Tolleruds transferred to Fairbanks for next ministry

When Lt. Jon Tollerud gave his first sermon in Wrangell, there was one person in the congregation, and it was a newspaper reporter covering the story of the new pastor in town.

Now, three and a half years later, an average of 20 congregants gather to hear the weekly message, and Sunday will be the last one given by Tollerud and his wife, Lt. Rosie Tollerud, as they have been transferred to Fairbanks by The Salvation Army.

In their time here, the Tolleruds have not only increased the number of people in the pews, they've increased the organization's food bank distributions from monthly to weekly and raised (red) buckets full of money through the annual fundraising drive at Christmastime.

The newlywed clergy couple also increased their awareness of life with each other, something they found personally rewarding.

"This was our first place together, learning how to be with each other and how to grow as people, as ministry partners and all of that," Jon Tollerud said. "I don't think we could have had a better place for it."

When they arrived in Wrangell with two teens and a baby on the way, there wasn't much going on at The Salvation Army, located at 611 Zimovia Highway. It was a blank slate for the couple.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, creating a whole new set of challenges in ministering to their new community. Thankfully, the internet provided solutions and blessings, helping to increase their membership.

"Because of COVID, we started doing online services," Rosie Tollerud said. "We've been able to share our stories online."

Jon said online services started out as simple as it gets, with them broadcasting via their smartphones. Eventually, someone donated equipment for a more advanced streaming ability.

"We started doing it online and we did it mostly so people here could still attend, to have something," he said. "We had a guy who - he lives in Australia - he contacted us and said, 'Hey, I work on (your) Sundays, and Monday is the day I get off and my Monday is your Sunday, so I always watch your service.'"

When things began to reopen and people could attend church in person again, the Tolleruds decided to keep broadcasting online specifically for their congregant in the land down under.

Along with finding new ways to reach people with a spiritual message, the duo also found ways to reach people on a healthy level with the food bank. Because of COVID and federal CARES Act funding, they were able to bring in more food and go from monthly to weekly food box distributions.

"We found ways to bypass COVID, putting (the box) outside the building, letting people (pick it up)," Jon said. "We have volunteers that manage that, which frees us up for pastoral (duties) and meeting with people, which is a big help."

Beyond their work, the couple found the community to be welcoming and accepting. "Just being able to get to know people over the last few years was very rewarding for us," Rosie said. "Whether they came into The Salvation Army or not, we've been able to grow friendships. Even, gosh, onto the airplane. You see people. 'Hey, haven't seen you in two weeks. Haven't talked to you in a while.' We catch up at the airport anytime."

Rosie has already had an introduction to Fairbanks and the surrounding communities, as she and their children lived there for six months before coming to Wrangell. Once there, the couple will oversee things like they do in Wrangell, but the added management of a thrift store will be included in their duties. And their coverage area will be much bigger, extending south about 110 miles to Healy and everything north.

There will be a homeless population to serve, as well, something Rosie said Wrangell doesn't struggle with. There are also military families they will minister to, since there are bases in their new service area.

It will be a bit of a tougher transition for Jon, he admitted. "I jokingly tell people that I'm going to have to relearn how to drive with stoplights," he said. But, he said, there are big differences to contend with. "I think, for me, I'm going to miss just the nature of community in a smaller area. You walk into the store and you can have a conversation with someone in the community that you probably couldn't have in a larger community."

The Tolleruds will be leaving the island on June 24. Their replacements, Capt. Chase Green and Capt. Belle Green, are relocating from Bellingham, Washington, and are scheduled to arrive June 20. Jon said staff usually doesn't overlap but since they've grown the ministry so much in Wrangell, it's been requested that they bring the Greens up to speed before departing.

Both Greens are originally from Alaska, with Chase having lived in Anchorage and Belle having lived in Sitka and Fairbanks.

Typically, ministers can be transferred at any time and usually serve year-to-year in a community Because of COVID and the need, the Tolleruds' time in Wrangell was longer than expected, though service can be as long as five to seven years in one place, Jon said.

"We want the community to know that we will miss it here, we will miss the people, that we're sad," Rosie said. "But we know we're called for this missionary work. We feel that it's a good transition. The people coming in, we're confident that they're ..."

"Up to the challenge, up to the ministry, up to the relationships," Jon concluded.

As big as an impact as the couple has had on Wrangell, the town has had a big impact on them, they said.

"We've had three and a half years in Paradise," Jon said. "Wrangell lives in us."


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