Written by Richard Drebert
The Story of Alaska Pastor Duane Guisinger
©Good Catch Publishing
Despair split me open like buckshot, and I hoped that Alaska barrens might hide me from shame. Back home my wife and children lived on charity. I had squandered everything I held dear.
My jet boat screamed up the glistening Kanektok River, but in my mind, I lived in a dark basement room. I levered down the RPMs, and my two fishermen, clinging to $500 fishing rods, lurched drunkenly, laughing. They imbibed 90-proof wilderness, without a hint of alcohol, and watching them fumble with their tackle lightened my heart a tad. For $5,000 per head, our guide service offered cheechakos (greenhorns) a supervised experience camping in the wilds of the Last Frontier. But I teetered too near the jaws of desperation to enjoy Alaska. Wilderness grandeur scarcely staunched the bleeding in my heart anymore.
Nowhere in the world could fishermen revel in such a variety of indigenous, powerful fish caught in a single river — rainbows, grayling, Dolly Varden — and from June through August our clients shared five different species of salmon with Togiak grizzlies.
My father’s stern face splashed across my memory as I positioned the boat for casting into a pool teeming with salmon …
I was barely 18 when I worked my first horrific week at one of Oregon’s busiest sawmills, Crown Zellerbach. My father had landed me a job on what lumbermen call the “green chain”: stacking sappy, heavy dimensional timbers in segregated piles for grouchy foremen.
My soft hands were blistered, and my shoulders ached worse than any weight training I experienced in high school. At lunch break I stared longingly across the mill where men held clipboards or drove forklifts.
“How do I get one of those jobs, like them?” I asked my father, whose dependability and seniority over decades garnered him a position operating a massive circular saw.
“You have to earn it, Duane. Work your way to the other end of the mill …”
I watched my two fishermen cast into a riffle, and I wondered if I had the backbone anymore, to work to the “other end” of my desolation. I did seem to be making some headway.
At least I wasn’t asking God to kill me anymore …
I loved Dawn the day I met her at Bible camp. She was 12 years old, and I fell for her hook, line and sinker. I was 14, and in the two years that we sorta dated (she lived 170 miles away), I knew we were meant for each other. No other girl was as beautiful or kind or fun to be with. As often as I could, I rode a Greyhound to her town or she visited friends near me so we could see each other. But a long-distance romance is hard to keep alive.
One evening, I called Dawn to find out when to meet her at the Kelso bus station, and her sweet voice seemed … aloof. I cradled the receiver like a zombie.
“I’m sorry, Duane. You’re so far away — and he’s right here. Try to understand.”
Apiary, Oregon, nestled in Douglas fir timber in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens, wasn’t so idyllic after that. I was 16 years old, and I became obsessed with joining the Navy or living in some cabin with my horse, my rifle and pack. And Dawn wasn’t my only problem. Dad and I were butting heads about school, chores and everything lately.
I needed an adventure, like Grandpa Archibald experienced. He had worked in Ketchikan, Alaska, as a machinist for the remote fish canneries. I never really knew him (I recalled his graveside funeral when I was 3), but I heard about him from Grandma Grace, who sat by me at our Pentecostal church every Sunday.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …” Oh, how I loved Grandma’s lilting soprano voice, and she loved mine. At 16, if I hadn’t had my singing gigs and Grandpa’s old guitar, I might have gone stark-raving nuts!
With six whiney sisters and one little brother, I helped Mom bear the responsibility of childrearing, and my part meant bossing and tormenting them.
It took five years for Dad and Mom to build their dream home, and we excitedly moved from our teeny log house into a four-bedroom home that, to us, seemed like a mansion.
I had my own room then, a place to hole up and practice my country and church songs. I often exclaimed to myself, “Glory to Jesus!” like Sister Rose Fiddler always declared. (Sister Fiddler was an icon among local Pentecostals, famous for her wisdom and scrumptious apple pies.)
Working overtime at Crown Zellerbach was as natural for Dad as lacing up his big leather boots, and he added more hours every time Mom had a new baby. It’s a miracle that he found days to school me in being a woodsman, and he was at my shoulder when I killed my first buck (a mile or more from our pickup). Dad sliced the legs to strap ’em together as a venison backpack, and he huffed all the way back to the truck with my buck on his back.
All he said was, “A hunter needs to plan where he shoots his game, son.”
My father always seemed to carry a map of the future. He maintained control in every situation, and I assumed that God endorsed his lifestyle. From my father, the hard-driving Guisinger way of living soaked into me, like dried blood into a wool coat. And like Dad’s father before him, I’d never stray from doing what I figured was the right thing.
As weary as my father must have felt after working so many hours, he never missed church. Mom and he tossed the eight of us into the big Ford station wagon, then herded us into God’s sanctuary like a flock of ducklings. The wiggly Guisingers filled up a whole pew.
