By Steve Dunn
Associational mission strategist, Bethlehem and Pine Barren Baptist associations
In May 2021, Beaver Baptist Church — a Cherokee congregation in eastern Oklahoma — invited members of Bethlehem and Pine Barren Baptist associations in south Alabama to join them in building a new room and awning at their church and to be a part of revival services in both the Cherokee and English languages.
The Alabama and Oklahoma churches are a part of developing an intercultural partnership that has its roots in a 22-year ministry relationship between myself and Phil Lawrence, who has served with Native American churches for the past 38 years in the Dakotas and Oklahoma.
I was a pastor in Bismarck, North Dakota, in the late 1990s when I met Phil. We partnered in working with Native American churches on various Indian reservations in the Dakotas. In 2004, I moved from Bismarck to pastor a church near the Poarch Creek Band people, near Atmore, Alabama, while Phil continued his work in Native American churches. I had driven through the Poarch Creek tribal land near Atmore many times, but in the fall of 2017, I sensed an urgency to get to know and work with the people there. Naturally I called Phil.
Soon after that, Phil drove to Alabama and met with me to begin this partnership between the two states.
Phil compiled an all-Native American testimony book entitled, “Jesus My Everything,” which we gave out to the Poarch Creek Counseling Center and to the residents of their assisted living facility. At one point Phil commented, “Native American people are some of the most loving, caring and giving people I have ever known.”
A few months later in 2018, some leaders from Big Arbor Baptist Church (Muscogee congregation close to Eufaula, Oklahoma) visited south Alabama at my invitation to formally begin this partnership. The pastor of Big Arbor, Roley McIntosh (Muscogee), who is also a dentist; his wife, Debbie; and member Joe McGirt were truly a blessing as this long-term journey began.
New role, new relationships
In Oct. 2018, I took on a new role as associational missionary strategist for the two associations. Soon after, I drove to Oklahoma at the invitation of pastor McIntosh and from that trip, I brought a team from the Bethlehem Baptist Association to Oklahoma to start building some solid relationships and also to work on the MSW (Muscogee, Seminole, Wichita) Indian Baptist Association Assembly Grounds. The Native American ladies fed everyone each day. The two groups worshipped together in the evenings with English hymns and a lot of Muscogee Creek hymns.
Over a period of two years, this two-state partnership was well on its way. In May 2020, Phil temporarily moved to South Alabama for seven months to continue to develop this partnership. A few months later Phil’s pastor from Oklahoma, Gary Hawkins (Muscogee and Cherokee), and his wife, Paula, came to south Alabama to visit and to preach in some of the churches. Brother Gary is the pastor of Native Stone Baptist Church, Sapulpa, Oklahoma, and also the executive director of FoNAC (Fellowship of Native American Christians).
FoNAC’s website states that its vision is “to be an integral part of developing a network of people, places and partnerships working together to see a movement of God beginning among the 574 tribes of the United States and the 634 recognized First Nations governments or bands spread across Canada, then extending to the Indigenous people around the globe.”
Brother Gary continues to encourage the partnership from both states.
In 2021, Phil received a call from Leo Bird (Cherokee) who was supply preaching at Beaver Baptist Church, a Cherokee congregation near Stilwell, Oklahoma, that needed a room and awning added on to their church building. When Phil shared this with me, I brought some members of both associations and completed the work while building some forever friendships. The fellowship and construction work at Beaver Baptist could have not been better. The Lord taught us the absolute necessity of building relationships first.
This partnership is being guided by Paul’s heart in Romans 1:11-12 — “For I long to see you, that I may impart some spiritual gift to the end ye may be established. That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith of you and me.” Amen!