By Carol Stender
Loren Tungseth of Fergus Falls is eager to go to a coffee shop in Naknek, Alaska called The Net. But the coffee and goodies aren’t the draw; it’s the people who visit the place.
The Net is part of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations’ (AFLC) Alaska Mission for which Tungseth serves as coordinator. Included in the Alaska Mission is KAKN Christian radio station and three AFLC churches. While the radio station and churches operate throughout the year, The Net is open for only two months - June and July - during the commercial salmon fishing season.
Workers at The Net are mostly AFLC members who come to Naknek for a week or two week stay. Bobbie Overgaard, a Dalton, Minnesota, native now living in Santa Barbara, CA, has been The Net’s manager.
“We give free coffee, cookies and cupcakes and, more importantly, we are able to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with people from all over the world,” he said.
It was Naknek Pastor Jeff Swenson who got it started. According to Tungseth, Swenson was driving his truck along a street and noticed a number of fisherman walking. Swenson put up a sign announcing “free ice cream” and, as the fishermen and cannery workers came for a treat, he engaged them in conversation.
Through that ministry, the pastor set up a building and coffee shop.
Tungseth has been involved with AFLC’s Alaska Mission since 2008 when serving on the denomination’s Home Mission board. When he retired from ShoreMaster in Fergus Falls in 2011, he joined AFLC Home Missions as a part-time staff member. He’s traveled to Naknek about 18 times. His wife, Sharon, has joined him for about half of his trips.
Besides The Net, Tungseth has led teams on work projects within the Alaskan community. A group from the Dalton Free Lutheran Church joined him in 2013, for example, to build a garage with apartments. Those buildings are used by people who minister at The Net.
And there are many opportunities to share. Naknek’s population grows from 550 people who live there year round to 5,000 to 10,000 during the fishing season. The workers come from across the globe to work on one of the 500 to 600 fishing boats in six or seven fish processing centers. Workers live in dormitories located near the activity and, during their time off, many come to The Net.
Pins dot two maps at The Net where those visiting the coffee shop have pinned the locations they call home. Through those pin locations, The Net workers learned that, in 2018, those visiting the coffee shop came from 45 states and 40 countries and, in 2019, 49 states and 32 countries.
Due to COVID-19, The Net, didn’t open this year, but Tungseth looks forward to next fishing season when, hopefully, travel and activities resume some normalcy. And speaking of travel, getting to the remote village, located 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, requires a plane ride. One of the three pastors serving the area’s AFLC churches is a pilot.
This year the commercial fishing workers are limited to the area around the boats, canneries and dormitories, Tungseth said. Almost as if to make up for the year’s limitations, the fishing has been great. He’s learned that one net garnered a record 600 fish.
It’s dangerous work netting and processing the fish, as the workers manage 16 hour workdays, seven days a week, he said.
“You can tell at The Net when the fish have come in, because there are fewer people at the coffee shop,” Tungseth added.
When they do have time off, The Net offers a place to relax and connect.
“We have games and puzzles for people to play,” he said. “And we have great conversations.”
Those conversations often include discussions of faith. Many who visit The Net have come to know the Lord through their visits, he said. One coffee shop worker shared with some of The Net’s visitors her experience of becoming a Christian following drug addiction.
And two young men set to work on one of the fishing boats, left the vessel when they learned their captain was an alcoholic. They felt the situation would’ve been dangerous. But, when they had no work, they had no pay. They came to The Net not knowing how to get home and, through Pastor Jeff, they were able to stay at the church for a couple of nights. Workers and Pastor Jeff shared the gospel with them.
“They said ‘We came up here to earn money, but what happened was we came here to really know the Lord,’” Tungseth said.
Working with the Alaskan ministry has strengthened his faith, he added. And he’s observed how the gifts of each person are used to spread the word through their connections at The Net or other Alaskan ministries.
“Different people have different gifts,” he said. “There are those that have the gift to sit down and hear their stories. I am one who greets people and serves cookies.”
One of Tungseth’s gifts is sharing AFLC’s Alaska Mission story. He travels to AFLC churches informing members of the ministry with Sharon often accompanying him.
“She always has a group of women asking her how they can ship cookie dough and cake for use at The Net,” he said.
He attributed his speaking skills and ministry to his parents, Marvin and Myrtle whose faith was a cornerstone for the family. They had a dairy farm near Fergus Falls where the couple also raised their eight children.
His parents helped start Calvary Free Lutheran Church in Fergus Falls in 1968, Tungseth said. And his father, a lay preacher, often spoke during the week at other churches. Tungseth, the oldest son, often accompanied his father to those services.
“I remember sitting by myself when he would go up to preach,” Tungseth said. “That had an influence on me and it had an influence on me getting involved in The Gideons. It also led me to this position as Alaska Missions coordinator.”
Just as Tungseth has returned to Naknek often, so have those who’ve worked at The Net. Fish industry workers, as well, return to The Net looking for people who’ve helped at the coffee shop in the past.
The Net is a hospitality house, he said. It’s a place of peace amidst the bustling, busy work of the fishing season.
Tungseth has seen the Alaska ministry grow and has experienced his own faith grow. Since 2008, AFLC’s Alaska Mission has started The Net and a Vacation Bible School program.
And he’s eager to return.
“It gets in your blood,” he said.