But sometimes Dad wasn’t as perfect as everyone thought …
When Mom won a contest at the downtown carpet store, she convinced him that it was only fair to have a family drawing, to see who got the carpet for his or her bedroom. He drew a name out of a hat, and glory be, I won!
No more cold feet in the morning! I could almost feel the carpet between my toes, until Dad settled us all down. He hated the thought of Mom and him losing out on new carpeting for their bedroom.
“Mmm. Whaddya think? Best two out of three?”
My sisters hopped around like gleeful bunnies, enjoying the shocked expression on my face. Our names got mixed around in the hat again, and Mom’s hand dipped in. Guess who won — again?!
I loved my new carpet. I loved that I one-upped my dad even more.
When I was a kid, I never knew my father to make a mistake that he admitted, and I believed that it was because he held a position with God.
When I was 10, I picked up some Pentecostal Hellfire Insurance by telling God I was sorry for the bad things I did. But shame still troubled me. Every day I fell short of living up to the Bible rules, and I hoped to earn a better heaven-bound position as I grew to be a man. Sometimes Mom took me to community events and local clubs so I could perform, and I sang at services with preachers and chaplains at the county jail. The closest I got to feeling near Jesus was when I sang and played guitar.
It wasn’t until I worked with Dad at Crown Zellerbach that I met the man that hard-case loggers respected and looked to for guidance. Dad’s power seemed to come from something inside him, stronger than Hellfire Insurance.
“Say, Deacon. I got a kid down with pneumonia. Can you pray for him?” Dad always stopped right where he was to petition God on behalf of anyone who had a need. It was obvious my father possessed a mysterious kind of relationship with Jesus that I didn’t have, and I determined to work even harder to get it.
My father hoped that I would carry on the Guisinger tradition, learning the sawmill from end to end. But I plotted my escape from the green chain to see the world — and my mother helped me find a way.
“Fish on!” The little pear-shaped CEO had waited his whole life to yell those words in the Alaska bush.
“Keep your tip up, Mr. Rawlings. Reel in slow …” I knew he had a good-sized king salmon on the hook, and I mothered him with directions until netting the weary fish.
If Mr. Rawlings could have danced in our boat, he would have.
“Thank you! Thank you, Duane!”
“No, no. You did the hard work.”
I had confidence that I could always guide my clients to big fish on the winding Kanektok River — but these days, that’s where my faith ended.
I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death …
And I had been on this path for months.
When I moved to Alaska, nearly 10 years before working the Kanektok River as a fishing guide, I felt certain I was doing what God wanted me to do. I was answering the call that God had for me. A pressing need to steer all my decisions by God’s divine compass consumed me.
But now I nearly drowned in self-doubt.
I feel empty. Dead inside. Drained. Alone.
In a season of deep depression, I had flushed away years of ministry. I took to my bed in a basement apartment done in, wanting to die.
It was raining pretty hard, and my fishermen were soaked. “Shall we hit another hole or put our chef to work on lunch?” I knew their answers.
We sped back to our camp, where other clients milled around a crackling camp stove. The aroma of frying salmon steaks drifted in the wet breeze, and the atmosphere shouted fulfillment. Absolute satisfaction.
I remembered a time when I experienced fulfillment. Strangely enough, I discovered true happiness while serving in the U.S. Navy …
Mom had driven me to the recruiter herself! I signed up for Navy Reserves and boarded a plane for boot camp, glad to leave my hometown of Rainier in the sawdust. I wanted to see the world from aboard a U.S. battleship.
Wanderlust had bitten me while Dad and I fished on the banks of the Columbia River. The blast of a freighter’s horn signaled farewell to Oregon as it steamed to the open seas, and I imagined myself aboard, heading to Hawaii or other distant ports of call.
Months after Navy boot camp, my childhood dream partially came true. I found myself in Hawaii, tangled up in red tape as I waited for training in communications. I ended up aboard a ship called Observation Island, a testing craft for Polaris missiles.
But scraping paint off grimy decks wasn’t what I signed up for — especially on a boat welded forever to a dock. My dreams of seeing foreign ports were dying in the depths of Pearl Harbor.
When a billet opened up for training as a dental technician/medic, I jumped at the chance.
“What experience have you had in the medical field, Guisinger?”
I rifled through ranch memories and recalled my prowess as a veterinarian’s aide. I had worked for Doc Sledge, assisting him on barn calls. My important job: holding a cow’s head while he worked on the other end.
I beat out a less qualified dental contender by a nose.
Dental training school changed my life, but it wasn’t my oral aptitude that set me on a fresh tack.
It was an incident in a stairwell where I almost killed a man.
