Storyteller: Reaching one of the four corners

By Charmaine Smith-Miles
Anderson, South Carolina (AP) April 2010

Jim Barefoot’s voice comes out raspy, rough.

The cold air – years of sleeping on frozen ground, on ice – has taken the smoothness. His vocal chords are gone. A small machine helps him tell his story.

He can still lead a sermon, explain the Gospel if he needs to.

“All things that happened to me were in his will,” Barefoot said. “He said, ‘My people will be a tried people.’ He’s just getting me ready for the second death.”

The second death. Heaven, surely, for Jim Barefoot.

His life has been spent dedicated to the mission of spreading the Gospel to one of the world’s four corners. His mission has been to reach the native people of Alaska, traveling the length of the Yukon River, sleeping on the Berring Sea, eating many meals of frozen fish, using not a vehicle to guide him, but a team of dogs.

“The snow mobile is taking the place of dogs,” he says, flipping through a photo album. “But I’d rather travel with dogs anytime. Safer. They don’t travel on thin ice. And they can steer you in the dark.”

Pictures in black-and-white show the sled, loaded with supplies, that carried him into the frozen world above the Arctic Circle. The boy who grew up in Durham, N.C., felt his heart led to serve his God when he was 17. So he traveled to Southern Wesleyan University. There he obtained his degree in theology.

He became the Rev. Jim Barefoot.

He is one of nine children – born to a mother with Cherokee Indian roots. They learned the ways of the Indians. Three of the five boys grew up to become ministers.

His parish was Alaska.

He knew that in 1962, when he and his wife, Helen, traveled to the northern wilderness, that his orders from above were just as he’d felt in his heart. They were needed there. God’s message was needed there. Churches had been built. But there was no one to preach a Sunday sermon, no one to explain the Bible.

So six years later they returned.

“I never liked the cold. I don’t know why he called me to where it was so cold,” Barefoot said, shrugging his shoulders. “But he used me anyway.”

So his family started Polar Evangelism Inc.

He preached to the Aleut, the American Indians and the Eskimos. He went to them by sled, by snow, by boat and by airplane. For those he could not reach in those ways, and those he could, there was the radio. He and his family broadcast the Cabin Prayer Meeting of the Air on five stations in the languages of the native people.

They reached out to students at the University of Alaska and started the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, which still operates 36 years after Barefoot, his family and close friend, Ralph Pike, started it.

“I’ve traveled the full length of the Yukon on ice,” Barefoot said. “I seldom had a hot meal. But I loved every minute.”

Throat cancer would bring him and his wife south.

He’d never been a smoker. Doctors said he shouldn’t have this kind of cancer. The fear is that the years of preaching in the snow, in the ice, in temperatures that reached 65 degrees below zero, took their toll. In 1991, Barefoot was diagnosed. Two years later he and his wife returned to Upstate South Carolina.

Paintings of the northern lands, completed by Barefoot, along with furs and a handmade quilt given as a parting gift now decorate their Anderson home. Proof of a life lived for the Gospel.

Other proof – three children, two of them serving in missions and one in the medical field.

On Tuesday, he’ll celebrate his 83rd birthday. In the midst of the day, he’ll look to this quote – one from missionary C.T. Studd – that hangs just above a 350-year-old Bible in his living room: “Only one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

And what Barefoot has done will last.