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Association of Native American churches focused on growth through the Gospel

Family camp is a highlight for Hilltop Baptist Church each year.

LOWER BRULE, S.D. (BP) – For two months, Christian Little prayed. He fasted. He sought God’s guidance on his place in ministry. One night he had a dream and woke up at 3:15 a.m.

He felt called to be a missionary and assumed that meant he’d leave northwest Arkansas to go overseas.

Christian Little has served as pastor of Hilltop Baptist Church for eight years.

“God said, ‘No. You’re going back to your people,’” Little, pastor of Hilltop Baptist Church, told Baptist Press.

With his mother’s Cherokee heritage and Seminole on his father’s side, Little was familiar with navigating the differences in Native American cultures. It’s proven useful not only as a pastor, where he has served those in the Cherokee, Navajo and Lakota nations, but also as moderator of the First Nations Association, a network of Native American churches affiliated with the Dakota Baptist Convention.

A feel for ‘home’

Little’s move to South Dakota began eight years ago with a water leak.

On a mission trip with Builders for Christ, Hilltop’s then-pastor, Steve Osage, pressed Little on his future in ministry. They talked it over while delivering 200 coats in the community. Little, a self-described “city boy,” wasn’t sure about the remoteness of the area. However, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something about it felt like home.

That led to the months of seeking God’s will and a decision that placed Little at Hilltop Baptist.

Just as there are similarities and differences among tribes, so are there in the churches that make of the First Nations Association. The congregations average 50 members, but are spread across both North and South Dakota.

The biggest challenge is drawing enough helpers for the ministry.

Teens and children get ready to eat at Family Camp.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” said Little. “Another big challenge is spiritual growth.”

Mission teams help in planting those seeds. A Virginia church is going to join Burnt Swamp Association out of North Carolina to lead the annual family camp, held this year June 11-16 at Badlands Ministries in Medora, N.D.

The family camp moves to different locations in order to help with travel for churches. The registration fee is kept to $45, but scholarships are available.

In addition to discipleship, fellowship opportunities help generate peer support, especially among young people.

“It’s important for native kids to see other native kids serving God,” Little said. “There’s a bond there. You squash the taboo.”

Each summer, groups also attend Indian Falls Creek Camp at Falls Creek Conference Center in Oklahoma.

“Tribes from all over the country get together,” said Little. Other growth opportunities come through his church’s involvement in the Fellowship of Native American Christians, a group made up of Southern Baptist pastors.

Community contributions

Alexus Little, a member of Hilltop Baptist Church in Lower Brule, S.D., distributes toys to children last Christmas.

Relationships are also important among local tribal council leaders. An investigative report last year through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs documented the forced assimilation through mandatory boarding schools of Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians in the U.S. between 1819 and 1969.

Southern Baptist churches were not directly named in the report. However, it stated that several denominations were involved in operating the boarding schools, nearly 75 percent of which were located in Oklahoma.

At the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim, Southern Baptists adopted a resolution condemning the “diabolical plan to dispossess these people groups from their native lands by forced assimilation.”

Mike Keahbone, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lawton, Okla., led the way in drafting the resolution and read it in July at a “Road to Healing” tour event sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior in conjunction with the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

Tension remains between churches and local councils. However, churches continue to minister in various ways. Hilltop has delivered toys and provides a food pantry. Little is asked to pray before basketball games, which can get intense among schools and even rec leagues.

“Res ball,” as Little called it, goes at a fast pace. At 47 years old he can still get up and down the court, even if not like he once could.

But that’s where partners come into play. Distribute the ball to who is position to score. You can contribute to a win, but success requires help.

He sees the same principles at work in his church and others.

“God is really moving here,” Little said. “We may look at what’s not working, but He’s reminding us what is working. Lives are being changed.

“Our timing isn’t the priority. God gives the increase, and it’s all to His glory.”