No Hawaiian sunrise ever lifted my spirits like my Dawn’s letters to me mending romantic fences! Embers of love reignited as I left the Islands bound for new training in San Diego, where I began attending Sweetwater Assemblies of God church. I took up residence at barracks near the dental training complex, and I couldn’t wait to see Dawn. We arranged for her to stay with friends while she visited me in San Diego. I planned to be an exciting tour guide, thrilling my fiancée with Disneyland and Knots Berry Farm.
Two of my bunkmates who attended dental school with me were civil and friendly, but Lester was not. I tried to ignore Lester’s colorful, demeaning remarks about me, figuring I could weather his hateful comments for the remaining 12 weeks. Then Lester’s viper tongue flicked on a subject dear to my heart: Dawn.
I informed my commander at the dental school about my fiancée’s upcoming visit and that Lester never missed an opportunity to spew vulgarities about Dawn. He even said he had plans for Dawn when she arrived.
“Well, sailor, warn him one more time before you lower the boom.”
“Respectfully, no, sir. I already warned him.”
The seaman dressed in whites pursed his lips for a few seconds, then nodded resignedly. I could tell he was putting himself in my place. “You won’t be reprimanded if you take care of this on your own. Dismissed.”
I spun on my heel, closed the door and headed for the stairs, where my stomach knotted like a bowline. Lester and two buddies were coming up.
“So, is your b**** coming down this weekend?”
I had contemplated this KO for about three weeks. My fist would plaster Lester’s nose on the back of his head, killing him dead.
My agenda didn’t belong to Duane, the responsible, the easygoing, the straight-arrow, the churchgoing young man. This was Sailor Steve, who lived deep inside me. (Steve was my given name, but everyone back home called me by my middle name: Duane. The Navy called me Steve.)
My alter-ego, Steve, had never mutinied until today.
Lester handed his books to his friends. He turned his head slightly, spoiling my aim, and my knuckles hammered the edge of his temple. He skipped a couple stairs and landed like a spud sack on the concrete floor.
Lester lay still as death while I stood over him, waiting for … what? Did I think he was getting up? I felt confused as Steve slunk away. Then Duane felt strong arms, and Lester’s buddies escorted me to the head man’s office, where I had just discussed Lester minutes before.
“If’n the Navy don’t get ya’, we will.”
“One at a time or both of you. Bring it on.”
Lester’s seconds left me with the exasperated commander. He quizzed me a little, reiterated his promise, then dismissed me.
Lester’s doctor told him that if the punch had been a quarter-inch further back on his head, it would have killed him.
I missed a court martial and prison by a quarter of an inch.
Later I met bandaged-up Lester in a locker room, and we both apologized profusely. I bought him a coke and all was forgiven — between us. His friends held the grudge, and I slept with a knife under my pillow until I left dental school.
I determined not to let Steve out of the cellar again, if I wanted to keep from hurting someone. But my alter-ego hated being locked up …
I was assigned to the USS Sanctuary hospital ship — chock full of cavities and bad gums. We sailed for South America, and on shore leave, we sailors were instructed to stick together in port cities, to avoid getting robbed or worse.
A warm camaraderie chipped away at my untested moral fortitude. I was far from Apiary, my father and our little Assemblies of God church. At first, I only sipped at drinks with the guys. I was the trusty sailor who held the winnings at casinos and could help them find the ship when they were stumble-drunk.
“No matter what I say or how I threaten to kick your a**, DON’T give me back my money tonight! Okay?”
My shipmates could depend upon me. It was in my blood to be hard-headed. I earned respect, and it felt right. Soon in places like Buenaventura, Colombia; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Panama City, Panama, a sailor’s sad playgrounds became mine, too.
My cultural Christian roots lay dormant in my soul, while Steve decided to stay awake drinking Harvey Wallbangers. Steve had few inhibitions when he drank high-octane alcohol and could sing cowboy songs with very little coaxing.
My signature song was “The Auctioneer,” and I performed it in bars where few spoke English, and they loved it again and again!
One night at a Colombia nightclub, I sang “Strangers in the Night” with the Elvis of South America, who lit up the stage with an emerald green rhinestone coat. I was stuffed like a tick with aguardientes (firewater), and later Steve wrecked the hotel lobby. My shipmates paid off the hotel manager so they wouldn’t call la policia and hauled me back to the ship.
I never got off scot-free when I drank. A voice in my heart softly said, You know this isn’t right.
This time, my body shook like a leaf, and fever roared in my ears. Alcohol poisoning wracked me, and I tossed and turned in a room with 30 sailors who morphed into grotesque shapes. In lucid moments between delirium, I decided to end my debauchery for good.
