Still open, and open wide
If walls could talk, I’d be asking the walls of the Lutheran Church of the Open Bible a few questions.
Open Bible? It’s the name of a quaint, white painted wooden church in Whiteriver, Arizona, nestled on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. It was dedicated in April of 1922. That clocks the building at 100+ years old. Like any centenarian, these walls have heard a lot. Imagine all the meetings, discussions, services, studies, classes, and conversations that have taken place inside the church. If these walls could talk, I’m guessing they’d have a lot to say.
I went to Open Bible on October 15, 2022. It was no ordinary day. We enjoyed a meal and live music; we were blessed with guest speakers, historical videos, and a worship service. It was the 100th anniversary celebration. About 275 gathered that day. Looking around inside the building, some questions about the history of Open Bible came to mind. . . why then? Why there? And why are there holes in the stained-glass windows?
Oh, if walls could talk. But they didn’t. I’m being stonewalled, hey? Well, even though the walls didn’t say anything, some people did.
Why then? Bill Kessel did a masterful and engaging job of explaining the history of Open Bible. I wondered, why was Open Bible built when it was? Bill answered my question with an analogy; God answered it with a Scriptural truth. Picture two local rivers, twisting and turning through the White Mountains. At times, far apart, sometimes near, but always separated by a rocky landscape; but then eventually the two courses of water meet, flow together and form one river. Now picture two lives. Two men, one Apache and one German. Two individuals about as different as two could be. Geographically they were sometimes far apart and other times near, but their paths never crossed. Until one day they did. They found each other. Or, better said, God brought them together. With his own power and his own timing, the Lord set them on a common course. From then on, their lives, like two rivers converging, flowed as one. God had the heart of the Apache Chief Alchesay and the WELS Missionary Rev. Edgar Guenther in his hand. No one could have ever imagined that God used a flu pandemic to bring two “rivers” together to meet at just the right time (1918) to accomplish what he desired. Rev. Guenther did his work, the Holy Spirit did his. The gospel was shared. A faith was born. A friendship formed.
Why there? God not only determined our times, but also the places. . . What was God carrying out in the rocky landscape of Whiteriver? His plans. Plans that no one ever could have imagined. With a newfound faith in Jesus, Chief Alchesay and other Apache desperately wanted a church in their Whiteriver community. Not just any church, mind you. A Lutheran one. One that would faithfully preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. They expressed their desire for a place of worship. God honored the yearning of their hearts. A petition was signed. Permission was granted. Land was given. A church was built. It was a memorable day on April 30, 1922. A key was presented. The door was opened. Open Bible was dedicated.
On that single day, 101 Apache were baptized! Chief Alchesay was the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Open Bible currently has a membership of about 900 souls. The message of the anniversary day reflected the promise of God: “Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.” (Exodus 20:24b) God is doing just that. Coming and blessing. Kirk Massey, pastor of Open Bible, is quick to thank the Lord that the members of Open Bible are taking ownership of the ministries there.
But I had one more question: Why are there holes in the stained-glass windows? The answer was honest and straightforward. . . bullets and a bottle. Someone fired a few rounds of a rifle and someone else threw a whiskey bottle. The results were the same. Broken windows. What prompted the shooting and the throwing, no one knows. Probably never will. Frustrating? Yes, because stained-glass windows are a challenge to repair. The cost is high, and repairmen are few. But instead of anger over what we can’t control (or even fix), how about looking at the window holes through a different lens? Broken panes can serve as a reminder of a broken life. Certainly, our own. Who hasn’t seen or experienced a broken relationship, promise, or body? But especially that of Jesus! Ironically, the windows in Open Bible that have been broken are the ones that create the 3-paned picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. If any life was broken, it was Jesus’! Not just his body, but his relationship with his Father. The significance is as astounding as it is life-changing. By way of Jesus’ brokenness, we are made whole! What we can’t restore, Jesus can.
And he will. If not in this life, then in the next. “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (1 Peter 5:10) Broken? Take heart, Jesus is the key to full restoration.
Speaking of a key, just prior to his death, Chief Alchesay had one request. (And it was honored). He humbly asked to be buried with something that was extremely special to him: A key to Open Bible. Why? He came to believe that Jesus Christ was the key that had opened the Scriptures to him and heaven for him. Alchesay was filled with humble joy that he–chief of sinners–was forgiven and chosen by God to be one of his children. He considered it a great honor to help build the church so that the Word could be preached, well, to help build the Church.
The Whiteriver church still stands to the glory of God to share with people that the Father’s heart, Jesus’ arms, Holy Scriptures, and heaven’s door are still open, and open wide.
Written by Rev. John Holtz, Native American mission counselor
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