J. Hugh Long ties a thick silver fox pelt around his chin. The rare fur encases his exposed skin in its heated embrace. It’s one of the relics Long has brought back with him from his eight years in Alaska.
“It’s very warm,” Long says. “When you turn it around, you can cover up almost your entire face.”
From one corner of the United States to the other, Long is back in Florida. He has been serving as interim pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church off North Forbes Road since January and is working to raise membership and youth involvement.
So far, bonfire Bible study cookouts have drawn a crowd of truck-driving, sports-playing youth. Long definitely doesn’t need his furry hat around the bonfires. But, his days of Alaskan ministry are never far from his mind.
CALLED TO SERVE
Long first heard the call to ministry when he was in the youth group himself at Lebanon Baptist Church. The high school dropout had gotten back into the group after serving with the U.S. Army. By day, he was involved with the church. By night, he took classes to finish his diploma.
“God was impressing on me,” Long says. “I felt the desire to minister, the inward call to preach. It’s hard to describe, but I wasn’t satisfied doing anything else.”
So, when he met his wife, Marilyn, at Lebanon, he started making plans with the help of her brother, Elvin Hall. Hall was the pastor at Lebanon at the time. He left his stable job at Seaboard Railroad and the couple hit the open road for seminary. They traveled all over the Eastern U.S., serving at a plethora of different churches in New Orleans, the hills of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Palatka and High Springs in Florida.
In 1981, they returned to Plant City, where Long served with Hopewell Baptist Church and Bethany Baptist Church. While in Plant City, he became involved in senior ministry, taking mission trips to Alaska, which continued even after his retirement. Mostly, he helped in the kitchens for an Alaska native youth camp.
But in 2004, the director of admissions needed more from the Longs. A church in Cold Bay needed a volunteer pastor. Long came out of retirement to apply. Three days later, he got the call. Two weeks later, they were in Alaska.
“It was a culture shock,” Long says.
SERVING IN THE SNOW
The town only had around 100 residents. Still, there was more than enough action.
The Cold Bay Airport was built during World War II and still sees traffic today. Long remembers a Boeing 777 from Japan that had to make an emergency landing. The 253 passengers were headed to Anchorage. For 18 days, the people of Cold Bay set them up at the community center and fed them. They even rented some vans and took them to see wildlife.
Long didn’t spend all his time helping stranded passengers, however. He served in nine remote villages, including False Pass, Nelson Lagoon, Tok and Anderson. False Pass and Nelson Lagoon could only be reached by a 45-minute plane ride. Sometimes, they got snowed in for days.
Because of the weather, the Longs brought their own food and sleeping bags. Long was well known for the frozen pizzas he would make for the villagers. They also hosted activities for kids, cooked meals and brought stockings around Christmas for everyone in the entire village. They always sat down to eat the same meal with the ones they were helping.
“To reach people, we did a lot of cooking,” Long says. “We thought that was one way to win confidence. We identified with the people.”
Through all their work, the Longs saw many societal issues plaguing the isolated towns. Alcohol abuse, child neglect and youth suicide were all dangerous affairs. In one week, the Longs witnessed three attempted suicides. They visited the teenagers every week after they were sent to treatment 200 miles away.
“In the long winters, where it’s dark and cold, it can get very depressing,” Long says. “We think our being there and our working with them helped prevent them from trying again.”
The Longs left the mysterious corner of the world in 2012, after a family sickness. Long says he is excited to be back at the place of his first calling.
“I saw Lebanon when it was at its peak,” Long says. “I have a vested interest in it. They’re a wonderful bunch of people. We just need more.”
He hopes if he can get attendance up, the church will be able to hire a younger, long-term pastor. But for now, he’s on call 24/7 — like his travels through Alaska — waiting to serve and to sit at any table.
“We have a policy at the church that anyone that walks through the doors is welcome,” Long says.
Contact Amber Jurgensen at [email protected].
IF YOU GO
Lebanon Baptist Church
ADDRESS: 110 N. Forbes Road, Plant City
PHONE: (813) 752-2006