillingok, and had her own crisis of faith during an earlier deployment.

“It’s a big responsibility,” she said. “Meals are important for the volunteers, for strength and fellowship. Fear came over me. Am I good enough? I had to literally surrender myself. Lord, I can’t do this. I have to surrender to you. I had a lot of fear.”

That prepared her to work at Samaritan Lodge Alaska. She is unfailingly cheerful, upbeat, and encouraging. In my short time at the camp, I must have seen her praying with people half a dozen times.

“It’s a calling,” she said. “I feel called to do it. You have so many opportunities to pray.”

The calling also includes paying extra attention to make sure the meals are nutritious and delicious.

“When they walk though the door and you feed them a meal, it’s like saying well done,” Renae said. “Just like Jesus will say to us. The food is a motivation. Someone is saying thank you. I’ve never been more tired on a job as I have here. But when I go to bed, I have a feeling of contentment.”