The Yukon is a sparsely inhabited region just east of Alaska, in the farthest reaches of northwestern Canada. Fewer than 34,000 people live in this geographically isolated territory, scattered across more than 186,000 square miles of wilderness.
It would be tempting to assume not much of spiritual significance could happen in such a lonely land.
That would be a mistake.
First Pentecostal Church in Whitehorse, the capital city of the Yukon, is creating spiritual shockwaves that are reverberating all the way into Latin America. The church is reaching immigrants who have come to the Yukon for a better life, First Nation (Native American) tribes, and the ancestors of Anglos who arrived in the region during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s.
Whitehorse is home to approximately 23,000 people – the majority of the Yukon’s residents. Many have come from thousands of miles away to try to build a better life. That has given First Pentecostal Church an opportunity to reach the world without leaving town.
In the past few years, the congregation has ministered to Latin Americans, Filipinos, Russians, Ukrainians, Nigerians, and Ethiopians.
“It’s no different than most any other place, anymore, in North America,” Pastor Roger Yadon says of his community’s demographically diverse population. “People are coming here like crazy.”
They’re not coming for the balmy climate. Whitehorse is located in the southern portion of the Yukon, but, even at that latitude, winter can be quite uncomfortable.
“Propane stops gasifying at minus 43 degrees Fahrenheit,” Pastor Yadon explained, “and I’ve had to put a heater on a propane tank just to get it to work.”
Survival in that environment requires resilience. That spirit is evident in the endeavors of the believers at First Pentecostal Church. When the church experienced lean times, they worked together to pay off $250,000 in debt. While the congregation is not large – the church averages about 65 in attendance on Sundays – they consistently rank among the top 10 to 15 United Pentecostal Churches in giving to North American Missions.
“We have a group of people that are not wealthy, but are tremendous givers,” Pastor Yadon notes. “They’re sacrificial people.”
First Pentecostal Church probably wouldn’t have survived if the people hadn’t been willing to make tremendous sacrifices. The congregation was founded as an independent Pentecostal church in the 1970s; by the early 1980s, attendance had been reduced to a handful of believers.
Meanwhile, the church had amassed a mountain of more than $250,000 in debt, most of it incurred by the construction of a new facility.
At that time, God raised up a new pastor, Ted Wagner, from within the struggling congregation. Pastor Wagner would lead the church for the next 28 years.
“He was a very good pastor, a loving pastor,” Pastor Yadon says of his predecessor. “He was an organizer, and he took a group of hurting people and kept them together.”
Under Pastor Wagner’s leadership, the church repaid every penny of the debt and built their current facility. It took a tremendous amount of work and sacrifice, Pastor Yadon notes.
“(Church members) literally dumpster-dived to find food for each other so they could pay the bills off,” he said.
By this time, First Pentecostal Church had joined the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI). Other UPCI pastors took note of Wagner’s leadership skills and elected him to a variety of offices within the denomination, including executive presbyter.
These added duties, combined with the challenges of constructing a new church facility, prompted Pastor Wagner to seek assistance in leading First Pentecostal Church. He called a ministerial acquaintance, Pastor Yadon, who at that time was serving as pastor of a UPCI church in Sitka, Alaska.
Pastor Yadon was considering other ministerial options, but, he notes, “We felt this was the right move.”
“It has proven to be so,” he adds. “It worked out to be a good fit.”
Pastor Yadon served as assistant pastor at First Pentecostal Church for 18 years. He wasn’t anticipating a change of roles, and says he was surprised when, in November 2009, Pastor Wagner suggested he was ready to step away from his role as pastor so he could focus more on his duties with the UPCI.
By early February of the following year, Yadon had assumed the role of senior pastor at First Pentecostal Church.
Things are quite different today at First Pentecostal Church than they were three decades ago. Rather than struggling for survival, the congregation is making bold moves to reach their rapidly changing community with the Gospel.
The church’s greatest revival has been among the immigrant community. It began when “we had 75 Latin American and South American refugees show up in Whitehorse one year,” Pastor Yadon explained.
“My wife (Willow Yadon) and I opened up our home for English as a Second Language (classes),” he said. “I figured, ‘They won’t know that I’m not a teacher. I can speak English better than they can.’ ”
Pastor Yadon downloaded curriculum from the Internet and started holding classes. A local schoolteacher who does not attend First Pentecostal Church also volunteered her services. People showed up to learn, and several lives were changed forever.
“Out of that original group, I think we ended up seeing probably eight get baptized in Jesus’ name and probably four or five … received the Holy Ghost,” Pastor Yadon recalls.
