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Reaching Native Christians: Part 3

The Native American mission is training Native Christian leaders as it continues moving forward with the message of salvation. 

Daniel J. Rautenberg and Debbie K. Dietrich 

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  

I can still see that inspirational quote from Will Rogers stuck to the painted cinderblock walls of my seventh- and eighth-grade classroom. Decades later, it crosses my mind as I share with you a vision for the future of WELS Native American missions. 

We are still on the right track, the track that leads to heaven. That track is narrow and winding. It is also treacherous, as the traditional Apache medicine man lurks behind a bush, waiting to attack unsuspecting Christian travelers. But for 125 years, Native Christians in Apacheland have been walking the track with Jesus to heaven. By the grace of God, that has not changed. 

And yet, danger is around us. If we “just sit there,” apathy, dependency, and even comfort threaten to overtake us. We need to recapture the mission spirit, renew our love for the lost, and take our rightful place in the long line of Christians who are dedicated to passing on the good news. 

“Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). 

If Christ’s love is the engine that moves us forward, the Apache Christian Training School (ACTS) is the vehicle that will carry our native Christians into the future. Nearly 20 years ago, the missionaries and congregational leaders serving nine congregations and three schools on the Apache reservations realized something important. They were working faithfully, but they weren’t moving forward. In fact, at times it seemed as if the mission field was slowly losing ground. It was too easy to be comfortable telling the great stories of our past, rejoicing in the generous support of their brothers and sisters in WELS, and thanking God that the communities continued to receive the gospel from faithful servants. They needed to understand the purpose more clearly and trust that God has given all the gifts and potential they needed. To move forward, they resolved to train the people for service in God’s kingdom through the ACTS program. 

God has blessed this work, with many Apache leaders taking classes today. Now our congregations are stronger. Ministry programs are being led by Apaches. Twenty-five percent of our called workers are Apache and more are in training.  

And God is giving us opportunities. Five hundred more reservations need God’s Word! By most estimates, up to 95 percent of the natives living on those reservations are not Christian. There will never be an easy time for us to reach out with the gospel. Satan will fight hard against us. But there has never been a better time than now to start. 

We have the educational resources. We have native connections all over the country. We have 125 years of experience and perspective from teaching the Word to Native people. And we are training new Native missionaries to serve.  

While these Native Christians are trying to move forward, they are pressured from all sides to return to their traditional ways: to go to the medicine man for help, to take part in the traditional sunrise dances, to turn to the Apache traditional religion to prove they are really Apache. But believers like Samantha Thompson are staying close to their Savior. Samantha was raised with 11 other siblings, who all walked up a hill to Peridot Lutheran Mission School. When her parents divorced, her grandma took the children in and had them walk to school and church every day, come home, wash their socks in the river, hang them to dry, and wear them the next day. Grandma made sure the girls did not have a traditional Sunrise coming-of-age ceremony because she knew it went against the First Commandment! Today, Samantha and her husband follow in that strong Lutheran Christian faith. They struggle with the foster children and with the chronic sickness of their adult son. Neighbors are pressuring them to go to the local medicine man for help, but they refuse. They know Bik’ehgo’ihi’ṉań (the triune God of the Bible) is with them and will never fail them. Samantha loves working at the Peridot School and coming to Sunday worship. “That’s where people encourage me to stay true to our triune God in the Bible,” she says. “That is where I am surrounded by my church family.” 


Here is what other Native Christian leaders have to say about how they are serving now:  

Wade Robertson: “I enjoy serving as president of my congregation. I didn’t think I was ready for such a job at such a young age, but my pastor did! Now I also serve on our Peridot-Our Savior’s school board where we have many challenging decisions to make. I really want to see more Apache become full-time and part-time called workers. I’m trying to do whatever it takes to see my people rise up as leaders in our awesome Lutheran church.”  

Brenda Lee: “I love serving in my church. My sisters and I have all taken lots of ACTS classes to grow in our faith—you can’t get enough of those classes and after them you just want to serve in your church and community! I am honored to get to help Debbie bring many Apache ladies to the LWMS rally. We are going to love learning all about the WELS missions and come back strong in faith and eager to serve in our own communities!”  

