Around the Globe

| More

The Elephant in the Room

Cru staff member Julie Chang returns to Alaska.

Julie Chang
  • Author: By Jess Fong
  • Credits: Photos by Guy Gerrard
  • Published: January 7, 2013
  • Location: USA

A WOMAN is waltzing hand in hand with a homeless man on a sidewalk in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. Tourists walk by, trying not to look, as the two spin across the cement.

Julie Chang can see Alaska’s raw beauty: mountains, glaciers, aurora borealis. She also knows the ugly reality of her home state—hopelessness swallowing people like Simon Okpealuk, the homeless man she just met.

Instead of looking away, Julie dances with Simon, stepping around her purse and her journal with an elephant cover, while her friends stand in the bright sun, watching, laughing.

Julie hasn’t had much to laugh about here, where so many are swept into cycles of substance abuse, depression and domestic violence. The state has the highest rate of suicide per capita in America: 21.8 people for every 100,000—nearly double the national average, according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.

From Our January/February Issue

The sexual assault rate is 2.5 times the national average, according to the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Julie personally suffered in an abusive relationship her freshman year of college and thought she might be pregnant. She wasn’t. But she wanted change. “I had lost everything: my grades, my innocence, my self-esteem.”

I have to get out of here, she thought. So Julie left for school in Oregon, eventually joining a Cru ministry. After graduation, she became a staff member with Cru, introducing college students to Jesus Christ. Most recently, she’s been doing the same thing in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Chinese American is 34 now, with long, wavy black hair, an intense stare, and the ability to switch from hard, honest conversations with students one minute to singing boy-band songs the next.

For the first time in seven years, Julie is serving in Alaska. She’s a staff member for the Alaska Project, a nine-week opportunity to teach college students to process evangelism and spiritual growth as a way of life. These 22 students take local jobs, build relationships with co-workers and meet with Cru staff members like Julie.

Every night, they walk around the University of Anchorage dorms to hold Bible studies or evangelistic outreaches. On the way they pass, of all the unlikely things to see in Alaska, an elephant spray-painted on a generator.

Julie is seeing Alaska with new eyes. She’s redefining a word in her vocabulary—dysfunction—a word she uses to grasp brokenness, a name for the ugliness, a word to put a cap on wounds. It helps her understand Alaska as she didn’t before, and it shows her where Christ’s redemptive nature is possible.

Julie and a project student pray with Shannon Johnson at the smoothie shop where she works.

Recently she did a double-take at her cashier, a woman with a black eye. Ten years ago, Julie wouldn’t have thought much of it. The bruise now signals possible abuse, a familiar cycle. Jesus is needed here.

“The day before, I was crying about Alaska,” says Julie. “In my sadness I think, What’s the point? What are we doing? Could I believe that God could do something here? But He heard my grief.”

So today, for now, Julie steps back in, placing her hope in Christ, and giving hope away.

Renee Gibbs, a sophomore at Northwest University in Washington, is one of the Alaska Project students Julie trains. One afternoon, they sit by Goose Lake, looking at the Chugach Mountains.

Julie, quickly but with care, pushes Renee to explain why she hasn’t been reading the Bible study for their small group. “I think some of it has to do with the fear of getting it wrong,” says Renee, fidgeting.

For more than an hour, Julie continues asking Renee hard questions, to help her identify why she feels the need to both perform well and to hide when she hasn’t. Toward the end of their time, Renee sighs in relief and says, “Man, I just need to spend more time with you.”

“No,” says Julie, quickly and almost frustrated. “No, you need to spend more time with the Lord.”

Later, she drives under a billboard of a large, hairy elephant, and acknowledges how her own past helps her mentor students. “I notice these things because I’ve been through them too,” she says. “My hope is that they’ll grow in identity, accept how they were created, surrendering more of their lives for Him. By the end, they’ll have tracks to run on to take back to campus—not through muscling, but by watching and expecting God.”

To Julie’s surprise, three students plan to stay in Anchorage after the Alaska Project ends. One already transferred to the university, and two recent graduates received job offers, including the student who came to Alaska with, of all things, an elephant necklace in her suitcase. Julie might coach the student, for now, over the phone from Utah.

Julie and Alaska Project director Kristen Hamm go for a morning run.

And maybe, just maybe, God also has something for Julie back here in Alaska. That idea started with elephants.

At least once a day for the last two years, Julie says she has seen a photograph, pendant, postcard, advertisement—something—bearing the image of an elephant. When she first realized this, she prayed that it would stop if seeing elephants was not from the Lord.

It didn’t stop.

So Julie has been on a journey of studying elephants. Elephants, she learned, travel in herds and thrive best in groups, like the body of Christ. They pass along what they know to younger elephants—a pachyderm’s version of discipleship.

For now, Julie plans to return to Salt Lake City with Cru’s Campus Ministry. But then she passes another elephant, like when she parked next to a car filled with stuffed animals outside of Yak & Yeti Restaurant. On the other side of the backseat window was an elephant, and she looked at it, shaking her head in a mixture of amusement and amazement. Elephants. Again.

Elephants have become reminders for her. These animals, Julie discovered, migrate full circle, traveling back to where they started, and maybe Julie is being called back, too. She’s praying for Alaska again, whether or not she returns.

With one hand on the homeless man’s shoulder and the other in his palm, Julie dips and turns, laughing with her friends. She and Simon step around leftover hot dog wrappers and wooden figurines that he carves and sells on the street.

The students had decided they wanted to get to know and have lunch with some of the homeless, who average almost 5,000 per night statewide.

Up until this dance, Julie had listened to Simon tell stories about catching whales and about life as a homeless man. His voice rose in anger, tears sliding behind the sunglasses he never took off, yelling about his mistreatment and life on the street. He softened as they began to talk about God’s unquestionable love and, as goodbyes were being said, he grasped Julie’s hand and began shuffling his feet, sweetly unorganized and without music. As they walked away, Simon put on the gray sweatshirt he’d asked for—the one that Julie had just taken off her back.

It is for people like Simon that Julie is re-evaluating her relationship with Alaska. Because now when Julie watches him, hurting but dancing, she no longer just sees dysfunction—she sees the hope of Christ.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.


We love hearing from our readers! Use the form below to send your comments to the Worldwide Challenge staff.

Submit Submit