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Church in cattle country stays busy year-round in cutting-edge ministry

GUNNISON, Colo. (BP)–Members of Trinity Baptist Church and the rest of the community began to notice them about three years ago.

Migrant farm workers are not uncommon in Gunnison, Colo., and the surrounding cattle country. The town’s year-round residents, however, at first didn’t notice the Kora people among the migrants who provide much of the area’s ranch labor.

“Everyone assumed they were Spanish-speaking,” said Jerry Hodges, pastor of Gunnison’s Trinity Baptist Church. “But they’re not.”

Hodges and others in the community began to notice not only that their language wasn’t Spanish, but the ways and customs of the Kora were different from other Spanish-speaking populations in the area.

The unique group was identified as Kora Indians of the Nayarit state in Mexico.

Like other migrant workers, the Kora people in Gunnison faced many challenges. They had low-paying jobs, lived in poverty and lacked easy access to healthcare and other community services. But they also faced a difficult and unique language barrier.

No one in the Gunnison area spoke the Kora language. And Hodges and other community leaders soon learned there were no printed resources in the Kora language either.

Hodges called on Eliseo Aldape, who was at that time the ethnic church planting director of the Colorado Baptist General Convention, but his office had no information about the Kora. After similar contacts with the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board produced no results, Hodges called Wycliffe Bible Translators.

“I was put in touch with Eugene Casad, a man who used to be a missionary among the Kora people in Mexico,” Hodges said. “He had just translated the New Testament into one of the Kora dialects.”

Hodges invited Casad and Juvenal Cervantes of Hillside Baptist Church in Greeley, Colo., to come to Gunnison.

Trinity’s ministry to the Kora people was launched after Casad spent several days in the area to help the church mobilize and begin its ministry to the Kora people, along with meeting with community leaders.

“They’re very Indian in their ways and customs,” Hodges said. “They have a mixture of Catholicism and spirituality.”

And though their home area in Mexico is very closed to the gospel, Kora Indians in the United States seem receptive.

“Last year, we graduated 13 people from our ESL (English as a Second Language) class,” Hodges said. “We had some Puerto Ricans and some Germans, but eight of the students were Kora.”

The church has also been able to start Bible studies in Kora homes, although language and education barriers remain formidable challenges.

There are about a half-dozen Kora dialects, Hodges said. “Until Eugene Casad translated the New Testament, it was basically a spoken tongue and not a written language.”

Hodges also noted that the Kora typically have no more than a fourth-grade education, thus they have difficulty reading their recently written language.

As Trinity Baptist Church continued to minister to the Kora people, they discovered that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons also had been in the Kora communities in Gunnison.

Their determination for taking the gospel to the Kora was fueled all the more. In undertaking a survey of the Kora community, for example, they invited Juan Tovar, a Hispanic church planter in Colorado, to assist.

The church began providing Kora families with transportation for summer school. They continued with ESL classes and Bible studies. They brought Kora children to church for TeamKID on Wednesday nights.

“We have a potato farmer who does a potato distribution for us every year” among the Kora, Hodges added. “And we’re getting ready for an apple distribution from a farmer in the Uncompahgre Baptist Association.”

Members of Trinity Baptist Church, including Hodges’ daughter, Kristin, and his in-laws, began to learn Spanish, so they could better minister among the few Kora Indians who can speak Spanish as well as other migrants in the Gunnison area.

“We gave away hygiene kits, including soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes,” Hodges said. Last winter, they gave away 100 coats and provided pots and pans to some of the Kora people.

Trinity Baptist Church’s efforts have helped raise awareness of the Kora people among the local government.

“Our county commissioners have established a multicultural office to serve as a point of entry into our community,” Hodges said. They explain driving laws and help the migrant workers and other seasonal resort workers at nearby Crested Butte to get established as they arrive in the Gunnison area.

“I don’t know how some of them make it through the winter,” Hodges said. “Many of them live in trailers and may not have windows or floors.”

But even as the Kora people live a very desperate life, they’re discovering the hope found in Christ.

“Some of the kids are talking about trusting Christ and being baptized,” Hodges said. “Whether that comes to fruition, we don’t know.” Becoming a Christian, he said, would cause the community to shun them.

“But we’re praying that as they go back to Mexico, that seeds are planted, that God would protect it, that God would raise up indigenous missionaries,” he said.

Trinity’s ministry to the Kora Indians in the Gunnison Valley is just one example of the church’s efforts to take the gospel to all lost people in the valley.

“One of the ways I see our community is in unreached people groups,” Hodges said. The town’s location, in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains offering hiking, biking, fishing and other activities, has provided ministry opportunities, such as a campground ministry, in its 10th year, which provided worship services at six different sites.

Teams from the church led the services on different nights of the week and even on Saturday mornings. Two of the locations are continuing and will evolve into home Bible studies.

“Every weekend, we have the opportunity to share the gospel,” Hodges said. “Just this past weekend, we met a family with marital problems who were facing the loss of their business. In the course of the evening, we had the opportunity to share the gospel with them and minister to them.”

Every summer, a traveling carnival makes a stop in Gunnison and offers yet another unreached people group. For several years, Trinity members have provided a continental breakfast, refreshments and other ministry to the workers.

“This year, we got to lead a worship service for them,” Hodges said. “And we had two professions of faith.

“Even though they’re only here for one week, they’re an unreached people group,” he noted.

Throughout the year, Trinity Baptist Church also sponsors a number of unique ministries aimed at the Gunnison valley’s year-round residents.

“We’re having a teacher appreciation barbecue soon,” Hodges said. The area’s schoolteachers, principals, administrators and others will be invited.

“Its a way for us to say thank you and to let them know we’re praying for them,” he said. “Earlier this year, we hosted a public safety appreciation night for the area’s firefighters, policemen, EMTs and others,” Hodges said.

“Many of them and their families came,” he said. “It opened up many doors to minister to them.”

With Western State College located in Gunnison, the church also sees the campus as a mission field.

“We prayerwalked around the campus several times this summer,” Hodges said. With their campus minister, Joe Ricks and Christian Challenge, the church is seeking to reach college students who call Gunnison their home for a few years.

“We’re doing an inter-generational Bible study,” Hodges said. “We have college students and older adults mixing and mingling as they study the Bible together.

“College students are getting connected with older adults and older adults are getting connected with college students,” he said.

Over the summer, the church was a flurry of construction activity as teams from Texas and Colorado helped make progress on a much-needed new fellowship hall, kitchen, educational space and new offices.

Though in need of the new space, church members are patient, moving forward as they can afford it, without incurring any debt. “Our cabinets are due in next week,” Hodges said. “And we’re busy taping and mudding now. But we may have to put it to bed for one more winter before we’re done.”

With the passing of summer, the church is busy transitioning to fall and the new ministry opportunities the season brings.

At the heart of everything at Trinity Baptist Church, though, is a passion for the lost.

“Just this year, through one of our TeamKID children that we pick up and bring to church, the mother was led to faith in Christ,” Hodges said. “It’s very likely the two children have made decisions as well. It’s quite possible we’ll see the whole family come to Christ.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CHURCH’S COMPASSION, VISITING IN THE VALLEY and GROWING YET MINISTERING.

    About the Author

  • Allen Spencer