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Native Americans to foster church leaders
Emerson Falls, president of the Fellowship of Native American Christians, speaks during a meeting of the organization June 10 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. There are about 450 Southern Baptist Churches that worship in the Native American context.  Photo by Heather Pendergraft.
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Posted on Jun 18, 2013 | by Karen L. Willoughby

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HOUSTON (BP) -- More than 70 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas but 90 percent of ministry to the people group takes place on rural reservations.

This is what the Fellowship of Native American Christians and the North American Mission Board now realize, leaders from both organizations said at the June 10 annual meeting of FoNAC, held in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention's June 11-12 annual meeting in Houston.

"We [Southern Baptists] don't think about urban Indians," said Leroy Fountain, national coordinator for church mobilization at the SBC's North American Mission Board and a speaker at FoNAC's meeting.

FoNAC President Emerson Falls agreed.

"When Southern Baptists think about a mission trip to reach Native Americans, they always want to go to reservations," Falls said. "They still have that romanticized ideal of who we are.

"Good things happen [on mission trips to reservations] but we don't see lasting fruit that remains," Falls said. "Empowerment happens when we see we don't have to be dependent on others, because what we do remains."

FoNAC is developing a strategy to reach Native Americans utilizing those who are already Christians, in partnership with others, to develop Native American leaders to serve among their people.

"FoNAC is the connector," FoNAC Executive Director Gary Hawkins said. "We're going to ask healthy churches to adopt struggling churches, and eventually work ourselves out of a job there.

"The time for being idle is past. We welcome help: prayer, financial support and hands-on -- with long-term commitment -- so Native Americans can grow churches for Native Americans," Hawkins said.

Hawkins spoke of watching a neighbor plant banana trees in northeast Oklahoma every year. The trees looked to be healthy and appeared to be strong at first, Hawkins said, but they never grew to full maturity nor ever produced one banana worth eating.

Most churches planted for Native Americans by people outside the tribe or by people who don't understand the tribe have been like those banana trees, Hawkins said: "Unique and beautiful in appearance, but never reaching their full potential because they're planted with a worldview foreign to theirs and not contextual to their culture. They're Anglo churches in Native American soil."

Falls spoke of the needs of the 90 percent of Native American pastors who serve bivocationally.

"They have no time for seminary," Falls said, noting that pastors of healthy churches are sorely needed to come alongside these Native pastors, to provide one-on-one mentoring to enable them to grow healthy, multiplying churches and new leaders.

"The key is, we need ministry partners, Native churches, Anglo churches and individuals -- to step up and partner with us," Hawkins said.

The need in urban areas is acute, Falls said.

"In Long Beach, Calif., we have 71,000 Native Americans and no [church plant]," Falls said. "In Denver, [there are] 42,000 Native Americans and not one good evangelical work among them."

A team of Oklahoma Native Americans went to Denver last July to gauge the potential for a Native American church in a locale where, as in other large cities, Natives blend into the background.

"Indians know where Indians are, even in a place with 3 million population," said Falls, who was part of that team. The Oklahoma team, in cooperation with the Denver Association of Southern Baptist Churches, advertised free Indian tacos and the giveaway of a Pendleton blanket.

"Sixty-two came ... and 34 signed cards indicating their interest in a Southern Baptist church of Native Americans," Falls said. "We've already had five churches say they want to help support a new work there. ... We're going to be successful because we've got a great God. I hope your church will say, 'We want to partner with a new Native American church.'"

At FoNAC's annual meeting, Roger S. "Sing" Oldham, vice president for communications and convention relations for the SBC's Executive Committee, spoke of the SBC's strides toward ethnic inclusiveness over the last several years. One example: four Native Americans are serving on various SBC boards and entities.

"We now have a higher sense of understanding and vision that we are a convention that is very diverse," Oldham said.

During FoNAC's business session, treasurer Timmy Chavis, pastor of Bear Swamp Baptist Church in Pembroke, N.C., reported that paperwork has been filed for the organization to be designated a 501 C-3 nonprofit. Chavis said several churches have responded to the need to financially support FoNAC; as a result, the organization is able to operate in the black, but not by much.

The Native American Women's LINK -- Living in Neighborly Kindness -- announced the retirement after 16 years of LINK founding director Willene Pierce, a member of Crittenden Indian Baptist Church in northeastern Oklahoma, and the appointment of incoming director Augusta Smith of All Nations Missions Center in Muskogee, Okla.

Neal and Joanna Thompson of First Indian Baptist Church in Houston led worship at the FoNAC meeting.
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Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, newsjournal for the 1,600 Southern Baptist churches in Louisiana. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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