Recently, First Pentecostal Church hosted a Spanish-language revival with former missionaries Monty and Diane Showalter. Approximately 25 people showed up each night, and several were baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, including a literature professor from El Salvador.
Even apparent setbacks have become opportunities for evangelism. In some cases, Spanish-speaking new converts have been deported. But when one Spirit-filled family arrived back home in Mexico, they started Bible studies with their friends and neighbors.
“Brother Drost (a missionary to Mexico) has gotten a man to go visit them, and they will be starting a daughter work about 20 minutes away from their home,” Pastor Yadon reports.
Pastor Yadon also has been studying Spanish, Tagalog, and other languages so he can better communicate the Gospel with new residents. It’s part of an ongoing effort to make the church a comfortable place for new faces.
Pastor Yadon says the key to First Pentecostal Church’s success in reaching Whitehorse’s newest residents with the Gospel is a willingness to try.
“There were people that talked about it, but they didn’t do it,” he said. “We did it.”
“From every nation, tribe, people and language”
First Pentecostal Church also has an active outreach among a more established group of Yukon residents – the tribes of the First Nation, as Native Americans are known in Canada.
Nearly one-quarter of the Yukon population traces their roots to the tribes of the First Nation, Pastor Yadon notes.
First Nation tribes suffered much abuse during Canada’s past, he explained. As a result, he says, “They just don’t trust (outsiders).”
A First Nation resident leads the congregation’s evangelistic efforts to this ethnic group. Andy Nieman, a member of the Southern Tutchone tribe, once spent time in jail and battled serious drug and alcohol addictions before Jesus Christ radically changed his life. Today, he is both a pastor and the first children’s and youth advocate for the Yukon Territorial government.
Pastor Nieman has written a book chronicling his testimony. With the support of First Pentecostal Church, he also has established a First Nations daughter work in the village of Carmacks, approximately 110 miles up the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse. In addition, he has preached to First Nation members in communities such as Pelly’s Crossing and Ross River.
The daughter work in Carmacks has been his most successful outreach effort, though. Recently, the community experienced a tremendous spiritual breakthrough. A guest evangelist visited the village, and, in just six days, 21 people received the Holy Spirit. Approximately 20 people reported being healed.
“One night while I was out there they baptized four in the Yukon River at 11 degrees,” Pastor Yadon said, adding with a laugh, “That’s probably not something we want to do all the time.”
“We’re really at the point of trying to set them off autonomously,” Pastor Yadon said of the Carmacks congregation, noting it will be just the second UPCI church in the entirety of the Yukon.
The strength of God
Living and ministering in such a vast and sparsely populated region requires toughness and a willingness to go the extra mile – literally.
One member of the Whitehorse congregation drives 115 miles one-way to attend services.
“We did have one man who drove 150 miles one-way to church all the time,” Pastor Yadon recalls. “He just passed away recently. He was a great guy.”
Pastor Yadon, who has spent much of his life in Alaska, says most residents of the far Northwest are “independent people” ready for any challenge. That also describes Pastor Yadon. In earlier years, when ministry didn’t pay enough to cover the bills, he worked a variety of jobs, everything from “driving semi-trucks to welding.”
“You just do what you have to do to take care of your wife and kids,” he says.
During his tenure as assistant pastor, the Yadons also owned and operated a funeral home. They since have sold the business, and now serve full-time at First Pentecostal Church.
Pastor Yadon’s current role requires both a Bible and a tool belt. The church facility is under construction, with work proceeding as funds are contributed. (After financial troubles nearly crushed the congregation in its early years, First Pentecostal Church has committed to remaining debt-free.)
The church building sits high on a hill, with “big windows that look out across the Yukon River Valley,” Pastor Yadon explains. The architect who designed the structure wanted it to serve as a symbol to residents of Whitehorse.
Heavy beams support the ceiling of the sanctuary, and were meant to “exemplify the strength of God,” Pastor Yadon notes. “The sides of the building sweep down low. (The architect) felt those would represent the arms or wings of God protecting His people.”
The basement, which still is under construction, houses a large fellowship hall and classrooms.
Pastor Yadon says the congregation will keep “plodding along,” working to complete their building and fill the church’s 220-seat auditorium.
First Pentecostal Church will continue to serve and sacrifice, following a philosophy the congregation has adopted during more than 30 years of ministry.
“We feel it’s pretty simple,” Pastor Yadon said. “Love God; love people.”
By Jonathan Mohr