Roberta Belvado: “I didn’t think I could be useful, and now I’m serving as a weekly Sunday school teacher. The children are our next generation of leaders. I see that in them. I want them to be strong in faith.”  

Leonard Fall: “I served on the Tribal Police and Bureau of Indian Affairs for 25 years, but serving as an evangelist is the best work ever. I feel it’s so rewarding to share the Scriptures I have known since I was young, studied in depth through ACTS Bible classes, and even more intensely when going through the evangelist program at our ACTS Bible Institute. I understand my people. My favorite part of being an evangelist is to preach in Apache, our language. The brotherhood of my fellow called workers is also a great joy. I have such respect for them, we study together and I’m still learning more about God from our sermon studies – another favorite part of being an evangelist.” 

Bernard Dale: “I’m an assault survivor, former alcoholic, and former drug addict. I’m grateful to be alive by the grace of God. I’m soaking in God’s Word at ACTS classes and applying it to my life. I suffered a lot of trauma, and in a way, it made me hard. But the Holy Spirit turned my heart back, and it proves that God is real. I was made new to serve the Lord, and one day, hopefully, that means in some official way by graduating from many ACTS Bible classes. I already have the honor to serve in music ministries, on our McNary church council, teaching Sunday school, and helping in our recovery ministry. I have a hunger. I want to hear more of Jesus. It never gets old.” 


Daniel Rautenberg is the Native American mission field coordinator. Debbie Dietrich is the Native American mission communication coordinator. 


This is the final article in a three-part series on WELS mission work on the Apache reservations in Arizona. 


Go to nativechristians.org to read more and to get 125th anniversary celebration updates. 


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Author: Daniel J. Rautenberg and Debbie K. Dietrich 
Volume 105, Number 6
Issue: June 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Reaching Native Christians: Part 2

Despite challenges, the Word of the Lord continues to grow on the Apache reservation 

Joseph M. Dietrich 

In 1893 Missionaries Plocher and Adascheck first arrived in what is now called Peridot, Arizona, to begin sharing the good news of Jesus with the Apache people. They had many struggles. Where should they set up camp? How will they communicate? Who will translate? How do they overcome suspicion and mistrust toward the white man? By God’s grace, they began to overcome these and other obstacles. The mission took root. From Peridot it spread east to Bylas and north to Whiteriver. Some missionaries became masters in the Apache language. Schools and churches were built. People came to hear the good news of Jesus. Congregations were started. The Word of the Lord grew.  

The challenges of today 

Now it is 2018—125 years later. How is the Apache mission doing? What are the challenges and blessings of today? The challenges are much different than the ones the first missionaries encountered: 

  • Our pastors, teachers and congregational families are not perfect. We admit we are all still learning and growing—sometimes the hard way—by our mistakes. Gary Lupe, one of two Apache pastorson the reservation, says, “A long time ago the Apache needed the White man missionary to make all the decisions; he did a good job. But now, we have been strong in Christ for years, yet too many Apache people rely upon the missionary to make decisions. Our missionaries are working to let go and let members make decisions, and also our people must be empowered to stand up to run our churches. This is a struggle.”  
  • Our communities aren’t perfect, either. Broken homes, substance abuse, and unsupervised children are the new normal for many homes.When caregivers choose alcohol and drugs over electricity and food, children suffer. 
  • Gangs are active in our communities, and vandalism and theft are regular occurrences that plaguethe churches, schools, and homes of our members and missionaries.  
  • Unemployment (75%) and poverty (median family income is less than $20,000 per household) are multi-generational.Health issues plague our people; the average life expectancy is between 45 to 50 years old. 
  • Traditional Apache religion is still a powerful forcethat pulls people off the path that leads to eternal life. Medicine men actively practice witchcraft and have been successful in convincing many Apache people that this false religion is part of their identity as Natives. Christians continue to stumble in their walk of faith and distrust the message of the Bible as well as the messengers who bring it. “The writer to the Hebrews had to always tell people to not follow the old ways,” says Lupe. “I must always tell our Apache people to not go to the medicine man to find out who to blame for your problems or which rock or powder to buy to heal you or take away problems. Like the writer to the Hebrews, I too must always say, ‘Jesus is all we need. Jesus is the only way and the only power.’ ” 

Yes, the Apache mission has challenges, and some of them are so big at times that our missionaries and teachers spend many weekly hours of ministry in unique ways of helping, counseling, transporting, praying with people out on the road and on the phone, talking with tribal security, and repairing buildings. It’s a struggle to the “regular daily work” one would think pastors and teachers are called to do. 

