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Episode 3 – Don and Brenda Ernst – The End of the Mission?

I grew up in the church and my parents were the ultimate servants. They always gave everything of themselves without even questioning why or who needed them. If there was a call, they simply answered. They’ve always been that way for as long as I can remember, and because of that I had a childhood filled people constantly in and out of our house. When they taught in the youth group, they would literally just open their house for any student at any time, day or night. Also, if a missionary came to town it seemed that they always stayed at our house. I even remember thinking in my youth, “Do missionaries ever stay at other people’s houses when they come to visit?” Turns out they rarely did. When there are a constant flow of people filtering through your home as a kid you find it easy to interact with lots of people, but not get close to many of them. However, there were always a few special people that would turn up at our house and spend a week every other year or so like clockwork. They weren’t just strangers but rather they were fixtures and we looked forward to them visiting. Don and Brenda Ernst were some of those people.

It turns out that I met Don and Brenda for the first time the day I was born. They used to live just up the street from my parents and were good friends through church. One morning my mom called my dad and said it’s time to have a baby, so my dad packed up my two older brothers and drove them up to the Ernsts’ house. Then they drove to the hospital and had me. I honestly don’t think Don has ever fully forgiven me for having to have two more rowdy boys in his house for a full day. I can’t prove it, but it certainly has always felt like he’s held a grudge against me for this one day that I couldn’t even impact. Not long after my birth Don and Brenda decided to enter the mission field and left before I even started making memories. Again, I’ve always felt there was some type of connection between my birth and Don moving straight to Alaska, but as he has said it’s amazing to see how God puts pieces of our lives into place to accomplish His purpose.

Most of my memories of Don and Brenda were of them visiting the house and using it as a home base as they travelled around trying to raise support for their mission work in Alaska. As a kid it was hard to fully understand what they were doing. I remember thinking that when the Ernsts came to town it was like having a vacation. They had three kids themselves, loved to eat junk food, and loved to play cards. Mom would tell me Don and Brenda were coming and it felt a little bit like a break from life. Every time they’d come to town, I’d understand a little more of what they were doing. I remember that I started to realize that Don never got better at cards. He’d be gone for two years and come back and still be as terrible, if not worse, than he was the previous time. How could you never get better when all you were doing was lounging in some small town in Alaska that didn’t even have a movie theater? It just didn’t make sense, so I started paying a little more attention to what they were talking about with my parents when they’d show up and it became clear that their schedule was full.

Don and Brenda lived in a small town called Huslia in the Alaskan interior. The village consisted of a people group called the Athabaskan Indians and only about 350 people lived in this village. In the interior of Alaska there are many small villages that have this similar makeup and the only way to access these villages is through plane or boat as roads are nonexistent. The Athabaskan culture is one of tightly knit family circles living off the land and existing in some of the harshest conditions in all the United States. Winters are difficult as the sun smothers the lower hemispheres and barely makes an appearance up north. They’re cold and depressing. People often struggle with mental health issues as well as substance abuse. Life is harsh and unforgiving in the Alaskan bush. One mistake can quickly mean the end of a person. It can feel as though there is an oppressive spirit seeking to take hold in some of these communities, though God has a way of providing light in the darkest of places. Matthew 5:13-16 says that we are the light of the world and we are to let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to God.

What does that look like in this type of community? Don and Brenda went to Huslia and literally latched onto the community. Most of the native people there are used to seeing white people show up, do some good things, and then leave. Don and Brenda on the other hand built a life in the community. They built a house to establish roots, started a church and pastored it for their whole duration in Huslia, and spent countless hours building relationships with local people. Mission work is often a combination of meeting the physical needs of people as well as helping them to see that their souls also need healing through the gospel. In a community like Huslia with only 350 people it can be hard to break into the social circles that exist already when one arrives there. However, Don and Brenda immediately jumped in helping with things as simple as gathering firewood, hunting, helping repair homes and tending to those grieving after deaths of family members. Also, there was a specific reason Don and Brenda were a good fit for Alaska. Don was a pilot.

