SAGU AIC: The Next Generations
Marty K. Paxson considered his grandma an oasis of hope amid the pervasive despair of the Fort Apache reservation in Arizona. A devout Christian, she rescued him as an infant and raised him in church, away from his alcoholic, chronically unemployed and constantly bickering parents.
But soon after his high school graduation, his grandmother died. He married a fellow Apache, a non-Christian, and joined the reservation’s police force. Paxson worked the busy front lines of deep, abiding hopelessness: alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and suicide, often carried out by jumping off cliffs.
After the couple had two daughters, Paxson got serious about following Jesus. That didn’t set well with his wife. She rejected his faith, left him, and remarried quickly, leaving him anguished.
“Native people look at Christianity as a white man’s religion trying to take over their tradition,” says Paxson, 44.
After the loss of his marriage, he applied to Bible colleges. Southwestern Assemblies of God University American Indian College in Phoenix turned out to be the only school to accept him.
Paxson had expected simply to gain knowledge by earning a bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry, preparing him for something other than police work. Instead, at SAGU AIC he found a family of faith that understood his struggles, as virtually everyone there had endured suffering and rejection while clinging to hope in Christ.
“AIC is Native Americans coming together, going to chapel together, praying together,” says Paxson. He shared much in common with classmates likewise fighting internal battles. Many had endured family life in shambles as they grew up amid violence, addiction, abuse, despair, and other dysfunction.
“We all came from hurt and pain,” Paxson says. “We grew as a family at AIC.”
When Paxson first enrolled in his early 30s, he represented the oldest student at the school. But in the family spirit that prevailed, he fit in beautifully, as did students his age and older who began to study there after that. The band-of-brothers atmosphere made the age difference irrelevant. Paxson opted to live in a dorm in order to share in the campus camaraderie.
Because of Paxson’s nine years in law enforcement, SAGU AIC hired him as head of campus security. He graduated in 2011 and three years later became lead pastor of Whiteriver Assembly of God on the Fort Apache reservation in Arizona.
SAGU AIC, planted in 1957 by Assemblies of God missionary Alta Washburn to educate indigenous peoples for ministry, is preparing for the future. The school has launched a capital fundraising campaign to upgrade and build new campus facilities that will enable the mission to thrive through the end of the 21st century.
“The new master plan asks how can this campus continue to be a life-giving institution to tribal communities,” says SAGU AIC President Jonathan D. Gannon. “How can this school inspire change on reservations through Christian education for the next 65 years?”
Gannon, 48, says he feels as though it’s a reset moment, akin to halftime in a football game.
Jackie Holgate, 52, a Navajo and pastor of Mountaintop Church in Flagstaff, Arizona, graduated in 1994 from AIC with a bachelor’s degree in church ministry. He laments that too many Native churches are hampered by a pastor shortage.
“AIC is a very important part of our story,” he says, noting that he met his future wife, Lenora, while studying there. Since 2017, the Holgates have been national youth directors of the Native American Fellowship of the Assemblies of God.
“God used the institution to pour into our lives and to do ministry,” Holgate says. Their son Matthew has become an activist fighting human trafficking among Navajos.
While AIC is among the few Pentecostal schools training Native ministers, Holgate points out that graduates with AIC education degrees return to their communities and work at schools as teachers and administrators. Other degrees such as business administration and interdisciplinary studies prepare students for the marketplace and beyond.
Phase one of the capital campaign will finance construction of the 96-bed south dormitory, projected to cost $10 million; the second phase will focus on the north dorm. Together, the facilities will house 200 students. Later campaigns will fund new classrooms, a library/café/amphitheater, an administration building, chapel, and student activity center.
A single donor provided $350,000 to develop and renovate SAGU AIC’s athletic facilities, including the fitness center that includes a state-of-the-art gym and locker rooms, which Gannon notes will help attract new students and launch and build new athletic programs.
Paxson, an Arizona Ministry Network presbyter and SAGU AIC board member, sees the value of his education as a means to bring hope through Christ into the community. This semester, the student body includes students from 11 tribes; the largest tribes represented on campus are Navajo and Apache.
As a pastor, Paxson encourages his congregants to attend the school and four currently are enrolled. During the fall semester, he took 14 youth and young adults from Whiteriver to attend the school’s first basketball game plus a group to attend Campus Days.
“I invest in the school because it helped me,” he says. “There was hope for me, and I changed.”