OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (BP) – Southern Baptist Native American statesman Emerson Falls plans to retire by the end of the year, but he plans to not quit working for the Lord, probably not ever.
Falls’ primary focus as a native Oklahoman of Sac and Fox/Choctaw heritage is ministering to the nearly 304,000 Native American people from the state’s 39 tribes as well as the 189 Oklahoma Southern Baptist churches that worship in a Native American context.
Around 8.75 million people claim Native American heritage in the United States.
“My purpose is to encourage pastors and to empower local Native American churches to make disciples and multiply communities of faith,” Falls told Baptist Press.
Fall’s 47 years in ministry, which started with leading youth, includes four churches, three educational endeavors and three national Native American initiatives. He has also served alongside the Oklahoma Baptist state convention.
“I think it would be a shame for us to not try to reach the indigenous people from our own country, particularly the way Native Americans have been treated,” Falls said, referring to recent exposes of the nationwide forced removal from 1819 to 1969 of Native children from their home, family, culture and even language, as well as forcing onto reservations people who once had full access to all the land.
In high school, Falls was a good student, good athlete, good friend and a good kid. He made a profession of faith in Jesus at an Oklahoma City youth rally. That’s also when he heard a faint call from God to enter vocational ministry.
However, the fervency of his high school faith faded with the onslaught of non-Christian Native Americans he met when he left home. They told him, “One of the ways the Anglo people kept us in a secondary status was by taking away our religion,” Falls recounts in his testimony. “They said Christianity was a white man’s religion.”
His fervency and time in Vietnam turned from despair and bitterness to clarity.
“I began to discover that bitterness is really self-destructive,” Falls said. “I had no purpose for my life. I did not want to live the rest of my life this way.
“One day, I thought about how happy and peaceful I was in that little Indian church back home. I realized that when I was in fellowship with Christ, the Holy Spirit dwelt in me and gave me peace, love, and joy. I had not found these anywhere else.”
Falls’ testimony, military service, Christian endeavors in and outside of Oklahoma and the countless conversations he’s had with Native Americans over the years have equipped him with the knowledge, skills and understanding to develop a culturally relevant missiological strategy for reaching Native Americans with God’s life-enriching gospel.
The only state convention full-time staff member assigned to reach Native Americans since 2011, Falls started on a part-time basis 13 years ago, for the last 10 full-time. During his official “retirement” he’ll go back to a part-time position doing the same thing.
As a result of Oklahoma Baptists’ commitment to reach Native Americans, 189 Native American churches are part of the state convention, almost half of the nation’s 391 Southern Baptist congregations that worship in a Native American context.
“Emerson Falls is a great minister of the gospel and one of the most respected ministry leaders in our state and beyond,” Oklahoma’s Executive Director Todd Fisher told Baptist Press.
“His ministry among Native Americans in Oklahoma, along with his other important ministry work, has made a lasting impact and changed countless lives. I’m grateful for his heart to reach Native peoples for Jesus, and I’m honored to call him my friend.”
In 1996, two years after earning his D.Min. degree from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Falls was called by then-President Bill Crews with a request to start a Rocky Mountain campus of what now is known as Gateway Seminary, which this year has 71 students.
Five years later he was called to Cook Native American College and Theological School in Tempe, Ariz. He helped to guide discussions in 2008 that led Cook to become a foundation that continues today for Native American churches and ministries.
In 2003 he returned to Oklahoma to be pastor of Glorieta Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. He was elected president of the state convention in 2008 and re-elected in 2009.
“One of the reasons the Indian churches asked me to run, they felt like they were not on the radar screen and we had people as competent as anyone else,” Falls said. “I didn’t really expect to win. We just wanted to make a splash, let people know Native Americans were still around.”
His vision for contextual theological education was instrumental in the founding of the Robert Haskins School of Christian Ministry in 2016, a training program by Oklahoma Baptists to equip pastors and leaders to be theologically sound and contextually relevant.
In 2006 he helped start the Fellowship of Native American Christians. Designed to resource Native churches and ministries, officially established as a 501c3 non-profit in 2008. In recent years FoNAC has become a networking entity.
“Dr. Falls has contributed much in Christian service throughout America, especially pertaining to Native Ministry,” FoNAC Executive Director Gary Hawkins told Baptist Press.
In 2011, Falls was part of two national Native American leadership events: The Gathering, at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, for the nation’s Native Americans, and The Summit, six weeks later at Cross Point Church in Springdale, Ark., for Natives and non-Natives to strategize how to work together to reach the nation’s 574 Native tribes.
Larry Factor, now pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, was a teenager when he first met his new youth leaders: Emerson and Shirley Falls. He has watched him ever since.
“I personally believe that the best accolade for their ministry is paraphrased from Colossians 3: 14-17,” Factor told Baptist Press. “They have put on the love of God, the peace of God rules their collective heart, the Word of Christ dwells within them, over their ministry, and everything they have done has been in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Falls said he carefully weighed his decision to formally retire from a full-time ministry position with Oklahoma Baptists.
“There are other things I want to work on,” the Native leader said. “Indian Falls Creek [which just had it 76th annual gathering in August] has a powerful impact on the Native American churches but struggles financially every year.
“I’m going to work in a fundraising capacity for them, and I’m still going to work with Native pastors, churches and the five Native [Baptist] associations we have in Oklahoma,” Falls continued.
“I believe God is going to great things among Native Americans and I am grateful that God has allowed me to serve him in Native American ministry. I plan to continue – in addition to loving Him, my wife, children, and grandchildren – to feel compassion for all the people whose paths I cross.”