Since there are only two ways to travel in the backcountry in Alaska, if you specialize in one of those you will become very useful for any community. Don had learned to fly in Salida and would tell you that during that time, God was also working diligently on his heart and relationship with Christ. As he grew closer to God and found a passion for flying, it became clear that God needed him for a particular purpose. Don was able to fly between villages to support other missionaries as well as move small mission teams around the interior. He even used his plane to fly kids to Bible camp who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. As long as I’ve known Don, he’s been the missionary who flew people all over Alaska and he’s been passionate about what he does. However, flying can be tricky in those conditions. Don has crashed three airplanes over the years and come through a few sticky situations where God’s hands were more than evident in protecting his servant.

For roughly 27 years, Don and Brenda lived in Huslia and ran a church, youth groups, invested into relationships in the village and flew anywhere they were called. They loved the village and felt like the people there were their own family. Don even describes his relationship with the village as himself almost making a covenant with God that he wouldn’t leave unless God clearly showed him it was time. They figured they’d die someday in the village as a part of the people they loved so dearly. However, God slowly began to shape their hearts for something different. Don had started to feel like his time in the village was coming to an end and one evening without discussion or provocation Brenda told him that she had been thinking that they were nearing the end of their time in the Huslia. Seemed as though God was working on both of their hearts.

The good news is God works continuously and already had been developing a new young couple to move to Huslia to take over the role that Don and Brenda had lived out. They spent some time there working with the new couple and it finally became clear that for this new young family to thrive, the Ernsts needed to get out of the way. It’s hard to get into these communities, but once you are in it’s even harder to leave. However, God provided a new role that still fit their skill sets as the Regional Ministry Director. Don was now overseeing missionaries throughout the area that were living like they had for so many years and he was frequently flying into different villages to encourage missionaries and help with their ministries. During this time, he began working as an interim pastor at the church they had found in North Pole, Alaska. Don has a gift for preaching and finally decided to apply for and accept the full-time position as pastor of that church. They are now transitioning to a full-time pastoral role while working part time as the Assistant Regional Ministry Director.

The life of a missionary is an interesting one. I recently had a meeting with a man I respect greatly who told me that his church refers to his missionaries as ministry partners because the truth is, we are all supposed to be missionaries. Their church partners with these individuals to help each other grow their perspective ministries that God is developing. This helped me to understand some things about Don and Brenda’s story because they are retiring as ‘missionaries’ right now, but what does that actually look like? Instead of being paid through supporters, they are now being paid by a church body of believers. Does this mean that they are no longer missionaries? Not at all. Rather it means that they are doing ministry differently than they were before. Our partnership with them now is as critical as it has ever been. No longer do they need the financial support that they once did, but now they need constant prayer like all our leaders. Leadership of a church is something that is strenuous and demanding and there will be very hard days as a leader of a church. We have developed a relationship with the Ernsts and even though our financial obligations are coming to an end, we must now seek to support each other as best as we can.

This has been an interesting story to tell because I know Don and Brenda so well, but I started this Mission Minded for Grace Church project to help support missionaries. Over the past month, my mind has been completely blown by the idea that we are in a partnership with these people and God is using both of us to grow each other. I have been really asking people to reach out and pray for our missionaries every month, and now it’s even more important than I had ever realized. We are in a partnership with a couple that requires no financial help from us. Does that mean we walk away from that partnership because they aren’t traditional missionaries? No! We must now support each other even more through all our other tools as workers for Christ. Start by listening to the podcast that we just recorded and get to know more about Don and Brenda. Then pray for them sincerely as they take on this new role of leadership. Finally connect with them and let them know that you are supporting them through prayer and connect with them as best as you can. Please reach out to them if you have the time and get to know them a little better. They can be reached at dbernst76@gmail.com. Also, if you’d like to learn more about Don and Brenda’s time in Alaska check out the book that Don wrote on Amazon. It’s titled Alaskan Bush Adventures: Lessons from the Land, Lessons from the Lord. Currently you can buy his paperback copy for about $9 and his Kindle version for as little as $3.99! Support the Ernsts and have some fun learning about life in the Alaskan interior all at once.