For more than 10 years, the city of Anchorage has watched a church shaped like a wedding cake rise from a lot between a bingo parlor and a shoe repair shop on Fireweed Lane.
Last month, a crane set a giant steel spire on top, the last big exterior detail. For the roughly 40 congregants of Alaska's chapter of La Luz del Mundo, a fundamentalist Christian church based in Mexico, it was evidence of the power of faith and hard work.
"The only word that comes to mind is, it's a labor of love," said Raquel Salmeron, a 38-year-old church member who moved to Alaska with her husband and three children to help the church finish the project.
The project, which began in 2006 as a far-north symbol of the mother church's evangelical mission, has stretched longer than anyone imagined. But the church members have carried on, driving supplies from Mexico to Alaska, selling tamales to raise money and taking turns sleeping inside the church at night to guard it from break-ins.
Money dictates the pace of construction. There is no loan on the building, Salmeron said. It's all being paid out-of-pocket by church members — and the price tag is approaching $2 million.
Over the past few months, the congregation has poured in volunteer hours, buoyed by savings and fundraising. Church members have traveled from Houston, Portland and Seattle to install interior walls and flooring.
They eat breakfast and lunch at the church. Sometimes people are there late.
Soon, Salmeron hopes church members can finally move from the leased business suite next to a sushi restaurant where they've been holding services into the structure at Fireweed and A Street. The unusual tiered design is a scale replica of the La Luz del Mundo church in Guadalajara.
The church, Spanish for "the light of the world," was founded in 1926. Its membership grew rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The longtime international director of the church, Samuel Joaquín Flores — a charismatic and controversial figure in Mexico — wanted a church in Alaska and in Chile. The idea was for the church to have a physical footprint in both the north and the south. Joaquín Flores died in 2014; his son, Naason Joaquín Garcia, has succeeded him.
In 2006, the church bought the land on Fireweed Lane. Construction started soon after. But in Alaska, where it's notoriously expensive to build anything, the project has been fraught with unexpected challenges. When money dries up, construction halts, and church members have to save and fundraise.
Salmeron grew up in Sacramento, California. She was raised Catholic. In her early 20s, a friend who lived in Alaska introduced her to the La Luz del Mundo church in south Sacramento. She liked the order of the church, the community and what she saw as the directness of the word of God.
"This is something that makes me happy," Salmeron said.
She, her husband Edgar and her three children were living in Hawaii when Salmeron heard from her friend in Alaska. The Anchorage church project was struggling financially.
In 2011, the family used savings to pay their way to Alaska. Edgar got a job as a taxidermist and Raquel started going to nursing school. Before long, Edgar was making enough to allow Raquel to focus on the church full-time, she said.
A fluent English speaker — many of the church members favor Spanish — Salmeron was enlisted as a liaison between the church, contractors and city building officials. She said she wouldn't be in Alaska if it weren't to help build the church.
"I know I'm just one person, but sometimes that one person is what this needs," Salmeron said. "Someone to get things going."
On a recent weekday, lights spiraled up along the decked levels inside the under-construction church building. Color lights will be used to create a rainbow, Salmeron said.
On a chair by the door sat Roy McCord, who is installing microphones and speakers. McCord is one of the few non-church members working on the project. Salmeron found him on Craigslist. He runs a drain-cleaning and audio-visual installation business.
Like many Anchorage residents, McCord said he drove by the church periodically and wondered what was going on. He'd heard different theories, including a musing that it was a Bahá'í temple.
"For years, I went, I don't know what's going on in here… and they've just been quietly working away on the inside," McCord said.
On top of a crane near the top of the church building, Isaac Aguirre, the pastor, stood in a reflective vest and white hard hat. He was installing a protective dome around the new spire.
Later, on the ground, Aguirre said in Spanish that he was born into the church in Tucson, Arizona. He said he had been taught since he was small to serve the church.
"I was sent here because of my construction background, to finish construction of the church," Aguirre said, with Salmeron interpreting. He had been in Alaska for almost three years.
To save money, the church bought the golden spire atop the church in Mexico. Members drove all the way to the Mexican border in Arizona to load the spire into a trailer before driving back.
Back in Anchorage, someone tried to break into the trailer holding the pieces of the spire. After that, the church moved the pieces inside. They took turns sleeping inside the building to watch over it and to prevent break-ins at the main church building.
Someone did successfully steal Aguirre's trailer full of construction equipment, parked outside the church. Now the church leaves nothing outside, Salmeron said.
The past few months have been tough and time-consuming, Salmeron said. She has a Vitamin D deficiency and the long Alaska winters are hard on her.
It will be worth it, she said, to see the church open at last.
"I'm just hanging in there," Salmeron said. "Now I see the goal closer and closer, I'm going to hang in there."