But months of drinking had changed me. Sadly, my brain told me that being sober wasn’t as fun as being intoxicated, and hard liquor filled a need in my life. Alcohol was the basis for friendships, song and my sailor’s identity. I could never give it up without what my pastor back home called a “deliverance.”
“Jesus, I’m so sick and tired of living this way. I need your help.”
I had never talked to God this way before, and suddenly Jesus wasn’t only my father’s God anymore. That night in an iron room aboard ship, Jesus came close, and I knew that I owed him my life. How God took away the lust that ruled me I’ll never know, but like steam from a boiler, the need for alcohol dissipated and was gone.
For most of my friends aboard the Sanctuary, our voyage to Haiti included carousing and gambling at dingy casinos. Not for me. I still held my mates’ money like a stubborn bank teller, but my nights of club-hopping and drinking were over. I searched out other Christian men aboard ship, and seven of us formed a Bible study group. I was only 21, but they called me their elder because of the knowledge I had soaked up in children’s Sunday school back home.
My old-time religion (taken for granted for so many years) was a hot commodity with my Christian shipmates. David and Saul, Peter and Paul came alive in my mind. I taught Bible lessons, and sailors hung onto the words of God like a life preserver.
It was getting close to my discharge when the Sanctuary sailed to Naval Station Mayport, at Jacksonville, Florida, and I took my father’s advice (for a change) and set out to find a church first thing.
Sweat drizzled down my sides as I waited at a bus stop, and I felt Steve trying to shove his way into my brain. I figured that the church service at Jacksonville Beach would be half over before I arrived.
“Look, God, if the bus isn’t here in five minutes, I’m done. I’ll just go back to the ship.” I glanced at my watch, a little sheepish, trying to regain control.
It wasn’t even two minutes before an old white city transport blustered up in a cloud of diesel smoke. I took the only seat available, and a skinny guy beside me introduced himself.
“My name’s Bob. Where y’all hayded?” In all my ports of call, I had never heard such a nasally twang.
“Jacksonville Beach Assembly.”
“Waaaylll, peeeeeraise the Lord, Brother! I’m on the church board there!”
Bob introduced me to his friends who even church folks called “Jesus Freaks.” Most were hippies, and some were suits and blue-collar men. They mingled like Mom’s garden veggies, and working with these unpretentious, wonderful people refreshed my soul. It was like standing on the foredeck on the Sanctuary in a Caribbean breeze. I could tell they really loved God.
Bob took me under his wing and taught me how to be a fisher of men, like Jesus’ first disciples were. We talked to people about how Jesus had changed us inside, and God landed the ones who were starving for a new life. Bob’s sea was the Jacksonville boardwalks, and over the months before my discharge, I became a hardcore street preacher like he was.
Life got sweeter as I thought about my Dawn back home, waiting for me. I knew that Crown Zellerbach held positions open for veterans, and I looked forward to starting a family and sinking roots in the same soil as my father and grandfather.
So, my phone conversation with my mother didn’t exactly put a grin on my face.
“Duane. You can’t get married just yet.”
Her serious tone took me by surprise. “Why, what’s wrong?”
“It’s too close to my due date, son.”
When I arrived home, Apiary seemed to have been frozen in time. Dad still smelled of sawdust, and Mom canned fruits and vegetables in her apron. I moved back into my room for a time, and Dawn and I set a new date for our wedding.
Baby number nine came right on schedule, and Dawn and I were married in August. Dad put in for a little more overtime.
In the years following my discharge from the Navy, I worked my way off the green chain and enjoyed respect from my co-workers as a saw doctor.
Dawn and I had two beautiful daughters whom we adored. We held a lease option on a beautiful home on acres of pastureland, and I joined a horseback law-enforcement team who rode to rescue missing children or hikers lost in the mountains. Our posse saddled up for parades, leather stirrups creaking and side arms glinting.
I taught adult Sunday school and served on various committees at our Assemblies of God church. The Guisinger families took up even more pews now. Rose Fiddler still baked scrumptious pies for folks, but at 91 years old, she seldom attended church anymore.
I savored a respectable position in the Apiary-Rainier community, but sensed an uncomfortable sharpening of purpose inside me, like someone rasped on iron teeth. I loved my deer and elk hunting, and Steve had no problem popping out now and then, knocking down a few deer out of season to fill freezers for the needy. I believed that my .35 Remington answered a higher calling.
Conflicted, yet firmly in God’s powerful grip, I wrestled against perceived religious expectations — while yearning to know Jesus as an intimate friend. Studying the Bible became nearly as important to me as hunting! Every verse seemed to come alive, and I prayed more fervently for God to use me as a tool to help others.
One day, I got what I prayed for, without warning.
Preparing salmon tackle for Kanektok clients had the same calming effect upon my mind as filing circular and band saw teeth at the sawmill.