Victories despite challenges 

To keep these challenges in perspective, we turn to the book of Acts, a marvelous book that tells how Jesus’ disciples carried the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. It tells of the magnificent march of the gospel through the powerful Roman Empire. It’s a happy book, a book of joyous victory. From beginning to end you can read how the Word of the Lord grew through Palestine and beyond.  

But the story of Acts is not without its challenges. At every turn, there were struggles and threats to the ministry. Peter and John were put in prison. James was killed. Saul approved of Stephen’s death and started a great persecution. The Jewish leaders joined in on the persecution. They stoned Paul for speaking against traditional religion, the gods that the local people had worshiped for years. Arguments broke out between Jews and Gentile believers. Paul and Barnabas split up after a dispute. Unbelievers beat Paul and had him thrown into prison. People argued over who was the best pastor.  

When you read Acts, you see struggle after struggle, blow after blow, hitting the apostles and believers.  

When you spend time on the Apache reservation, you too can see struggle after struggle, blow after blow, hitting our missionaries and believers. 

Still, the book of Acts is about the spread the gospel. It’s always about the Word of the Lord growing and going to the world. It’s victorious and joyous. When Paul was detained in Rome, Luke ended Acts with the following statement: “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles and they will listen!” (28:28). Boldly and without hindrance Paul preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord.  

The Word of the Lord grew in Paul’s day, and it is growing among the Apache today. 

  • Six missionary pastors serve more than 3,000 Apache members with approximately 1,000 worshipping innine congregations every Sunday. 
  • Almost 300 students attend our two K-8 schools, and 25 students attend our high school. They are taught by20 called teachers. 
  • TheApache Christian Training School program continues to build spiritual maturity and train people for service in God’s kingdom. 

Six of our called pastors, evangelists, teachers, and ministry leaders are Apaches. “I love being a pastor and having that truth that I’m saved for myself, but mostly [I love] sharing it with my Apache people, working with the missionaries, and looking to share the gospel in many ways,” says Lupe, who has begun Wednesday evening street services at Gethsemane, Cibecue, to reach the community better. Lupe also works with lay evangelist Leonard Fall to record sermons in Apache that are broadcast on the radio 

Another Apache pastor, Kirk Massey, is working to equip his members at Open Bible, Whiteriver, so they can better serve this one thousand-member congregation and its community.  

And the Apache people are not content to serve only on the two current reservations in Arizona. They want to reach Native Americans on the 500-plus reservations throughout the United States, to follow the Great Commission as Jesus’ disciples did: “Go and make disciples of all nations . . .” (Matthew 28:19). 

Because despite all our needs and challenges, we are assured that the Word of the Lord will grow, that God’s salvation has been sent to the Apache, and that they will listen.  


Joseph Dietrich serves the San Carlos Apache Tribe as a missionary at Our Savior’s, Bylas, Arizona. 


This is the second article in a three-part series on WELS mission work on the Apache reservations in Arizona. 


Go to nativechristians.org to read more and to get 125th anniversary celebration updates. 


SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Joseph M. Dietrich
Volume 105, Number 5
Issue: May 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Reaching Native Christians 

WELS’ first missionaries to a foreign nation stepped off the train in Arizona determined to share the gospel with the Apache people. 

Daniel J. Rautenberg and Debbie K. Dietrich 

“This is the worst of times to begin an Indian mission.” So said a veteran missionary in 1876 as the Iowa synod was deciding whether or not to begin a gospel outreach effort to American Indians.  

