Learning Gratitude on the Frozen Tundra: Paul and Marguerite Bills, Assemblies of God Missionaries to Alaska

billsThis Week in AG History — November 24, 1968

By Glenn W. Gohr
Originally published on PE-News, 23 November 2016

Paul E. Bills (1921-1977) and his wife, Marguerite, learned true gratitude while serving as Assemblies of God missionaries in the harsh conditions of remote Alaska. In a 1968 Pentecostal Evangel article, Paul showed how the challenges of life on the frozen tundra taught them to be thankful.

In faith, Paul and Marguerite drove from New Jersey to North Pole, Alaska, in the fall of 1955, thinking they were under missionary appointment with the Assemblies of God. When they arrived, however, they were surprised to discover that their paperwork had not been received. Eventually things were straightened out, and they were granted appointment.  For the next 20 years Paul and Marguerite devoted their lives to evangelizing Eskimos in spite of difficult and primitive conditions.

Paul Bills made the bold statement: “It took the Alaskan mission field to create within us a thankful heart.” While pastoring a church in North Pole, Paul and Marguerite adopted two infant Alaskan Native girls named Marcis and Roxanne. Later the family added a son Paul.

One of their first mission stations was in the village of Beaver, located on the Yukon River just south of the Arctic Circle. They lived in a little two-room dirt-roof cabin.  One of the first questions Paul asked was “Where do we get our water?” He was told that the Yukon River had lots of water.  However, it was under several feet of ice, plus there was a very steep bank at the edge of the river. Bills declared, “You have no idea how we struggled and slipped and prayed as we filled our water barrel. Never had water seemed so precious.”

From North Pole and Beaver, Paul and Marguerite and their daughters went to Barrow and ministered for several years. There they found the water situation even worse. The source was a lake located five miles out on the tundra. Most of the year the water was in the form of ice. Sometimes they were able to buy ice from those who had dog teams. The price was not unreasonable, at about 10 to 20 cents a gallon, as it wasn’t easy work to chop the ice and then deliver it. But that was not all. Once received, the ice had to be scraped before being put into a tank next to the furnace. This procedure itself took several hours. Every ounce of water was precious, and none of it was wasted. The same water was often used for several needs—washing dishes, taking baths, washing clothes, scrubbing floors, etc.

Have you ever thanked God for a thermostat?  You might if you lived in Alaska.  Paul Bills’ first winter there was a rough one. For a six-week period the temperature never rose above 40 below zero. It stayed mostly 50 to 60 below and got very close to 70 below. In those conditions, hitching up a dog team and going out looking for wood is quite a chore which often could involve frozen toes, fingers, and faces. “Every piece of wood put into the Alaskan stove is like a gift from God,” said Bills.

How often do you thank God for the sun? When living in Alaska, one tends to appreciate the sun very much. Bills remembered coming to the Barrow station, and each day the sun would be lower and lower in the sky. He shared: “On November 18 we watched it sink beneath the horizon and there was a sense of sadness. It was almost like losing a friend, for we knew we would not see it again for over two months. You really don’t miss something until you lose it.” This is especially true with respect to the sun. Bills shared, “January 23rd is always an exciting day in Barrow. Everyone talks about it.” On that day each year, the sun appears again in the sky, and everyone is happy for daylight again.

Have you ever lived in a desert or treeless area for an extended period of time? In 1965, Paul Bills and family moved to Nome, Alaska, among a group of people who in all their lives had never seen a tree except maybe in a picture. In the fall of 1968, at a time when many people in the rest of the U.S. were enjoying the changing colors of the fall trees and looking forward to a Thanksgiving feast, Paul shared: “In our present station in Nome we are in a treeless area and when we are able to get out to the tree area we cannot help but notice the majesty of trees.”

Recounting all the things he was thankful for, he asked, “Are you really grateful for the food you eat? When you offer thanks is it a mere ritual? A Christian duty? Do you consider the variety of items before you? How about those fresh fruits and vegetables?” His response was, “If you live in a remote Alaskan village you would forget that some of these items exist. Then sometimes you would dream about corn on the cob, watermelon, peaches, oranges, and dozens of other foods which are just memories of former days. If perchance a plane brings in a delicacy on a rare occasion, you bow your head in deep gratitude for this special blessing from God.”

Bills concluded his article by remarking, “Yes, we are truly thankful for the privilege of living on the mission field, for it has awakened our soul to the virtue of gratitude; and it is such an enjoyable and edifying experience to be grateful for the everyday blessings of life.” Importantly, he observed that “Genuine thankfulness is a help to holiness.”

In 1976, Paul Bills was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He died the next year and was buried on his 56th birthday. At his request, he was buried in Barrow beside Ned Nusunginya, his close friend and interpreter, who was converted during Paul’s initial revival in Barrow.

Paul and Marguerite Bills devoted their lives to share the gospel in remotest Alaska, and the challenges they encountered taught them about the importance of gratitude. They developed an attitude of thanksgiving, and they encouraged others to likewise view difficulties as valuable, transformative experiences for growing in Christ.

Read Paul E. Bills’ article, “I Learned Gratitude on the Alaska Mission Field,” on pages 2-3 of the Nov. 24, 1968, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.

Also featured in this issue:

• “Five Grains of Corn,” by Mrs. Max (Hannah) Johnson

• “Maintaining the Balance,” by Alice Reynolds Flower

• “A Change in Government,” by C. M. Ward

And many more!

Click here to read this issue now.

Pentecostal Evangel archived edition courtesy of Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.

Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200
Email: archives@ag.org
Website: www.iFPHC.org

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Filed under Biography, History, Missions, Spirituality

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