At sunrise I sat on a log with a cup of coffee, in the Alaska bush — an exile from God’s people and purposes. I slapped a liberal dose of bug dope on my neck while I checked over a tackle box full of weights, hooks and lures. The next group of clients would fly in from the tiny airstrip at Quinhagak today.
Dad always figured I’d go haywire, and I sure did …
Suddenly adrenaline surged from a commotion on the river’s surface. We never knew when a grizzly might slosh into camp, and I grabbed at the .44 in my shoulder holster.
I settled back to my log, smiling as three mallards rose from the water, and the thump of wings on the wind took my breath away. Their silhouettes skimmed the late summer horizon, leaving me in deep thought. I felt a piece of my old shame take wing, too, and I bowed my head.
Out of the billions of people on the earth, Jesus and I enjoyed that glorious moment with God’s creatures. I know that he did that just for me. God hasn’t left me at all.
I had been sending letters to Dawn and the kids (we had four children now) like clockwork, and summer was growing weary, its thick leafy alders and currants smelling musty. My employment as a river guide was ending, and I had no idea what to do when I got back to civilization. Should I find a good state job and work the rest of my life? Or did God still have enough confidence in me to plug me into a pulpit again? The latter seemed unlikely.
During my summer-long therapy as a fishing guide, I noticed some emotional vigor returning to my mind, and in the following days of breaking camp, I retraced my personal path with Jesus, one more time. His unmistakable calling transcended every blunder and triumph, from my boyhood to troubled manhood. It stood out as clearly as Mt. St. Helens against an azure sky.
GO TO ALASKA, AND GO NOW.
God doesn’t call a flawed individual to serve him, does he? Perhaps Jesus didn’t know about Steve …
Yet the call in my heart to sacrifice everything for Jesus’ sake was unmistakable.
I asked for signs. I wrangled over throwing away my plum job as a saw doctor at the sawmill. My Guisinger family reputation was on the line: I would lose respect if people heard about my harebrained Far North leap of faith.
Alaska. I had relatives there, and I enjoyed hunting and fishing when we visited, but my heritage was rooted in Oregon forests and farms.
My call to Alaska felt like an unrelenting pressure in my chest, gentle but persistent. I woke with it each afternoon; I filed saws with it on my swing shift. How could I leave my life behind — bills, home, family — and just go, without a plan? I could imagine my blueprint for retirement blistering in flames.
I really tried to keep my call to Alaska under wraps as long as possible, but one evening when I was in bed, I lost it. Tears streamed into my pillow, and Dawn sat up.
“Honey! What is it?”
I snuffled a bit and finally blurted out, “God is telling me to go to Alaska, and go NOW. I have no idea exactly where I’m going or when I’ll be back.”
“Hon, we’ll be alright. Do what God is telling you.”
Resigning from my church responsibilities troubled me, and my father just shook his head as I announced my intentions to the congregation. Where was my common sense?
Driving home after the service, I passed Rose Fiddler’s house, and I suddenly felt like God was topping off my tank with another message: Rose has something to tell you — then I can take her home.
This was too much to handle. Steve stepped on the accelerator, steamed about all the unnatural counsel he was getting. It made me look downright weird!
I regained control, whipped around and pulled into Rose’s driveway.
“Ah, Mr. Guisinger …” Sister Fiddler stood all of 4 feet tall in the dimly lit doorway — and she thought she was talking to my father.
When I explained who I really was, she invited me inside.
I was running scared now, worried that she would drop dead immediately after giving me some godly advice. I nervously filled up our conversation, until she excused herself for a moment to go to the kitchen. I really didn’t want any pie …
Returning with a heavy blue mixing bowl, she placed it in my hands. “Duane, if I don’t use this bowl every time I make my pies, they aren’t worth a continental.” Sister Fiddler’s eyes flashed like fire. “God’s telling you that YOU are the mixing bowl for Alaska, and you’re needed right now.”
No pie tonight. I hurried out the door, hoping I outdistanced inevitable Providence.
I tried to explain to my dad about my illogical call from God, and he used his fatherly power of persuasion to jam a board in my gears. I should postpone my Alaska trip until June, when I could take the family and make it a vacation … I could work enough overtime to save up for the trip. It was the only sane, reasonable decision.
Wasn’t he right? I could still obey God, but just tweak the timetable a bit.
Then, at Crown Zellerbach’s main gate, Lonny, the security guard, helped me cinch the deal. He was wearing a cocky half smile. “What’re you doing here, Guisinger?”
I wasn’t in any mood for banter, and Steve wanted to grab him. “I work here, remember?”
“Not anymore. The mill’s closing …”
I called home and told Dawn to pack my bags for Alaska.
Crown Zellerbach in Rainier never officially reopened again.
