The call of the wild: Kristi Kuhl begins year-long ministry in Alaska
WORTHINGTON -- Armed with one bulging suitcase, an old guitar and an exceedingly positive attitude, Kristi Kuhl arrived in Chugiak, Alaska, in early June to begin a year-long internship in youth ministry at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church.
A 2008 Worthington High School honors graduate and the daughter of Jolene and Burdell Kuhl, Rushmore, Kuhl is a fourth-year student at Concordia University, St. Paul, enrolled in the five-year Director of Christian Education (DCE) degree program.
"I'm considered a junior by the college, but most people would see this as my 'senior' year," explained Kuhl. "For the DCE program, you go to school for three years and then spend a year on an internship before returning to school to finish your final year."
Kuhl originally pictured herself becoming a scientist -- maybe a marine biologist -- but felt called to a different future while participating in the Minnesota All-State Lutheran Choir as a high school soprano.
"I met some amazing people and mentors, and it changed my perspective," recalled Kuhl. "I really felt the calling and passion for ministry as we were ministering to people through music.
"It was a real 'Holy Spirit' moment, with the tugging on my heart, and it just felt right. As a youth myself, I always helped with Vacation Bible School at my church (St. Matthew Lutheran) and was involved in youth group, and when I realized I could get paid to do that, that made up my mind."
During her college years, Kuhl has acquired even more hands-on experience with frontline ministry, having done field work at Messiah Lutheran Church in Lakeville, where she spent Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.
"I discovered a new love for adult Bible study there," revealed Kuhl. "A lot of the teens were always texting or on their phones, but the adults who came really wanted to be there.
"That sort of surprised me, because I always thought of myself as working with youth, but a DCE job is cradle to grave, involving Christian education from babies to shut-ins.
"I also was heavily involved in Messiah Lutheran's music program, playing guitar and piano, helping lead music in worship and assisting the youth-led praise team on youth Sundays."
Kuhl's background naturally prepared her for church music ministry, as she played flute and piccolo in the WHS band, was involved as an actor/singer in high school musicals (notably, she portrayed Sergeant Sarah Brown in the 2008 WHS production of "Guys and Dolls"), and was active in speech, debate and FFA.
"I also really appreciated the AP (advanced placement) classes our high school offered, because they helped me bypass a lot of my general classes in college and I was able to get into more classes specific to my major -- core theology and Lutheran confessionalism, for instance -- earlier on," explained Kuhl.
With 13 students -- a somewhat large class -- in her DCE group at Concordia, not everyone was initially placed in an internship this past spring, including Kuhl.
"In the United States, there are 13 Concordias, and every year churches apply for intern placements," shared Kuhl. "We got a set of congregations from Hawaii, Virginia and Nebraska, and my Chugiak position was originally given to Concordia in Seward, Neb., but nobody there was willing to go to Alaska.
"I was the only one crazy enough to do it, I guess."
But Kuhl's adviser knew of her work during the past two summers as a canoe trip leader in the Boundary Waters, which required her to spend nine consecutive weeks in the middle of the watery wilderness with teens (different ones each week) from a Baudette Bible camp.
"I think I was the only one he thought could handle Alaska," laughed Kuhl.
With only five weeks' notice before heading to Alaska, even Kuhl had a few moments of trepidation, as she learned her congregation took an annual camping trip to view the Northern Lights in January (in sub-zero temperatures, of course), owned three sled dog teams that were used for semi-annual journeys for outreach to the Inuit people ("Some churches own buses, mine has sled dogs," she joked) and would be able to give her only seven days officially "off" from June 2, 2011, to June 14, 2012.
"Four of those days will be spent involved with a roommate's wedding in May, so I won't be home much," understated Kuhl.
In addition, Kuhl had been envisioning a closer-to-home internship to allow for wedding planning and easier contact with her fiancé, Adam Ave-Lallemant of Hutchinson.
"Adam is one year ahead of me in Concordia's DCE program, and he was on internship this past year in Marquette, Mich.," related Kuhl. "He'll be doing his final year of college while I'm in Alaska, and after he graduates, he plans to attend seminary.
"Alaska wasn't even on my radar, but I figured God would place me where he wanted me to be."
Already, Chugiak is proving to be a fine fit for Kuhl, who was warmly welcomed by her supervisor, Pastor Steve, and a couple -- Terri and Chuck Semmler -- who are hosting her on a separate floor of their house during her stay.
"The church has 233 baptized members, but on average, about 200 people attend weekly services," revealed Kuhl. "The youth group only officially has eight members, but they almost all regularly attend.
"One of them found me on Facebook before I got there and was really excited to learn that I play guitar and can help introduce them to contemporary worship music, which they haven't had as much of up there," added Kuhl. "I may be giving some guitar lessons."
And while a sunlamp was awaiting her in anticipation of the long winter months when Chugiak, in the shadow of the Chugiak Mountain range, experiences less than five hours of far-from-brilliant daylight, currently Kuhl is adjusting to days with more than 20 hours of light. And less than a week after she arrived, she observed a black bear that had made its way onto the deck of the house she now calls home.
"My sister, Kayli (Kuhl), will be the Worthington exchange student to Crailsheim, Germany, this year, so we will be on opposite ends of the world this year," said Kuhl, who also has an older brother, Amery, and another younger sister, Mindy, who recently spent a month in Mexico as part of her college studies.
"My ultimate hope is to grow in my own faith and gain experience before going out into ministry as a DCE," she said. "I guess I'm usually willing to try almost anything once."
To follow Kristi Kuhl's year at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Chugiak, Alaska, visit her blog at www.kkservantjourney.blogspot.com.