Neb. farmers responsive to Baptist seeds of faith

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (BP)--Don Stricker slowly climbs down from his mammoth John Deere tractor and surveys the dark soil he has been tilling all morning. Looking in all directions, all he can see is land, sky, and more land and sky.

Each row he turns, each field he surveys, Stricker is all alone with nature, all alone with God. But like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, who migrated to the United States from Russia, Stricker says he would not have it any other way.

"Seeing things grow and knowing I am helping my fellow man by feeding people, that's my purpose in life," he said. "But when I get full of myself, there seems to be a hail storm, a wind storm or maybe insects, all causing me to be humbled."

With that thought, Stricker focuses heavenward and points to his source of strength both when things are going well and when things seem to be out of control.

"We need to realize that Jesus is in control and we need to follow his purpose, not our own. Do what he wants, not what we want."

Stricker is not alone under this canvas of blue skies in northwest Nebraska. Dozens of other farmers, their wives and children who make their living farming, faithfully depend on Jesus to see them through the long days of tilling, planting and harvesting.

Doug Lee, coordinator of Oregon Trail Baptist Association, understands the hardships and joys of rural life in the agricultural towns of Nebraska. With a home in North Platte, Neb., Lee travels thousands of miles each year ministering to the churches in his association, as well as trying to start new churches in the many small towns without a Southern Baptist influence.

With the help of summer missionaries and other mission teams, Lee is going door to door in towns, asking residents to identify the needs in their town and how a church could meet those needs.

In the tiny community of Berea, Neb., a small, rural Baptist church is ministering faithfully to farmers and their families, most of whom are not even Southern Baptist.

After asking the Lord for direction to the place he wanted him to live, Kent VanMeter moved his family from northeast Missouri to Alliance, Neb. "Seven years ago, God dropped a road map in my lap, and the road led to Berea," Van Meter recounted.

A farmer himself, VanMeter accepted the job he felt the Lord had provided for him and moved to this Panhandle town and put down roots.

A Southern Baptist deacon before heading west, VanMeter and his family had some difficulty finding the right church. They even visited another denomination in hopes of settling into a church home. But something just was not right and VanMeter knew he should be doing more for the Lord.

In Berea, about 10 miles north of Alliance, a small Baptist work had been started, but was without a pastor. The church asked VanMeter if he would assume the role of pastor. At first he was unsure, but being an ordained deacon, he knew it was his responsibility to take on such a role since there was not anyone to lead the congregation.

Volunteers cleaned and renovated the 80-year-old church building, making it more suitable for worship and attracting visitors.

VanMeter was honest with everyone about his abilities and desires for the church. He was adamant about not taking a salary. With his willingness and the congregation's hunger to be fed, the church is growing, baptisms are occurring and the Lord is at work in this small farming community of northwest Nebraska.

Interestingly enough, the church is appealing to people from other denominational backgrounds more than people who call themselves Southern Baptists. Nearly two-thirds of the congregation continue to worship in their lifelong faith as well as attend the tiny, rural church. This is made possible because VanMeter's job requires him to work Sunday mornings and so services are held only on Sunday evenings.

"Berea Baptist Church is a very giving church that is ministering to people from many denominations," VanMeter said. "You can tell that the people up here are hungry for the Word."

Kent introduces people like Arthur and Opal Johnson, a couple who have been farming in the area for 50 years, and like others who have ties to another denomination have been attending Berea faithfully for many years.

Johnson speaks glowingly of the church's growth and VanMeter's preaching from the Word of God while his wife smiles and recalls how the church responded during Arthur's hospital stay after suffering a heart attack. VanMeter in turn brags on the Johnsons and their commitment to the church and to the Lord.

"It's interesting to watch people like Art and Opal who are concerned about other people and as we get more involved in the teaching of the Word, we get more concerned about our friends and try to reach them for Christ," VanMeter said.

But the common ground that pulls the community together is the ground itself -- the earth, soil and the plants that grow in the rich dirt that stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction. Everyone in the church is involved in agriculture in some way or another. The hours are long, the work difficult and lonely at times. But ask anyone in the church, and each will tell you this is the occupation they would rather do more than anything else.

Renee' and Jim Buskirk farm 1,000 acres of sugar beets, corn, dry beans and wheat near the Johnsons' farm and both know the demands farming places on a marriage and a family.

"I always wanted to be a farmer's wife," Renee said. "But I did not realize how hard the work could be. You have to be strong and your husband needs a lot of support."

Both put a high emphasis on prayer, fellowship with other Christians and studying the Scripture in order to be good parents, have a strong marriage and be faithful followers of Christ.

Tonya Nickont, whose husband, Mark, works for the farmer's co-op, echoed Buskirks' thoughts, saying, "You need a strong marriage where God is in the center."

Nickont, a Methodist believer, said attending Berea Baptist Church has been food for her soul. The past year of attending there has given her a better understanding of God's Word.

"We are all the same in Christ. We are all children of God no matter what denomination we are," Tonya Nickont said. "This is a church and community with people who encourage you and stand by you when you are going through difficult times."

As the Johnsons, Buskirks, Strickers and Nickonts faithfully go about their farming responsibilities, each, with God's help, remains faithful to the task at hand. But rather than look at the soil below their feet, all continue to seek guidance from above as they farm God's soil.

For Don Stricker, his close ties to the church keep him looking upward to the day when the last grain of wheat has been harvested.

"I have peace of mind when I am going to church and I know there is something better for us one day," Stricker said as he climbed back into the cab of his roaring tractor and began tilling his fields once again.

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