In Alaska, I never figured I’d be interrogated by an FBI agent. I sat in a room in downtown Anchorage, dressed in Levis and cowboy boots, with a year’s growth of beard and longish hair — waiting for a verdict.
To be approved would take another miracle.
I had slept the night as a guest of an Alaska missionary family who picked me up at the airport. These gracious people knew my relatives, and they were my only link to Anchorage. They suggested that I spend some time at Teen Challenge, to make connections for employment.
Everything suddenly shifted into high gear when the Teen Challenge executive director, Merle, asked me to take a ride with him to Palmer. We looked over a new Teen Challenge housing site and got to know one another.
He chewed on my story, evaluating me, all the way back to Anchorage — and suddenly Merle asked me pointblank: “Do you want to serve as our new director over men’s housing?”
My heart leaped. I didn’t hesitate.
“Good. We can meet with the board of directors in a few hours, to get their go-ahead.”
The three directors of the board for Teen Challenge Alaska were all dressed fit to kill.
The man asking all the questions worked for the FBI, too, and he knew all the right buttons to push to discover my true heart.
At the end of the interview, everyone was in agreement. They had their man. In fact, they had been praying for seven months for a men’s director and worked on a tight deadline. God met the deadline with only hours to spare. I was their answer to prayer, and it felt wonderful!
I flew home with answers for everyone who had doubted my call. I hoped to sit down and hold Rose Fiddler’s frail hands, acknowledging her prophetic encouragement — but I had to leave that with God. Sister Fiddler had lapsed into a comatose condition days after I left for Alaska. In fact, I was the last person she ever ministered to.
Our Rose passed away, and I cherished her memorial service, a milepost that reconfirmed my call to preach after my dark days of doubting.
One more peculiar obstacle remained for me to hurdle before I moved the family to Alaska, lock, stock and barrel. I was tying up loose ends and had hitched a ride to Alaska to secure a place for Dawn and the kids. She was supportive and seemed convinced that we were on the right track.
I worked for much of the summer at a Soldotna grocery store, waiting for the official word to move into Teen Challenge housing — and once in a while, Steve showed up to distract me. One day he pointed out how much my knees hurt. My hands were cut up from cardboard boxes, and I worried that I hadn’t heard back from Merle, the Teen Challenge executive director.
In the breakfast food aisle, I told God, “You called me to Alaska, I know, but here I am stocking shelves! Look at that, Lord! A box of Cheerios has a higher position than me.”
I knew when I said it that God was shining a spotlight — right at Steve.
You are called to be a servant, not someone with a position.
My call felt solid. But God was peeling a prideful self-sufficiency from me, a little at a time. It would take nearly a decade to teach me how utterly dependent I was on Jesus.
The same week that I had this Cheerios epiphany, I received the phone call I had been praying for. “Duane, can you start work at Teen Challenge in 30 days?” This meant that my family would have a residence, and I would be working in the ministry that God had called me to!
I said yes. I had my plane ticket, and I would be leaving that very night to pack up and move my family north.
But a second phone call 60 minutes later set me back on my heels. It was the brand-new executive director of Teen Challenge, who had replaced Merle.
“I hear that you are heading back to Oregon to move your family up, is that right?” Joe had a New York accent, and I pictured him looking like a little mafia don.
“Yes, sir. I have it all worked out with Merle.”
“Are you under the impression that you have a permanent position at Teen Challenge?”
“Yes, sir. I absolutely am under that impression.” An avalanche of emotions broke loose, and Steve woke up.
“Mr. Guisinger, I need you to know that nothing has been promised.”
I had much more to say that couldn’t be articulated over the telephone — but I made a stab at illuminating the new director. To my surprise, he seemed understanding.
“I’ll meet you at the airport before you fly out to Oregon. We’ll talk.”
A few hours later, I sat with a cup of strong coffee in the airport lobby, awaiting the man who had the power to cast my reputation in a dumpster or confirm my call to Alaska. Preserving honor and character had been branded upon my brain since childhood, and I treasured my independence. People knew me as a man of my word. A powerful, God-fearing man, respected, steady, reliable … to be humbled by this New Yorker stuck in my craw! He could ruin everything! In Apiary, I would be a laughing stock.
The new director, Joe, looked just like I pictured him, but when he extended his hand the unexpected happened — I loved the guy, like a best friend. Merle was with him, and in less than an hour, Joe felt the same as Merle about me. We ambled toward my boarding gate, and I finally asked, “What do I tell my people back home, Joe? Do I have the job?”
“Duane, how would you like to be our new Teen Challenge training center director?”
“You mean over the whole shootin’ match?”
“That’s right. Over our training center here in Alaska.”
Thirty days later, Dawn mopped a foreign kitchen and unpacked our lives into just two bedrooms alongside rooms that would soon fill with broken men and women needing Jesus.
