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Water From a Stone

Pastor April Bender and Mohawk Assembly of God look to serve in the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation Territory.
A life-changing surprise in 2020 tested April M. Bender, pastor of Mohawk Assembly of God (MAG) on the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation Territory as she took on her assignment at the tailend of the COVID pandemic.

A portion of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation territory rests on the southside of the international border separating Canada and the US (New York). About 36% of natives in New York live below the poverty line.

Bender’s appointment has turned into a sacred adventure that fits the Mohawk’s matriarchal culture. Traditionally, every woman is responsible for caring for the affairs of the village as the caretakers of life.

Bender remembers tagging along as a child with her late father, Walter Lashley, a 40-year veteran AG minister, when he filled in for vacationing MAG pastors during summers.

She still treasures receiving a beautiful indigenous doll wearing a hand-beaded leather dress. “That gift bonded me to the Mohawk people and to understand their culture at such an early age,” she says.

Growing into young adulthood, Bender dodged the ministry. Her parents’ difficult experiences pastoring rural churches with little resources disillusioned her.

Consequently, she chose a secular career and earned advanced degrees from The State University of New York in Potsdam and Syracuse University.

She met her future husband, Alfred, attending an AG church while a college student. They married in 1978.

She eventually launched a consulting business, Partners for Quality, providing policy development for businesses and government agencies. All along, she and Alfred, a computer technology professional at Clarkson University, began serving in various churches. They finally settled in New Life Assembly of God in Ogdensburg.

April flourished in bible-studies, children’s and women’s ministries and Alfred was elected to the church board and treasurer. April obtained AG ministry credentials and though hesitant, responded to God’s call to full time ministry.

Bender scaled a mountain of challenges assuming MAG’s pastorate. Apart from the congregation dwindling to a handful of people, the church was in debt with few resources available.

The sanctuary needed painting and black mold removed. The parsonage was also a mess with black mold and asbestos issues, water in the basement and a leaky chimney.

But on a more serious level, Bender faced a past misrepresentation of Christianity. Scandals of abuse by European missionaries beginning in the late 19th century had nullified the good news of the gospel.

Clergy and government officials had forced native parents to give up their youngsters to attend church-run residential schools. They coerced children to believe in Jesus and deny their cultural heritage. Children were punished for speaking the Mohawk language.

Bender and Alfred, who serves as the church treasurer, fought hard to overcome these ugly stereotypes. They reached out to the community - in restaurants, parks, hockey games and funerals.

“Little by little we have poured into people’s lives developing trust,” she says. “They saw our genuineness and transparency.”

The couple have tackled numerous maintenance projects, including painting, cleaning toilets and yard work.

Convoy of Hope and Rural Compassion have distributed truckloads of food and supplies for the entire territory in neutral locations such as tribal buildings, a manufacturing plant, and at family days in a park.

Private donors, Native American Fellowship, the New York Ministry Network and local churches have supported MAG as well.

“The Benders’ ministry support work has made an impact on the way we minister on the 13 territories of the Six Nations Confederacy as well as serve to be a catalyst, for me, to rethink how ministry happens toward all 673 indigenous nations in North America,” Mohawk citizen Sakoneseriiosta Brent Maracle, chief/president of the Native American Fellowship says.

Groton Assembly of God sent teams of men and women, led by Sam Rose, men’s ministry coordinator. They painted, ripped up carpeting, replaced flooring, donated materials, and installed a new electrical panel. “Our church was impressed with the Benders’ commitment,” Rose observes. “If everyone was as devoted to God’s work as they are, we would be building more churches furiously.”

Bender has overcome many obstacles through the grace of Christ. “And sometimes we just keep our mouth shut and listen, and be available to hear from the Holy Spirit,” she says.

Before every Sunday service, the sanctuary opens early for prayer and worship music and breakfast. Newer programs include a monthly crafts and sing-along at an elder’s home, youth and women’s ministries, and a weekly devotional attended by 60 children.

Bender shepherds more than 100 congregants plus 60 more tuning into the Sunday service via Facebook. Reaching and caring for entire families is another key strategy.

Bender relies on God’s enduring provision. She relates to the Old Testament miracle of water flowing out of a stone. “It’s God way of demonstrating that He has resources that we don’t know about,” she affirms.

Peter K. Johnson

Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York. More than 500 of his articles and short stories have appeared in Christian and mainstream magazines and newspapers, including the Pentecostal Evangel,Charisma, the Saturday Evening Post, Guideposts, and Decision. He also serves as a consultant and contributing editor to a scientific journal.