OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Native American churches virtually have been a silent segment of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Emerson Falls believes it’s time they start beating their own drum.
Falls, pastor of Glorieta Baptist Church in Oklahoma City and a member of the Sac and Fox tribe, was elected president of the Fellowship of Native American Christians (FONAC) during a meeting preceding the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis.
Forty-four representatives from about 15 of the nation’s largest tribes were present for the inaugural meeting of the new fellowship June 9 that grew out of the 2007 SBC meeting in San Antonio when organizers decided to create a group to increase networking, fellowship, leadership and ministry opportunities.
Ledtkey McIntosh, a national missionary with North American Mission Board and also a former pastor of Glorieta Baptist Church, envisioned a Native American fellowship that also would assist in starting a church planting network among Native Americans.
Falls said FONAC has several purposes. “First is to connect the tribes nationally. There’s really been no way to connect other than informally,” he said. “Every state convention has Indian churches” -– totaling about 450 across the SBC -– “but there was not a national fellowship. So one of the purposes is to fellowship — to have a way to network nationally, stay in touch, find out about each other’s needs and find ways to work together.”
FONAC’s second purpose, Falls said, is to give the Indian churches a unified voice. “No one really is addressing some of the issues that we feel are relevant to the Native American church,” he said. “This gives us some visibility and gives us the voice to point out some of the concerns we have as the Native American church.”
A third purpose is uniting Native American churches to work together on missions causes, Falls said. “It’s us taking the initiative as Indian churches to plant some works and help some struggling churches,” he said. “We feel that by working together, we have the resources to do some things.”
Falls is quick to point out that the Indian churches are not distancing themselves from the Southern Baptist Convention; quite the opposite.
“In our charter, we do have two requirements: support of the Baptist Faith and Message [SBC statement of beliefs] and giving to the Cooperative Program [SBC missions support channel],” Falls noted. “We put that in there because we didn’t want to send the message that we were forming a separate convention or something like that. These are all Southern Baptist churches and we want them to be supportive of the SBC. We just recognize that the SBC probably doesn’t see everything that we see, and we want to begin identifying some of the needs we see nationally, particularly in the area of church planting….
“We would like to work fully with the North American Mission Board and the various state conventions and not try to do it all by ourselves,” Falls continued. “We’re just taking the initiative to point out some needs, and even many of those needs we could probably take care of ourselves, so we’re not totally dependent on someone else to do them for us. So, it’s a combination of us taking the initiative but also partnering with the organizations already in place.”
Falls said FONAC has several initial goals. “Our initial goals are to make ourselves known so that [Indian] churches will participate and come to the convention and also participate in our meeting,” he said. “So our first goal is to recruit churches to become involved.
“Then, we’re asking the churches to support us so we can have the money to do the things we need to do.
“In addition, we’re working on ways to do networking. We’re working on a website. We’ve never had a way of communicating nationally, so we’re hoping that will help us tremendously. Ultimately, our goal is to put together a national strategy — to find the areas where we are weak, where we need to plant churches and develop leaders through training.”
FONAC is aiming at hosting a national gathering for spiritual awakening to be held at Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center in 2010.
Meanwhile, the annual Indian Falls Creek at the Oklahoma conference center will continue to play a key role in FONAC’s development, Falls said. “It’s the largest gathering of Native Americans that I know of, even though it’s primarily an Oklahoma thing,” he said. “We always have many out of state churches come and we actively invite churches from other parts of the country to come, and they do. We have a broad representation of Indian churches at IFC every year. It’s a family camp; that’s the biggest difference. Our program is aimed at all ages.”
Falls said he was pleased when Johnny Hunt, a Lumbee Indian, was elected as SBC president in Indianapolis. Hunt is pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Woodstock.
“Sometimes, people have a negative stereotype of Indians. Having someone like a Johnny Hunt demonstrate that we have a lot of competent Native Americans who can serve in national leadership positions is a good, positive role model for us, and we’re excited about that,” Falls said. “In addition to that, maybe it will help us to make people aware that there are Native American churches in the SBC. We’re hoping that he’ll help give some visibility to Native American work across the convention.”
In addition to Falls, the fellowship’s inaugural officers are vice president Donny Coulter, a Canadian National Baptist Convention worker among First Nations people; treasurer Tommy Chavis, a Lumbee Indian and pastor of Bear Swamp Baptist Church in Pembroke, N.C.; and secretary Bruce Plummer, a member of the Assiniboine Nation and a pastor in Billings, Mont.
Bob Nigh is managing editor of the Baptist Messenger, newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.