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Building Without Reservation

Missionaries reach Montana’s Native American tribes by laboring to bridge the gap for the gospel.

Bigfork Chapel, a fellowship of 100 attendees on the shores of Flathead Lake, is not a megachurch. But joining with other Montana Ministry Network Assemblies of God congregations, small and large, it is a partner in sharing the gospel with potentially thousands of Native Americans.

Pastor Richard C. Stewart, his wife, Hope, and their two children moved to the Big Sky State from South Carolina more than two decades ago as Assemblies of God U.S. Missions  Intercultural Ministries missionaries. They spent the first decade of ministry in Montana as church planters on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Since then, the Stewarts have led Bigfork Chapel, with a strong missions focus on ministry.

In that role, the northwestern Montana congregation has been a key part of the Montana Ministry Network’s statewide efforts to recruit, train, and support Native pastors within the Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Cree, Chippewa, Sioux, and Assiniboine tribes.

Three new churches have been built on reservation lands and another five have been remodeled since 1993. Currently, Bigfork Church is in the final stages of an 18-month project of constructing the first evangelical church in the rural community of Lodgepole, on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

For the past four years, Pastors Toney and Joyce Castillo have led the Lodgepole congregation, their latest stop in a long ministry of church planting among Native Americans in Montana. Now grandparents in their mid-60s, the couple has drawn on their own rich and varied heritage to earn acceptance. Joyce is Native American and Toney is Hispanic.

The present church — two small buildings joined together — is subject to frequent flooding when heavy rains or snowmelt come. Floodwaters also have eroded the foundation.

Bigfork Chapel holds an annual, weeklong summer Native Youth Camp at the ministry network’s campgrounds at Hungry Horse. The event, which draws up to 300 youth and 150 volunteers, offers outdoors adventure, activities, and “an opportunity to encounter Christ in a life-changing way,” Stewart says.

Many of those youth return to their communities as new Christians, seeding the next generation with faith and hope and attracting more youth to the next year’s camp. Children and youth who attend are encouraged to remain connected to the local church that brought them to camp.

Such growth, slow but steady, is helping AG fellowships take root among tribal communities.

At Fort Belknap, Bigfork Chapel congregants have worked with other Christians from throughout the state, and with U.S. Mission America Placement Service teams, toward a May completion of a new, 3,600-square-foot church for the 60 attendees of the church led by the Castillos.

“Through their vision and faith, Lodgepole Assembly of God will soon be moving out of an old dilapidated building and into a new facility that will provide an excellent opportunity for ministry expansion,” Stewart says.

What has been true in northwestern Montana has been the story for AG’s tribal outreaches throughout the state. Superintendent Alan Warneke says the Montana Ministry Network now has an active church on each of the state’s seven Indian reservations.

“With each new or remodeled building we have appealed to churches and individuals across the state for financial help and the response has been great,” Warneke says.

Stewart’s own role in the various construction projects has included not only helping AG Bigfork District Missions Director Gordon Durham recruit work teams and obtain various tribal permissions, but also hammering nails, sawing wood, and hauling construction materials.

Developing Christian faith among peoples with long memories of past oppression can only happen through consistent, genuine examples of love and friendship built on mutual respect.

“Walls are already up,” Stewart says. “It takes time and patience to build trust and relationships.”

Broken homes, alcoholism, lack of economic and educational opportunities, and opposition to the gospel also are challenges to ministry. Integrity and authenticity, in faith and in deed, are keys to opening hearts on the reservations.

“ ‘Missionizing’ Indian people is counterproductive, and ineffective,” Stewart says. “There are many educated and gifted leaders with God-given vision for their communities, and our role is to partner with them. Our job is to recognize Native American men and women who have the call of God, and get behind them and do what we can to help them be successful, as their brothers and sisters.”

Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.