When Alan and Babs Dial arrived in Alaska, they were embarking on an extraordinary change in their ministry to native peoples in Africa where they had served with the International Mission Board.
In Alaska, Alan would serve as the native church planter catalyst for the state Baptist convention; in the southern African country of Lesotho, the couple had ministered among the Basotho people.
In addition to bracing for the change in temperature – in Lesotho, the average temperature had been about 59 degrees – the Dials also arrived in Alaska with two adopted teenage African sons, Gideon (Howie) Mohau, which means grace and peace, and Daniel Karabo, which means answer to prayer.
Alan and Babs Dial served in the southern African kingdom of Lesotho before moving to Alaska where they focused on church planting among native Alaskans.
A request from Mike Procter, the Alaska Baptist Convention’s (ABC) executive director, nudged them toward yet another change. At a retreat for pastors and wives, Procter asked the Dials to visit Tok (pronounced with a long o), which some claim is the coldest continually inhabited place in North America.
“Seventy degrees below zero is not unusual in winter,” Alan said. “Fifty below is a mild winter. It’s not too bad.”
“Life doesn’t stop at those temperatures,” Babs said. “Alaskans dress for it with their heavy-duty boots and clothes. Alaskans are hardy, hardy people.”
Southern Baptists owned an abandoned church facility in Tok, and Procter was looking for ideas to maximize the structure.
After several days in Tok, Alan returned and wrote a proposal to repurpose the facility.
“Instead of going in and starting a church, we’d be better off starting a missions resource training center,” Alan had concluded.
Procter agreed and made a second request of the Dials – to move to Tok and start the Upper Tanana Valley Regional Church Planting Center (RCPC).
Native Alaskans readily accepted Howie Dial (left) and his brother Daniel, adopted sons of Alan and Babs Dial. The boys are from the Basotho people in southern Africa where the Dials served before moving to Alaska to work among the state’s native people.
Noting their service among an indigenous people group in Africa, Procter said the Dials have “a skill set, training and ability to minister and serve cross-culturally, as well as to develop a ministry from the ‘ground floor’ up.”
Procter said Alaska’s indigenous people, also called Alaska Natives, have five major groups: Aleuts, Northern Eskimos (Inupiat), Southern Eskimos (Yupik), Interior Indians (Athabascan) and Southern Coastal Indians (Tsimshian, Tlingit and Haida). Language is the prevailing descriptor of each, and each includes multiple clans and tribes.
Tok sits in eastern Alaska on the Alaska Highway about four hours by car from Fairbanks. From Tok, the Dials focused on the Athabascans as they directed the work to create a training and housing center for pastoral training of indigenous people.
“The [RCPC] is centered in an under-congregationalized area of Alaska,” Procter said. “One of its main focuses is to identify, equip and empower indigenous leaders to serve as pastors, lay preachers and Bible study leaders in their villages.
“Most of the region’s villages are small and isolated, and employment and housing opportunities are limited, so it is vital that indigenous people become the leaders.”
The Dials, in assessing the region, learned that 105 villages existed within 50 miles on either side of the Yukon River from the Canadian border to the ocean, none with a Christian witness.
And within a 50-mile radius of Tok, they estimated that 40 villages don’t have any kind of Christian worship.
“They need a church in every village,” Babs said.
Alan and Babs Dial adopted two sons, Howie (left) and Daniel, now 13, from the Basotho people in southern Africa. When the family moved to Alaska, both boys became engaged in their parents’ ministry among the state’s indigenous people.
The Dials found Native Alaskans to be spiritually hungry.
“They are feeding that Christ-sized hole in their body with everything except Christ because there is no one there to tell them about Christ,” Alan said.
“No one can reach the native person like a native person,” Babs said. “The whole goal of the center is to raise up indigenous people to go back and train their people.”
The process is admittedly slow. Over the course of a year and a half in Tok, the Dials identified three or four serious candidates interested in pastoral training.
“Once the first one takes the first step, there will be an avalanche,” Alan said.
Their African-born sons have been a great asset in Alaska, said the Dials, who have three adult children, ages 43-39, living in the United States.
“Our sons were engaged in every aspect [of ministry],” Alan said. “They’ve done everything we’ve done since we’ve had them.” Native Alaskans quickly welcomed Daniel and Gideon, the Dials said.
After the RCPC’s start-up period, the Dials have turned the work over to a self-funded Mission Service Corps couple, Jeff and Shelly Sulfridge. Future funding will depend on partner churches from the lower 48 states. Alan will work with the Sulfridges through the summer to help them get established.
“Serving in a bush, village or rural area is one of the most challenging aspects of missions and ministry in Alaska,” Procter said. “The isolation, high cost of living, extreme cold, smallness of the congregations and the challenges associated with cross-cultural ministry and living are very difficult. It takes a unique individual to serve in such areas.”
Alan and Babs each turn 65 this year and felt the need for another change but not retirement. They are settling in Divide, Colo., near Colorado Springs, and are open to planting a church there. Meanwhile, they join Procter in championing missions in the Tok region by encouraging prayer and mission team involvement.
In his last report to the ABC’s annual meeting, Alan wrote: “As we embrace a seemingly new paradigm in the development and training of indigenous Alaskans for ministry and reaching their people with the Gospel, we are continually reminded that we depend fully on the grace and mercy of a patient and understanding Father, a glorious Savior and the Holy Spirit who guides and directs.
“We are nothing in and of ourselves. The success we have seen and enjoy is from above.
“We have been impatient at times only to be reminded that in Christ alone do we succeed and flourish.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Burton is a photojournalist based in Atlanta.)