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Korean-American seminarian nurtures Native American churches in Ariz.


PHOENIX (BP)–Look no further for global missions: Paula Kim, a Korean-American student at a Southern Baptist seminary, is ministering to Native Americans in northwestern Arizona.

When you put it to her that way, Kim laughs softly with a touch of embarrassment. She doesn’t consider herself unusual, or cutting-edge, or an illustration of the growing globalization within evangelical circles. She simply, in her own words, wants “the Indians to know the Lord. That’s all I know.”

Actually, she knows a lot more. Between the support and education she’s receiving at the Arizona Regional Campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Phoenix, and the mature mentors she has found in her supervisors, the Campsens, Kim is learning how to minister to the Navajo and Apache Indians.

Charlotte Campsen, whose husband Al is the director of missions for the Four Corners Baptist Association of northwest Arizona, said Kim ministers with patience, wisdom and joy.

“She has been such an encourager, both to us and to the Native Americans she’s working with,” said Charlotte, a missionary of 21 years with the Indians of Arizona. “There is so much work to do here, and you can never do it all, and it sometimes gets discouraging. Paula has been so positive and encouraging for us all.”

Kim is a Missions Service Corps volunteer with the North American Mission Board. She has been in northwest Arizona about 18 months; previously she was a campus minister at the University of California in Davis. She is supported by Emmaus Baptist Church in San Francisco and her home church, Davis Korean Church in Davis, Calif. — the first missionary sent out from that church.

Working alongside the Campsens, Kim’s goal is to help raise up Native American church leaders among the 11 churches of the Four Corners Association.

“That’s our dream and our prayer request,” she said. “We do this behind the scenes. I’m learning to never be the front person, to let them do everything themselves, let it be theirs.”

This is key to leadership training, especially among Navajos, Charlotte Campsen added. “The Navajos are not aggressive people, and if you step in as a missionary and say, ‘Here let me show you’ or ‘Here let me do that for you,’ then you’re defeating the purpose. It’s very hard for us to stand back and let the Navajos take charge, but it’s the best way for them to own their ministry. And they’re very capable.”

Said Kim, “We just stand by and let them go and let God work through them, whether they’re trained or not.”

Kim and the Campsens have a daunting task. The very size of Four Corners Association is overwhelming: by their best estimate, their association covers 18,000 square miles — a full six-hour drive from one end to the other. Kim’s closest church is 50 miles away; the farthest is a three-hour drive one way.

It’s not just the expanse of land that’s daunting. The statistics, too, are mind-boggling: only 5 percent of the Navajo are evangelical Christians. The pull of traditional tribal religions remains strong on both the Navajo and Apache reservations.

“Traditional religion is definitely the spiritual stronghold here,” Kim said. “While we might have 12 people in church on a good Sunday, tribal ceremonies are packed. The men especially are involved in those ceremonies, which include using piori, a drug from a cactus-type plant. People believe in many gods, in curses, in medicine men, all sorts of things. Sometimes at a Bible study when we ask for prayer requests, women will say to me, ‘My shoulder hurts; could you pray over it to heal?’ And they mean this in the same sense that they ask the medicine men — they want me to perform some kind of incantation or ritual that will heal them.”

Even for those Native Americans not drawn to tribal religion, the Christian faith holds little appeal. Because of the past abuses of Anglo-Americans, including some missionaries, many Native Americans still see Christianity as “the white man’s religion.” It does not belong to them — a belief that underscores the need for missionaries to allow Native American believers to take the lead in their own churches.

Added to the draw of tribal religion is the all-too-common litany of Native American reservation woes: abject poverty, lack of electricity and plumbing, alcoholism, teenage pregnancies, gangs, high suicide rate and ineffective tribal government.

“People live in one-room shacks, with eight children, and the government takes the children away because of alcoholism, and the children are forced to attend boarding schools that aren’t very good, and it is so sad to witness,” Kim said. “Without telephone lines, or plumbing, or electricity, I really feel like I’m in the Third World.”

There have been victories, though. At a new ministry at Jeddito, near the center of the Navajo Nation, Kim leads a Bible study for 28 women each week. Every Thursday she mentors a youth leader at another church. In October, Kim and the Campsens led a time of public repentance, beginning with themselves and inviting the leadership of Canyon De Chelly Church to join them.

“It was the most meaningful experience I have had here,” Kim recounted. “We were all repenting, and thanking God for his forgiveness, and it was so refreshing to actually do that, not just talk about it. Two weeks later there were 10 new people at the worship service. We could really see God using that foundation of prayer.”

Another tool Kim finds useful in her ministry is her training at Golden Gate’s Phoenix campus, where she takes classes two days a week.

“Golden Gate is the best thing out here,” she said firmly. “It’s not just the great education, but the tremendous support system there. It’s really been my anchor. I know that Mark McClellan, our director, is praying for all of us, and he’s personally interested in our ministries. He’s like our shepherd. That means so much to me.

“The classes are useful too,” Kim said. In addition to taking a class on leading declining churches through times of change, Kim noted, “Systematic theology has affirmed my doctrine and taught me, and that doctrinal soundness gives me confidence to do what I do. Doctrine is such a wishy-washy thing out here; the Christian faith gets warped very easily by tribal religions. So knowing what I believe helps me clarify things in my ministry.”
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(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: GOLDEN GATE MISSIONARY.

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  • Amanda Phifer