For years, I ran a marathon that never had a finish line. I focused every ounce of my emotional, physical and spiritual strength on never-ending tasks that I believed God expected me to complete.
If anyone had warned me to strike a gentle pace, to delight in the beauty of Alaska, to savor my family and relationships, I would have been too burdened with achieving for Jesus to listen.
I ministered to men and women addicted to drugs and alcohol. I helped teach them how to live God-centered lives based upon a personal relationship with Jesus. Some were under orders by the court to remain with us for a year or more, and I became a third-party custodian or probation officer for many. In some cases, I had the authority by law to decide when they could be released into society.
I received ministerial credentials with the Assemblies of God, and a Christian brother blessed me with a fully paid trip to Israel and Egypt. I traveled to Europe and Africa on a mission trip, and I was proud that people called me Pastor Duane — a faith-walker and an example of livin’ right.
At the end of eight years as a Teen Challenge administrator, pastor and counselor, as well as a board member, musician and teacher at a local church, my self-sufficient 24/7 lifestyle had weakened me.
I moved the family to a small community farther north and headed into ministry at my usual dead run — and that’s where I hit the wall. I loved my new people, but my spiritual gumption was all dried up. I stumbled — and fell.
We moved back to Wasilla, and charitable friends took us in, giving us a basement apartment to live in while I tried to find employment. For months, every door slammed in my face, until one day I just stopped looking. I lay in the dark, wanting God to kill me, while my children and Dawn clattered morning dishes before school.
I remembered an embarrassing story my mother once told me about me trying to dig up Grandfather Archibald at his graveside service. I missed Grandpa, and in my 3-year-old mind, I hoped to rescue him.
Now in my 40s, I wanted to join him. I heard the door slam; happy children’s voices faded, and all was silent, like Grandpa’s grave.
Suddenly the bedroom door opened, and irritating light flooded the room. My wife stood beside me, staring at me. I suffocated in failure and couldn’t move, until her voice, like a spurt of oxygen, reached deep into my spirit. She had left her heritage behind, too, and I recalled all the times I abandoned her to care for home and children while I worked for God.
Even now, as I wallowed in self-pity, she stood beside me. So when she spoke, I listened, knowing her words came from God.
“Duane … aren’t you even going to try?”
It wasn’t a reprimand; it was a plea. And something that I believed was long dead reached out to Dawn. My beautiful wife saved my life that morning.
I made Dawn a promise to try again — a hollow promise at best, but Jesus was listening. I got dressed for the first time in days.
Some might call my giving up on life a breakdown. But I see it as a breakup — the shattering of a case-hardened ego handed down from generations of self-made men, as far back as Adam, the first man God ever created. God allowed my self-centered way of serving Jesus to reach its end.
“I hear you’re looking for work. You wanna job guiding fishermen in the bush? You’d be gone for a few months, working about 90 miles south of Bethel, near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak.”
It was the one thing that I felt confident I could still do: fish. So about a week after my promise to Dawn, I was setting up bunks in portable huts, clearing brush and organizing tackle to help well-heeled city dudes catch a big one. My clients and I never suffered a single fishless day the whole summer.
It was during these months of convalescence on the Kanektok River that I threw off my shame like a sweat-soaked backpack. I realized that Jesus never asked me to carry it at all.
I gave up control of decisions and every detail affecting my future — even the ones the size of a no-see-um’s eyelash.
After I got home, all tanned and uncertain, I hugged Dawn and my beloved children, emptied of pride and on the trail of regaining my strength of mind.
It took another three years to rekindle the home fires — taking a job as a security guard, spending time with my children and rebuilding my relationship with Dawn. We were attending a church where I taught adult Sunday school and served on the board, when my pastor and friend posed a challenge.
“Duane, I’m worn out. Can you help me conduct services at Sunny Knik Chapel? I need someone who can preach every other Sunday.”
Pastor had been traveling 22 miles each way, ministering to a small flock of faithful people until they found a permanent pastor. Cautiously and prayerfully, I agreed to fill in, never dreaming that Jesus would reignite my call to ministry through the precious ones at Sunny Knik.
After a few months of visiting, leading worship in song and teaching these folks, they became as close as family.
Jesus reminded me that I could not unring a bell — even in my darkened basement, God’s calling had never been extinguished. My strange Alaskan odyssey had prepared me to love and serve my brothers and sisters at Sunny Knik.
I became their pastor more than 15 years ago.
In Alaska, nothing strikes fear in a puny human being like the emotionless eyes of a grizzly. His expression conveys one simple message: YOU ARE PREY.
Three times in recent years I have experienced this kind of helpless feeling, staring death in the eyes, but two instances were from sudden illnesses — not from a brownie killer.
