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Japanese layman carries Gospel to Native Americans

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

TEMECULA, Calif. (BP)–Fried rice and chicken chow mein are not typically found on the Pala Indians’ table. But for more than a year the Native Americans have enjoyed the Chinese fare at potlucks after a monthly worship service sponsored by the Chinese Baptist Church of Orange County.

Steve Niino, known as the “Chineseman” although he is Japanese, began inviting Pala Indians and residents of the Pala Reservation in Southern California to Bible studies eight years ago.

With Chinese food in one hand and a Bible in another, he would visit the local market and post office twice a week, driving over an hour each way from his Orange County home.

“For some reason the Chinese food is a big draw here,” Niino said. “The men especially like it and it builds a sense of family when you share a meal together.”

Sheila Smith, a Pala native, and her boyfriend, Mark Lopez, were among those Niino had invited to study the Bible with him.

“He kept bothering me,” said Smith, joking. “After two months I finally agreed to study the Bible with him. I’m not really sure why, but it was the right time.”

For the past year, Smith and Lopez have spent their Wednesday lunch hours eating Chinese food and studying the Bible with Niino at their kitchen table.

“At one of our studies both prayed to receive Christ,” said Niino, a retired businessman and former men’s ministry leader at the church who receives a small budget for his ministry. “Their lives have really changed.”

Lopez and Smith are two of nearly 50 who attend the monthly worship celebrations at the Old Tribal Hall in North San Diego County -– a gathering of Palas who attend seven Bible studies Niino leads.

The service, held on the last Sunday of the month, was started last year to bring together all the various families into a congregation.

Eight years ago, the Chinese Baptist Church of Orange County adopted the Pala tribe for mission outreach and began holding activities and Saturday worship under the trees of a park on the reservation that is now home to a multi-story casino.

“God provided everything I needed to retire early and I knew He wanted me to do this ministry,” said Niino, commenting that the Palas “have not necessarily been treated fairly in the past.”

The Pala Band has a population of more than 800 living on the 11,000-acre reservation near San Diego.

Other California churches that partner with Niino to conduct the monthly worship service include the All Nations Fellowship Church and The Vision-Plus Church, both of Riverside, the Mandarin Baptist Church of Pasadena and Korean Grace Ministries in Fullerton.

“God has been working,” said William Eng, pastor of the Chinese Baptist Church of Orange County, which also sponsors a mission to a tribe in the four-corners area of Arizona. “We are reaching the teens and kids as well.”

Amber Scott, 17, has been studying the Bible with Niino for a couple years after she and her three sisters asked Jesus into their lives.

“We are like family,” said Lorraine Scott, Amber’s mom who invited Niino into her home to help her four daughters learn about the Bible. “We share prayer requests and we celebrate birthdays. He’s there to listen to me.”

Niino met Lorraine at a Pala festival two years ago and asked if she would be interested in studying the Bible.

“I wasn’t going to church and wanted my kids to know about God,” said Lorraine, who now attends a weekly Bible study and the monthly worship service. “Niino was just what I needed since I don’t know much about the Bible.”

While watching Niino lead Scott’s daughters in a Bible study on their porch, Lorraine’s sister, Nora Scott, became interested.

Now Nora and Niino are reading “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren together each Wednesday in Scott’s living room after he helps Amber with her Bible study.

“I really love the music of the [monthly] worship service,” said Nora, a reading teacher who attends a local Catholic Church on Sundays. “I really like the gathering of everyone.”

In addition to the Bible studies, Niino brings his church’s youth to play baseball and basketball with Pala teens; he gives adult and children’s tennis lessons; and he runs a booth at a Pala festival each May, bringing in a Disney artist to draw and autograph Disney cartoon characters for the children along with women from his church who write people’s names in Chinese characters. At Christmastime, he brings in his church’s 75-member choir to sing Christmas carols for the Pala.

Members from Niino’s church along with members from the four partner churches help with the outreach when they can.

“[Niino] is a blessing,” said Galen Greenwalt, the Native American pastor of The Vision-Plus Church who preaches at the monthly worship services. “He does most of the coordinating for the services.”

Greenwalt brings 10 of his church members to each service to help impart “a sense of encouragement to a group of believers who have no church home to attend each week. [The Vision-Plus volunteers] are sensitive to their particular needs as a band of Native Americans and want to worship together because of that kinship and bond. We provide a safe place to worship, without making them feel as if they cannot gather together with others [to] praise to our Lord.“

The Pala natives often are skeptical of others who come onto the reservation with other agendas, so they are slow to accept “outsiders” who come to start Bible studies or lead in worship services, Greenwalt said.

“Because I am from Potawatomi Nation background, there are some who feel as if they have related kinship with me through the Native American experience in our society,” Greenwalt said. “This is very important in the relationship and trust areas as we meet together.”

Niino also has worked to build trust. But it has taken time.

“I have been out here for many years building relationships with the people,” Niino said. “It’s an honor for me to serve God and the Pala Indians. I love what I do.”

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  • Kelli Cottrell