It certainly seemed like he was right. Days later General Custer and his men would die at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The next year an effort by the Joint Lutheran Synod to begin an Indian mission failed miserably when the missionary called to begin the work chose instead to focus on German Lutheran immigrants going to California. The Iowa Synod closed down its Indian mission. No other mission societies could be found to be partners in this venture. Time, money, and workers were lacking. 

Then was the best time 

But the desire to do mission work did not die. Undeterred by the obstacles, our forefathers continued to plan and work to begin their mission efforts. And when they found a group of people in Arizona unreached by the good news of the gospel, they decided that it was indeed the best time to bring the gospel message to the Apache Tribes in Arizona Territory. 

In October of 1893, John Plocher and George Adascheck stepped off the train in Arizona Territory in what was then known as “Hell’s 40 Acres.” It was a harsh new environment. Desert heat without air conditioning. The strange barren landscape stretching in front of them foretold of isolation and loneliness. The only green things in sight seemed to be the missionaries.  

As Rev. Alchesay Arthur Guenther, a longtime missionary to the Apache, wrote, “No real town. Just scattered small teepees or wikiups constructed of cedar poles covered with bear grass, tied with cactus rope. A tus (pitch covered basket) for carrying water, burden baskets for carrying corn, flour, salt, jerky, coffee, yucca bananas, wild onions, acorns, walnuts, and anything else. A scrawny horse and a couple of patient donkeys. Little ones with matted hair, bare feet and ragged clothing. These were to become his ‘congregation.’ Did this early white intruder from the East feel in his pocket for what just might be a return ticket?” 

Aside from a theological education, the early missionaries were completely untrained for this new endeavor in this new culture. Their task was to preach the gospel to people who spoke a different language and had all the skepticism, cynicism, and hostility that comes from being defeated and betrayed. But the missionaries were determined to share the message of God’s love.  

And they found people willing to listen. Try, fail, innovate, adapt, try again. Showing love, patience, and perseverance, our missionaries built a relationship with the Apache people. Over the last 125 years, not everyone who came to share the gospel could stay long. But the graveyards on both reservations pay silent tribute to those who did. 

Now is the best time 

One hundred twenty-five years later, not so silent tribute is paid every week by thousands of Native Americans who gather to offer praise to our gracious and merciful God! The powerful gospel has done incredible things on the Apache reservations in Arizona and continues to work in the hearts of fourth- and fifth-generation Christians. Children still fill the schools to learn about Jesus, and adults who were raised in the mission’s nursery are now leaders in the nine congregations. With more than 3,600 members, the Native American Mission now is raising up Apache men and women to take the gospel to their own people and, God-willing, to many other Native American tribes in the future. 

We remember our history, because the attitudes displayed, lessons learned, and examples shown continue to guide and inspire us today! Not many of us will visit sick members after catching skunks and rendering their oil so that we can wrap our members in foul-smelling tar paper and torn flannel shirts like one of our early missionaries did! But we still show love and compassion. We may not have to live in a half cave with an Ocotillo cactus fence door or put together a house ordered from a Montgomery Ward catalog like those early missionaries, but we can improvise and innovate and find ways to do ministry and communicate the gospel. Most of all, we can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, always keep that fire to share the gospel burning bright. Despite the obstacles that Satan will put in front of us, our God is stronger and the Word of Life is powerful and urgently needed by more people. 

So from your Native American brothers and sisters: A shoog’ (White Mountain Apache language), Ahi’ ye e’ (San Carlos Apache language). “Thank you!” to all of the WELS people today and to our ancestors 125 years ago who, undeterred by trials, take the gospel across the street, across the country, and across the oceans! We pray with you that we all use every opportunity to share the good news like the first world missionaries did 125 years ago—undeterred and fueled by the Holy Spirit, with new approaches and techniques, to new people, despite economic and political climates. “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).  

May God bless all our efforts. 


Daniel Rautenberg is the Native American Mission field coordinator. Debbie Dietrich is the Native American Mission communication coordinator. 


This is the first article in a three-part series on WELS mission work on the Apache reservations in Arizona. 


SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

SUBSCRIBE TO FORWARD IN CHRIST

Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Daniel J. Rautenberg and Debbie K. Dietrich
Volume 105, Number 4
Issue: April 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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