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RELIGION : Currents Carry Messages Thousands of Miles Away : 'Bottle Evangelist' Sends Word to the World From Shores of the Arctic

April 02, 1988|LISA LEVITT RYCKMAN | Associated Press

NOME, Alaska — Almost every spring for 33 years, Everett Bachelder has set God adrift in the Bering Sea in 2,000 mayonnaise jars, ketchup bottles and plastic wrappers.

It's the Gospel afloat off the starboard bow, the sea-tossed sermon of a bottle evangelist. Bachelder and his wife, Mina, see theirs as a mission of faith. They drop bits of Scripture, expressed in 100 different languages, into the powerful Arctic currents at the top of the world.

Their inspiration came from a Tacoma, Wash., bottle evangelist who pitched messages of faith into Puget Sound and received letters from around the world.

Nine months after the Bachelders put out their first bottles, one of them was retrieved near Borneo, 10,000 miles away.

"It was 10 years before we heard from the Atlantic Ocean," said Bachelder, a silver-haired, square-jawed 74-year-old fundamentalist Christian. "When the wind is right, all the bottles go to Siberia."

Bachelder figures that of every 1,000 bottles cast adrift, 100 are found and he hears from 10 of the finders. Yet what bottle evangelism lacks in the immediate gratification of saving souls face to face, it makes up for in divine drama.

Bottle on the Rocks

A man in Singapore was ready to jump off a cliff over an unhappy love affair when he saw a bottle wash up on the rocks below him. "I'll jump when the bottle breaks," he told himself.

But the bottle wouldn't break. The fascinated man carefully climbed down the treacherous cliff to examine it. It was one of Bachelder's.

"There wasn't any Sinhalese in it, but there was enough that he could understand," Bachelder said. "He knew about the Bible and missionary stories, and he went and found a missionary and came to Christ."

A seminary student in Aruba was sitting on the beach, depressed over his future, when a Bachelder bottle rolled in. Inside it were the usual eight or 10 tracts in different languages, Dutch among them. His life was changed.

"He had to choose between continuing at his school and serving the Lord or going into a business venture," Mina Bachelder said. "When he found the bottle, he felt he should go ahead and serve the Lord instead of making bucks on this business venture."

A submariner retrieved a Bachelder bottle in the Mediterranean Sea. The man who picked it up took it to the commander, who said, "It's somebody in Nome who's thinking about us. Let's all pray."

Keeps Finders' Letters

Bachelder leaned back in his easy chair and sorted through a stack of letters, the source of these stories. On the wall near him, inscribed on a seal skin, are words from Proverbs 4:12: "As thou goest step by step, I will open up the way before thee."

So it has been for Bachelder in Alaska these last 40 years. The couple landed in Nome in an Arctic storm with three children, seven dogs and a washing machine to take over the Nome Gospel Home from the departing missionaries. Over the years, they had five more children and have dropped into the icy waves 100 yards from their front door more than 50,000 bottles and wrappers stuffed with water-proofed messages.

Now the Nome Gospel Home, between their house and religious bookstore and the sea, sags with age and disrepair. There are no more prayer meetings there. Times have changed; the native people have changed. Boredom and alcoholism--a different kind of religion in a bottle--have made it tougher to have a spiritual impact on society here.

Other missionaries have come and gone, driven away by the loneliness and the barren landscape. The Bachelders remain, as do four of their children.

"People say, 'Why would you want to be in Nome? There are no trees there. You're so isolated,' but I love the people--and then there are the bottles," Bachelder said.

"We've had a lot of inspiration to stay here."

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