The year that I helped re-launch Sunny Knik Chapel as a part-time minister, my knee suddenly grew infected with toxic strep, and I gave my doctor permission to amputate my leg, if it would save my life. He skillfully scraped the inside clean of infection, and for days I hovered between life and heaven with a 106-degree fever.
But my soul wasn’t in the hospital at all. I lay in a cave where God was communicating with me. War raged outside, and a burly angel stood beside me. He held a great curved sword with a phrase engraved on the blade: “The Will and Power of God.”
I roused three days later with an indelible picture of my life — where I had been and where I was going. I had given the enemy, Satan, the upper hand in years past, because of my selfish pride, but Jesus had rescued me by permitting the enemy to overpower me for a time. I had learned from the experience and was ready for the rest of the battle.
For now, God removed me from the fight, and I would reenter the battle refreshed.
I recovered fully, and in a matter of weeks, Jesus swept me into the ministry at Sunny Knik.
During some of my most fulfilling years as a pastor at Sunny Knik, I stared into the eyes of the beast again.
After weeks of passing blood, my doctor ordered a biopsy, and it came back positive for cancer in my bladder area. On September 11, 2001, my nephew-in-law drove me to the mountains so that I could pray and make my peace with the ordeal ahead. I stood in the mountains near Eureka, asking God to heal me.
What if my cancer spread? Would I become bedridden, like so many cancer victims I had visited over the years?
“Lord, this is a real nuisance!” I said, feeling Steve rising up. I quickly gave Jesus control of my situation again. “Okay. You know what I want, but your will be done, Lord.”
When I got into cell range, I called my wife to tell her I was on my way home.
“Duane! Have you heard about the attack on the Twin Towers in New York?”
Suddenly my own problem seemed miniscule compared to wounds suffered by my nation.
My physician, Dr. Crandall, burned away the lumps in my bladder before my second biopsy came back from the lab. While I lay in recovery, sore and restless, Dr. Crandall came in, and I noted a peculiar concern on his face.
“Duane, I have your second biopsy results.” He paused, looking at the chart again just to make sure he was reading it right. “Remember how your first biopsy showed cancer? Your second biopsy …” Dr. Crandall waved the clipboard, “your second biopsy shows no sign of cancer. We operated for no reason!”
I laughed carefully, mindful of some pain. “Looks like Jesus helped you out there, Doc.”
In the following months, doctors and nurses were amazed that my bladder healed up completely normal, as if no cancer had ever been detected.
Stress can kill a preacher as dead as any grizzly can — so I fish, hunt or tramp the wilderness to let off steam whenever I have time. In the mountains or sitting on riverbanks, Jesus reminds me of his control and authority over every mosquito, volcano and over this old pastor, too.
After a bout of pneumonia a few years ago, I noticed a little weakness in my legs as I tracked a moose through a draw at the bottom of a ridge. My son-in-law rode his four-wheeler hunting the top of the saddleback, but my trail was a little too narrow for me to ride mine.
We hunted with .50-caliber muzzle loaders: single-shot black powder rifles, the only legal gun for this moose hunt. Finally, about a mile from my four-wheeler, I turned around wearily — with no sign of my moose steaks.
The draw suddenly looked familiar. I had killed a black bear at this exact spot some time ago, and I mused: I’d hate to meet a brownie in all this brush right now …
I figure that the old boar grizzly and I must have been hunting the same moose, because he looked as surprised as I, barreling down the draw right for me. Maybe with his little pig eyes, I looked like a moose to him.
I had left my trusty .44 pistol back at the pickup truck (it was too cotton-pickin’ heavy to pack on a hike), so I raised my old-timey rifle, sighting through the flying clods of snow, throat-fog and directly into galloping brown fur.
“Lord, help this thing to go off …” I needed to scare him or kill him — or I was finished.
The bear was 10 yards from me when my gun’s snap-boom! echoed against the ridge. I blinked away white smoke, while the dying grizzly thrashed, grabbing and biting at everything he could find.
As he lumbered into the brush and disappeared, I shook my head, breathing, “Thanks, Lord. I appreciate it.”
It took a little time for me to drop powder down the long octagon barrel of my muzzle loader and follow up with a patch and ball. My whole body shook from cold and sheer adrenaline. I started after the old grizzly, hoping to make sure he was dead, but I never did locate him, as snowy and dark as it was.
No doubt, God saved me once again for his purposes.
These days, Dawn and I enjoy a precious heritage more enduring than any we knew in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens. Our roots grow deep at Sunny Knik, twining with elders and youngsters in soil tended by God himself. New friends move to our neck of the woods every week, and our corral is about full these days.
We anticipate miracles, serving a multitude of Alaskans, as Jesus multiplies every penny like fishes and every moment of time like nourishing bread.