ADA, Okla. (BP) – When Paul Chitwood addressed the crowd of thousands at Indians Falls Creek on Wednesday, Aug. 2, he became the first IMB President to visit the historic camp, which is the largest gathering of Native American believers in the world.
“To get an invitation in and of itself was a privilege for me,” Chitwood told Baptist Press. “I was thankful that I was able to be there. I was warmly received.”
“They (Native Americans) are a vital part of the SBC family and need to be treated as such. They need to be able to feel that.”
Chitwood said Natives in the convention have a vital role to play in reaching the remaining unreached Native American people groups in the United States and Canada.
“Certainly, Native Americans with their unique history and background can be very effective witnesses in so many contexts,” Chitwood said. “They want to be partners and active … that was humbling to see.”
Other SBC leaders who attended this year’s Indian Falls Creek Camp included Sandy Wisdom-Martin, Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) national executive director-treasurer, and SBC President Bart Barber.
Barber also attended the camp last year, which marked the 75th anniversary for Indian Falls Creek. It was the first time an SBC President had attended the event.
He helped present a resolution written in response to a 2022 federal report detailing the forced assimilation and conversion of Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians in the country between 1819 and 1969.
The atrocities committed against Native Americans often were carried out by various religious organizations through the use of boarding schools, the majority of which were in Oklahoma.
Mike Keahbone, pastor of First Baptist Church Lawton, Okla., served on the 2022 SBC Resolutions Committee which crafted the resolution titled “On Religious Liberty, Forced Conversion, and the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.”
Keahbone, a Native American with heritage from the Comanche, Kiowa and Cherokee tribes, said the resolution was the first denominational statement regarding the report. It was also the first-ever SBC resolution to stand with Native Americans in any way.
Although Southern Baptists are not mentioned in the report and the resolutions committee could not find any links between any Southern Baptist churches and the boarding schools, Keahbone said it was still vitally important for Southern Baptists to voice their remorse and support for Natives.
“No other denomination stood up to take any kind of ownership or to take any kind of stand for Native Americans when that report came out,” Keahbone said.
“A significant part of the report is that churches were involved in the abuse. A part of the intake of those children in those schools was to take them to the church and make them repent of being Native American.
“For us to take the stand that we did … to say one, we see you, two, we grieve with you over the information that came out of this report, but also to say we will stand by you to see that this doesn’t happen again. That’s what Native Americans took from our resolution.”
Keahbone shared this resolution supporting Native peoples at a gathering last year which was a part of the “Road to Healing” tour, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior in conjunction with the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
The Department of Interior conducted and released the report which prompted the subsequent tour, which gave living survivors of these boarding schools an opportunity to share their stories.
Keahbone said being able to share the resolution at this event was “very powerful.”
With Barber and now Chitwood making historic appearances at Indian Falls Creek, Keahbone said these visits are another step for Southern Baptists, much like the resolution, to “remove obstacles which stand between Native Americans and the Gospel.”
“Not only did they stand with us in this resolution, but they actually came to where we’re at to show that they really are with us,” Keahbone said. “They followed it up with action. There’s a lot of historical ground being broken.”
Keahbone referenced a famous quote from evangelist Billy Graham in which he called Native peoples a “sleeping giant” which was awakening for an evangelistic impact on the country.
With the convention’s help, Keahbone believes Native peoples can make that Gospel impact.
“You have a large contingency of Native American believers who are the absolute best at sharing the Gospel with unbelieving Native Americans,” Keahbone said. “If we can get that army rallied … I see the potential and excitement there.
“There’s not a better Gospel-sending organization in the world than our SBC, with the different entities we have like IMB and NAMB. Nobody shares the Gospel like we do, and so to combine that effort with what I believe God is doing in our Native American people, the sky is the limit.”