The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, was a wake-up call. Far to the north, the territory of Alaska had remained discreetly isolated from the rest of the United States since its purchase from Russia. The huge, beautiful resource-rich “last frontier” was about to awaken. After the attack on Hawaii, the war quickly began to bring Alaska into the mainstream of America with an influx of military and support personnel.
At the time, most of Alaska had been relatively untouched by the gospel. Yet, God was not asleep during those spiritually quiet years in Alaska! He had already called many to prepare for the harvest that was to come. One couple would play a key role in establishing a ministry which 70-years later is still serving Christ in Alaska and far beyond.
John and Nadine Gillespie had been married just seven weeks when they arrived on a small ship, the SS Denali, in the rugged port town of Valdez, Alaska in 1941. With no determined plan or organization to assist them, they followed God’s prompting to minister in several unreached communities where John’s burden for the Alaska Native people became a passion.
In 1946, John was invited to pastor the Church of the Open Door in Anchorage. His gifted Bible teaching and missionary heart soon began to attract independent missionaries serving in various parts of Alaska’s interior and rugged coastal villages. John was keenly aware of their need to support one another and coordinate efforts. His prayers to advance God’s heart for Alaska were answered in 1951 when sixteen missionaries came together to for Arctic Missions.
John’s work had just begun. As the catalyst for the formation of Arctic Missions, he was the obvious choice to become the leader. In addition to his care of the missionaries, he traveled extensively speaking at conferences, churches, and colleges heralding the great need of missionaries in Alaska. His charisma and fervor were compelling and the organization grew exponentially in those days. John’s passion for the ministry of Arctic Missions was so intense that rarely did anyone say no to his requests. The story of one couple who said yes to God’s leading in those early days reflects the journey of many heroes in that pioneer missionary era.
Gale Van Diest was a student at Multnomah University when he first heard John Gillespie speak to his Alaska-focused student prayer group. The draw of Alaska’s wilderness, hunting, and fishing, had perked Gale’s interest for some time. While at Multnomah, Gale met Jeanie, a kindred mission-minded young woman, and they were married in 1952. As they sought the Lord’s leading for their future, they heard of a new mission organization in Alaska. Through a series of chance encounters only God could arrange, they applied and received acceptance into Arctic Missions.
In August 1954, Gale, Jeanie, and their one-year-old son Marty boarded a train in Anchorage, Alaska that would take them on the first leg of their journey to their assigned village of Holikachuk on the banks of the Innoko River. The train had not yet departed when John Gillespie boarded and breathlessly ran to where the Van Diest family was settled into their seats.
“I just got a call and there’s no place for you to live in Holikachuk! What are you going to do?” John asked. Gale looked at John and stated, “We’re gonna go!”
Upon landing in Holikachuk with bush pilot Alan Franz, the Van Diests found a completely vacated village. The people had temporarily moved to the Yukon River for their seasonal fish camp. Unsure of what to do, Alan flew Gale fifteen minutes away to the camp leaving 24-year-old Jeanie and little Marty alone in an abandoned village with no form of communication or transportation. Fortunately, Gale returned an hour later, and reported, “John Deacon said we can stay at his house.” From that day forward, the Van Diests experienced life alongside the Native villagers. Strong friendships were forged as they learned what it took to survive in the harsh elements of remote Alaska.
Learning from their new Native friends, they made haste to use the two months of that first summer to grow and preserve as many vegetables as possible. The days were long with up to twenty hours of light, helping them make the most of the short season. They worked side by side with villagers to catch and preserve fish, hunt moose, and pick berries. Most cooking was done on a gas camp stove, except what had to be baked. Once a week the cast iron wood cook stove was fired up, and the aroma of baking bread filled the tiny cabin.
Sharing life with Native villagers included facing the challenges and dangers of isolation from the outside world. In 1956, the Van Diest’s second child, 16-month-old Davey, suddenly became ill with what was thought to be the Asian Flu. No medicine they had on hand could bring down little Davey’s 107-degree fever. The only medical treatment to save him was at the hospital in Anchorage, and the only way in or out of Holikachuk and to the hospital was by riverboat, dogsled or plane. The river was too frozen for boats but not enough for a dogsled, and there were no planes available. After two days of illness, Davey was taken home to the Lord. The entire village shared in their grief. Ten days later, Jeanie wrote a letter to prayer supporters,
“Our people showed us love – taking over the house, doing the dishes, bringing food, making a little coffin, chopping the frozen earth for a grave, and staying with us during the entire day. One of the people in town said, ‘There could be nothing greater happen than this to show the people what the Christian faith is.’ We trust this has been true. We know there is a reason for this since Davey was in perfect health. Our hearts have been melted as well as the peoples.”
From the time they arrived in Holikachuk, children in the village flocked to the Van Diest family home. Every Native child in the village was in their home at least two times per week hearing some form of the gospel. This gave Gale and Jeanie an open door to connect with all the town families. Through the bridge of friendship, Gale and Jeanie also came to understand the personal and spiritual battles in their neighbors’ lives.
One Sunday afternoon, regular church attenders Bede and Jovia Deacon came to visit Gale and Jeanie at their home. They chatted until evening about all the normal village life topics when finally Jovia said, “Mr. Van (as they called Gale), we came to talk about getting to heaven. We want to know how to do that.” Though they had heard the gospel many times before, Gale explained how they needed to put their faith and trust in Christ. The Deacons asked to do that, and they all knelt down by a wood bench in the living room where the couple prayed to receive Christ. From that point on Van Diests started a process of informal teaching and discipleship. Since Bede couldn’t read, Gale found a wordless book and taught him to share the gospel using the colored pages. Several family members came to know the Lord as they shared the message from the simple book.
As the years continued, Gale became good friends with Peter Rock, a timeworn Athabaskan Native man who lived in a tiny log cabin between Van Diests’ house and the river. Peter attended church services every Sunday. Without fail he planted himself in the back of the church sporting a large fur hat on his head and an unlit pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth. Gale would often go over to his home to get a fire going in the mornings and put some coffee on for the two of them.
Gale arrived at the older man’s log cabin one day to start the morning routine. Following some casual conversation, Pete asked him, “Van, did Jesus used to walk around down here like we do?” Gale answered, “Yes. The only difference is that He never did anything wrong—never sinned.” Then Gale explained the gospel and asked Pete if he wanted to go to heaven. Peter uttered, “No, I couldn’t—I’m too bad.” But Gale responded, “Pete, that’s why Jesus died. He took care of all that ‘badness.’ You can secure your place in heaven right here.” Peter exclaimed, “You mean right here?” He then threw the ever-present pipe in his mouth down on the cabin floor and knelt to pray and receive Christ. Several weeks later Gale asked Peter if he were to die, was he sure he’d go to heaven, and Pete emphatically resounded, “Sure!”
Stories like these were multiplied all over the great state of Alaska. A spiritual awakening had begun. By banding together under Arctic Missions, Alaskan pioneer missionaries were interwoven in purpose and bonded together through the leading of the Holy Spirit. They went to the frozen north, knowing little about their destination but sure God was leading them to a people who needed His love and salvation message. Gale is often asked,
“Did you have a call to the Alaska Native people?” His honest reply is, “No, I didn’t. The Lord simply led us to Alaska, but once I got to know the people, God grew a love for them in my heart that has never left.”
The Van Diests’ story represents that of many workers who served with Arctic Missions (now InterAct Ministries). They continue to tell the gospel story with their lives…a story of joyful obedience to their Savior, Jesus Christ.