Vladimir Netsvetayev, of Wasilla, arrived at the mouth of the Kenai River on Friday morning determined to dipnet enough sockeye salmon to feed his big family with plenty of fish for the year. But dipnetting made him hungry, and when a tent of Baptist mission volunteers arrived to hand out free food and drink, he was only too happy to devour three hot dogs and gulp down a glass of lemonade.
Netsvetayev said he didn’t mind that the volunteers handing out the hot dogs and refreshments had brought a religious presence to the beach. He said he is himself religious, and that although he saw a table of Bibles sitting out next to the hot dog table, no one approached him to engage in a conversation about God or Jesus.
Bruce Hazeltine, of Anchorage, said he is not religious, but appreciated the work the Baptist volunteers were doing. In addition to handing out hot dogs and refreshments, the Baptist volunteers also offered child care, trash pickup and help directing traffic.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Hazeltine said. “Especially if they’re cleaning up. My God, who could be against that?”
Hazeltine said he also appreciated the fact that the volunteers had not tried to engage him in conversations about God or otherwise show signs of proselytizing.
“If they were trying to convince me of something, I’m not interested. I might feel differently,” he said.
Other than a table of Bibles, there were few signs that the flurry of volunteer activities taking place was part of a Baptist mission. On the north Kenai beach, the volunteers headquartered their activities under two large canvass tents, one of which was simply labeled “FREE HOT DOGS” and the other “Beach Kid’s Club.” The volunteers used one to hand out food and the second as a staging area for providing child-care services for parents busy dipnetting in the surf below. In front of the tents, the Baptists had also set up an inflatable bounce house to entertain kids.
The Baptist volunteers are here as part of what is referred to as the Salmon Frenzy, a mission sponsored by the Chugach Baptist Association and the North American Mission Board. The mission’s organizer, Brenda Crim, said she was inspired to organize the event when she came down to dipnet for the first time about three years ago. She said she was fishing with a friend who had two young children with her.
“Every few minutes they were telling their momma they needed something to drink, they needed something to eat, they were tired, they wanted to go home, they were bored, they wanted to go to the bathroom, you name it,” she said. “They wanted something from her constantly. I looked up and down that beach and saw tons of children on that beach doing the same thing to their mommas.”
The next year, Crim organized the mission. Salmon Frenzy first arrived at the Kenai dipnet fishery last year, with 210 volunteers handing out 5,000 hot dogs, 5,000 bottles of water and 600 gallons of hot cocoa. This year, the mission is back and has expanded its activities from just the north Kenai beach to the south Kenai beach, as well. By the time this year’s Salmon Frenzy is through, the Chugach Baptist Association estimates as many as 10,000 hot dogs may be served by as many as 300 volunteers.
On Friday, some dipnetters taking advantage of the handouts and volunteer services on the north beach said they had been unaware the services were being provided by a religious group. Those who were aware said they only knew about the volunteers’ mission because they asked one of the volunteers who had sent them there, or had spotted the blue Bibles laid out on the table next to the line for hot dogs.
Hans Hill, of the Matanuska-Susitna area, said that after he saw the Bibles he was surprised when the volunteers offered only mustard and ketchup to go with his hot dog.
“I was waiting for the kicker, like, is there going to be a sermon?” he said.
Crim said the mission is conscientiously conducted in a manner that emphasizes servitude of the volunteersm rather than proselytizing.
“We’re not going to stick anything in their face except a hot dog and a lemonade,” she said.
A lot of Christians don’t communicate their faith effectively and think they aren’t being a witness unless they say something about Jesus, Crim said. She said she believes the best way to share her faith is to just be a real person and follow Jesus’ model of servitude without any expectation of recognition.
During an orientation she gave to her volunteers, Crim told them that when dipnetters ask why they are there, the answer should be, “To help you get fish.” Crim also discouraged volunteers from telling dipnetters Jesus had paid for the hot dogs, beverages and other services the volunteers were providing.
“When you say, ‘Jesus paid for this,’ it sounds really cheesy to me,” she said. “It sounds really cheesy to them, and they’re turning around on their heels and walking away from you.”
Crim said the Salmon Frenzy holds a short sermon under one of the tents on Sunday, as it did last year. She said last year the sermon was mostly attended by volunteers and that, although dipnetters are welcome to attend, volunteers do not try to recruit dipnetters to come.
Salmon Frenzy volunteers were on the beaches volunteering Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and will volunteer again this weekend before leaving. The mission’s volunteers come from churches throughout the United States, but primarily from churches in the South, where Crim lived before she moved to Alaska four and a half years ago. Volunteers pay $395 per week to help cover their expenses while they are here.
The city of Kenai has signed an agreement with the group. Director of Kenai Parks and Recreation, Bob Frates, said the agreement was motivated in large part by concerns over liability. The agreement commits the city to providing the Chugach Baptist Association with free parking and supplies for volunteer activities that assist the city, including trash bags, safety vests for traffic control activities and zip ties for fence mending.
Mayor Pat Porter and City Manager Rick Koch said that, since the Salmon Frenzy first began, no one has complained about their presence on the beach, and that their volunteer services have been a tremendous help to the city.