ANCHORAGE, Alaska — She was a Caldwell, Texas, tomboy who could play tennis or volleyball with the best of the local boys. She was the product of a solid, blue-collar family, with a dad who she thought hung the Texas moon.
In the mid 1970s, Brenda Crim took her God-given athletic ability 30 miles down the road to College Station, where Texas A&M gave her a four-year scholarship to play volleyball as an Aggie.
In a college career driven by athletics, Brenda always thought she’d one day be the coach of a college team. And she didn’t want to be just any coach, but one of the greatest women’s coaches ever.
Fast-forward to last winter. It’s 18 degrees outside with two feet of snow on the ground. Brenda Crim tools down an Anchorage, Alaska, road in her silver Toyota pickup.
Since 2005, Brenda’s served as director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA), and as a North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary.
Though she never realized her dream of becoming a sports coach, today she coaches young people in the toughest spectator sport of them all — life.
Crim is one of more than 5,500 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. She is among the NAMB missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 1-8, 2009.
This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like Crim.
When Brenda was a student back at Texas A&M 30 years ago, she made her decision to follow Jesus Christ.
“I was involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Baptist Student Union at A&M and there I was saved and discipled,” Brenda says. “I came from a good family. I had gone to a good church. But somehow I missed an in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in my life.
“After an FCA meeting, I drove home and sitting on the tailgate of my dad’s pickup, I poured my heart out to God and asked him to take over my life. I haven’t been the same since, and my life has been an amazing wild ride.”
Leading a young girl named “Angela” to Christ while on a BSU mission trip forever changed Brenda’s life.
“Leading my first person to Christ was the turning point for me, when I first knew what I wanted to do with my life. My life had been wrapped up in sports, but sports victories are short-term, ephemeral things. You win the game or the championship, and then you start preparing for the next game. The victory is momentary.
“But when I led Angela to Christ, I realized this was something that had exponential purpose. It was eternal. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I hoped there was a way to make a vocation of this.”
After graduating from Texas A&M and then earning an M. Div. degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, she began her 26-year journey in campus ministry. Her path would take her through West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas, Richland College in Dallas, the University of Texas at Austin, back to Texas A&M at College Station, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, La., and finally to Anchorage.
Compared to college towns in the Bible Belt states of Texas and Louisiana, Brenda discovered early on that Alaska would be a brand new ballgame. Even after 26 years of on-campus experience, she was not ready for what she found in Alaska.
Brenda likens Alaska more to a foreign missions experience than that of a North American missions assignment.
“The language is the same, but you must familiarize yourself with Alaskan Native culture or your efforts can be ineffective. Outside Alaska’s few urban areas, people up here are isolated and live subsistent lifestyles much like their tribal forefathers. Their acceptance of outsiders and Anglos depends on a perceived genuine love and respect for the Alaskan people.
“Alaskan students are awesome,” she said. “High school and college kids have depth and are can-do people. Up here, it’s a pioneer lifestyle. You have to be able to fix things that are broken and even engineer a part if you don’t have one. You have to be innovative, especially in creating ways to reach people with the limited resources at hand. I value that. I grew up respecting people, like my dad and uncles, who could do that.”
After she first traveled to Alaska during a mission trip in 2004, Brenda says she was drawn to the Alaska Baptist Convention- and NAMB-supported staff people already serving in Alaska. “I thought they would be great to work with.”
Since arriving in Anchorage, one of Brenda’s prized connections is with 22-year-old Melissa Okitkun, the daughter of a Yup’ik Eskimo seal-hunter from the small west Alaska village of Kotlik (pop. 600).
“Student leaders are the best missionaries to reach other students,” according to Brenda. “Engaging students in leadership to reach others is a key philosophy in student ministry.”
When she met Melissa over a year ago at a Sonic Flood concert, the young woman fit the bill as a leader. Brenda recalls how much influence she had over other Alaska Native students at the university.
“But Melissa had become involved in drinking and smoking. She knew better because her dad is a lay Assembly of God pastor back in her village. But Melissa came to college in Anchorage and got away from God.
“Slowly, we connected and began to forge a friendship. From the start, I thought she would be a great person to help me because she was well-connected among the native students. She could open doors to the others. She ultimately trusted me and gave her life to the Lord.”
Melissa, now as a Christian, continues to be a spiritual magnet attracting UAA students to Brenda’s “Breakaway” student worship on Tuesdays and to Friday night discipleship dinners at Brenda’s home.
Every Friday night, Brenda hosts a discipleship dinner and Bible study attended by dozens of students — a session which may go until the wee hours of Saturday morning.
“I prepare a home-cooked meal, get the students off campus, give them a place to be, and try to create options for some good clean fun. My home becomes full of life, and good things always happen.”
The students — many of them, like Melissa, Alaska Natives from isolated villages — encourage each other through small groups, revealing the tough lives they left behind when they came to the university in Anchorage.
“Some of the things they talk about from home will just tear your heart out sometimes,” said Brenda. “It’s wave after wave of bad news, and it’s hard for them to wage the mental battle that goes with it.”
You won’t find the social problems and taboos these students encounter back in their villages mentioned in the Alaskan cruise line ads or on the Travel Channel. Tourists to Alaska would be shocked.
“Sometimes students share their despair in personal conversations,” she says. “Alaska is a leader in the nation in suicide, rape and alcoholism. Many young girls were the victims of rape and incest back in their villages.
“Why would God call a woman like me to Alaska when there was a list of guys wanting the same job?” Brenda asks. “Now I know. Women are needed here who are willing to be patient, listen, be a friend and walk through life with them.”
Brenda is eager for Alaska’s dark secrets to be exposed in the light. She wants Baptists to know that she and her fellow missionaries are dealing with the worst of real-life issues in their ministries.
“Even though prime-time television is intrigued with Alaska, Americans don’t hear about our tragic social issues because it’s not popular for tourism or the cruise industry.”
Brenda learned first-hand about life in Kotlik when she, Melissa and a few others took the six-hour, 500-mile plane trip between Anchorage and Kotlik, which is located where the Yukon River pours into the Bering Sea on the western coast of Alaska.
When Brenda hosted a student retreat during the trip to Kotlik, 40 Yup’ik youths gave their lives to Christ.
Crim said there are some 130 villages in the state of Alaska along the Arctic Circle without a single Christian witness.
“That means no Baptists, no Methodists, no anything. That’s why the ‘Melissas’ are so important. We must develop indigenous leaders.”
How long does Brenda expect to serve as a North American Mission Board missionary in Alaska?
“I expect to live out my days here,” she says honestly. “God would have to pry me out of here. My vision is a lifelong vision, not a short-term vision. The task requires someone to invest their life here.
“The stuff I want to accomplish here could take the rest of my life,” said a woman who has never lost her Texas drawl, and looks and sounds younger than her 50 years.
“I had no clue I’d fall in love with Alaska. I loved my home state of Texas. I loved South Louisiana. But Alaska has stolen my heart. Alaska will change your life.”
Brenda tells Southern Baptists to picture her face as they give to the 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
“Everything I own originated in a Baptist offering plate. You made it possible for me to be here and to have a witness here in Alaska,” she says, speaking directly to Southern Baptists everywhere.
“I am truly privileged to be your representative here. Nothing in my life has been greater than to be a missionary for the North American Mission Board.”
For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.