First Alaska-Based Law Enforcement Retreat Renews Faith, Marriages

By   •   June 30, 2021

Respite from the demands of a high-stress job was just what these law enforcement officers and their spouses needed after facing various traumatic events. Will Graham (middle) joined the couples, offering encouragement and Biblical guidance.

They came to Samaritan Lodge Alaska from five states, sharing a common calling—law enforcement—and many similar stories of on-duty trauma: shootings, physical assaults, violent car accidents in pursuit of suspects.

Some were already followers of Jesus when they arrived, deepening their relationship with Christ while there. Three people stirred the cold waters of Lake Clark in believers’ baptism before they left. Marriages were restored and recast in light of the Gospel, including one that was admittedly in crisis when the couple arrived.

All were showered with love and encouragement. Most important, the eternal hope found only in Christ and the trustworthiness of His Word were clearly communicated during the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s inaugural Law Enforcement Appreciation Retreat, June 20-25, in Port Alsworth, Alaska.

>>See photos from the first law enforcement retreat in Alaska

The 10 law enforcement officers and their spouses seemed to bond quickly amid a packed schedule, with scenic hikes, lake and stream fishing, and wildlife encounters scheduled between teaching sessions led by the week’s chaplains, J. Warner Wallace, a retired cold-case detective and Christian apologist, and Luis Anda, a retired Army chaplain who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

BGEA Vice President Will Graham was also there ministering alongside the chaplains, noting the jovial camaraderie of the officers and their spouses in what more than one participant described as a “safe environment” far removed from some of the hostility many have faced in recent months.

As memorable as the activities of the week were, Will Graham told the group on the last morning, “The lasting impact is going to be what you guys did in your hearts. That’s what’s going to last.” He emphasized that BGEA staff would continue praying for each couple and that “This is not the end, this is just the beginning.”

>>Learn more about the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team’s National Law Enforcement Appreciation Retreats

Couples standing, smiling, arms out
Law enforcement officers and their spouses bonded with each other and with other couples during the much-needed physical, mental and spiritual retreat.

Renewed Vows

Hamilton and Cheyenne Stanfield of Amarillo, Texas, didn’t know what to expect when they arrived at the Law Enforcement Appreciation Retreat. Hamilton, who goes by “Ham,” said he was a bit guarded when he first arrived.

“I know y’all do this for the veterans, but [law enforcement officers] are hard, we’re jaded, we’re really not an easy crust to crack. And you broke it all the way down for me and my wife,” Ham told the chaplains and lodge staff as each couple spoke about what the week had meant to them.

Cheyenne said that before the retreat, she and Ham were contemplating divorce and even thought about canceling their plans to attend the retreat. “But we came because we felt the tug of the Lord on our hearts.”

“We are a testimony and we acknowledge that,” Cheyenne said, “not for us, but for the Lord. … [This week] has served its purpose in our hearts and our lives and we are forever thankful for that.”

Ham and Cheyenne were among three couples who renewed their vows on the retreat’s final morning, recommitting themselves to God and to their marriages.

Couple hugging
A couple embraces after renewing their vows, led by Christian apologist and cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace.

The Obedience of Baptism

Jon and Erin Zacharkiw of suburban Portland, Oregon, were two of three people who followed in believer’s baptism in the chilly waters of Lake Clark adjacent to Samaritan Lodge.

Jon serves as a sheriff’s officer in Clackamas County, just south of Portland. He has seen more than his share of trauma through multiple incidents in the last three years, including a violent car wreck he endured in July 2020 while pursuing a suspect that led to his surrender to Christ. The couple had been attending an evangelical church for several years at the invitation of a fellow officer, but the accident, he says, was the pivotal moment in his journey to saving faith.

Yet in May this year, on an otherwise uneventful day, compounded traumas were brought to a new level and tested the couple’s faith after Jon was drawn into another car pursuit on a day Erin had joined him on a ride-along. When the suspect’s car came to a halt and he opened fire on Jon’s patrol car, Erin dove under the passenger dash as Jon returned fire, moving from the car out into the open out of concern for Erin. Only one of the several bullets Jon fired from his rifle into the suspect’s car hit him, lodging in the suspect’s shoulder and bringing the shootout to an end.

Erin and Jon arrived in Port Alsworth only six weeks removed from the shooting, but the week’s events, teaching and new friendships with other officers and their spouses helped paint a clearer picture of God’s redeeming work in their lives.

“I knew before we came here this was going to be a spiritual, life-changing moment,” Jon said, also noting that they hadn’t had a childfree vacation since 2009.

“We’ve always had a good marriage because we have worked on it, but we’ve been through a lot. Plus we needed time to get away and talk about the fact that we both got shot at by a guy who tried to kill us. … This has been such a weight off our shoulders.”

Three men stand waist-deep in water, seaplane floating in background
A frigid but heartwarming baptism toward the end of the life-changing week.

A Fellowship of Blue

Chad Vanden Berg knows duty-related trauma well. Chad and his wife, Amy, traveled to the retreat from Los Angeles, where Chad serves as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s officer. On Wednesday (June 23) during the retreat, Chad reached his five-year “Alive Day,” marking the day he was shot in the line of duty and almost died from blood loss during an extensive surgery.

Both Chad and Amy are believers who grew up in the church, so the ordeal allowed Amy to chronicle their journey on a blog, detailing how God used the shooting to bring glory to Himself even as Chad’s future as a law enforcement officer was in question.

Chad, recounting the retreat’s highlights to chaplains, staff and fellow law enforcement couples, said: “Probably the biggest thing … was being able to have brothers and sisters, not only in Christ, but in a common field with common experiences, and being able to share those experiences.”

Amy, meanwhile, expressed amazement at the camaraderie and the care they received.

“To be greeted getting off that plane with eye contact and our names being said and words of affirmation, it was just like a tidal wave of love met us when we got off those planes and it has not stopped rolling all over us all week, and I am just blessed beyond words.”

A second Law Enforcement Appreciation Retreat is scheduled for August 23-27 in Port Alsworth, Alaska.

Plane on tarmac with mountain in background, people holding American flags as couples deplane
A team of staff and chaplains greeted couples as they arrived—and encouraged them throughout the week.