OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (BP)–The women sat in a cluster, their heads bowed, their faces creased in earnest pleading with God to bless their families, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Years later, there is thanksgiving.
One of their answered prayers is First Indian Baptist Academy.
“I used to be with those grandmas and great grandmas as they prayed for their families,” said Betty Luckey, a teacher at the school, “and now I’m getting to be with those very babies they had prayed for.
“They’re now young teenagers and preteens. … God is answering the prayers of the elders. He is blessing the kids.”
Located behind First Indian Baptist Church on the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation near Okeechobee, Fla., the academy has 32 students from kindergarten to the 12th grade.
The squeaky-clean school, housed in a metal building with polished linoleum, is home to five classrooms with brightly decorated bulletin boards, a computer lab and offices. Each of the teachers is responsible for a variety of grade levels and teaches from the internationally used A Beka Book curriculum to classes of no more than eight students. A board of directors made up of members from First Baptist Church in nearby Brighton and LifeWay Fellowship Church join with other community members to help direct the school.
Many of the students over the years previously had discipline problems and had dropped out of school, a problem senior pastor Wonder Johns of First Indian Baptist Church said he wanted to address by opening the school in 1999. Currently only one student does not live on the reservation but comes from Okeechobee to attend school.
“Kids start dropping out about eighth grade, ninth grade — and I thought maybe we’d start something here that would help them out,” said Johns, who also serves as the school’s administrator. “Some of them that are going here are really seeming to be doing real good. They’re just happy and wanting to come all the time.”
Johns recalled one first-grader who had hated going to school. The eight-year-old girl would cry when it was time to go to school, but now she is one of the first children to arrive, getting her mom up each morning to make sure she isn’t late.
“I think [before] … no one paid any attention to her and she just was left alone,” Johns said. “She just wasn’t interested at all at that time, but some of the teachers make it really interesting for them [here].”
Johns spoke of a quiet boy who was shy when he started at the school as a third-grader. Now a sophomore in high school, the boy volunteered to speak and pray at a school program and is part of a band that plans to perform as part of a fundraising concert for the school. Johns said the boy’s parents cried when they saw their son on stage, telling him they never thought they would see that happen.
“Some of them are just eager to pray,” Johns added. “That’s what really encourages me. Some of them listen to prayers closely and then they begin to want to pray. Even little children…. They really enjoy praying.”
The school reaches children who don’t normally go church or Sunday School, Luckey said, noting that the children attend chapel once a week and have Bible class every day at First Indian Baptist Academy.
“They’re responding to the Gospel. It was the love they were looking for; it was the salvation they needed,” Luckey said. “There’s such a ministry going on. These kids are responding to the love, and then out of that love they’re getting an education. But they’re finding Jesus Christ, and that’s the heart of it.”
First Indian Baptist Church, which sponsors the academy, is a “lighthouse” on the reservation, Luckey said. The congregation prays for the teachers and students every day — “and those prayers are being effective.”
The students’ families also are being affected, Johns said. Several children came forward at last year’s graduation ceremony upon hearing a Gospel invitation and after they told their parents of their decisions, the parents called Johns and asked if they also could be baptized, the pastor said.
“I think God is leading me to help my tribe,” Johns said, undergirding his ministry “with prayer and asking God for what I can do to help my people…. I think God really, really uses people if they ask for it.
“Somewhere somehow, God blessed us so much.”
The people on Brighton reservation have prospered in many ways, Luckey agreed. She told the story of one man, now in his 60s, who grew up on the reservation. As a child, he and his aunt lived in a thatched-roof house with no electricity and would walk more than a mile barefoot through the woods to church.
“He would hold his aunt’s hand and when they would get to the clearing where this church now still stands … he would see the light streaming out the windows and out the front door and he would break loose from his aunt’s hand and he would run — this little Indian boy — he would run up to the church,” Luckey recounted. “He says that was the happiest moment of his whole childhood — that feeling of walking into that church door and seeing all his friends and relatives all hugging each other and shaking hands and singing about Jesus Christ.”
And God answered the prayers of the grandmothers who prayed for shoes for their grandchildren and a car that would run, Luckey said.
Another dimension of God’s blessings of the small church and school is the help of Florida churches such as Crossroads Baptist Church in Lithia.
Tim Walters, a Creek-Cherokee Indian and Native American missionary from Crossroads, said they plan to hold a barbeque for the community and other churches to draw attention to the school and raise funds for Native American missions.
“You have to talk to people the way Jesus did — through the culture,” Walters said. “He spoke through the culture of His culture and times, so we speak to them as Indians. We don’t say, ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that,’ but we just say that Jesus is the Son of God the Creator and many Indians have accepted that.”
A missions-minded church itself, First Indian Baptist supplements leadership at churches and missions on the Big Cypress, Tamiami Trail and Immokalee reservations. Luckey said she attended one of the services at Immokalee to listen to the congregation sing hymns in the Creek language.
The image of 20 Indian men standing, “very stoic looking, belting out the old Creek hymns with their deep voices” was a joyous experience, Luckey said. “I don’t understand the words to the songs they’re singing, but the Lord’s speaking to my heart and the Holy Spirit is touching my life as I try to sing along.”
First Indian Baptist also is a longtime contributor to the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ unified channel for supporting missions and ministry of the Florida Baptist and Southern Baptist conventions, and to the Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon offerings for outreach across North American and across the globe, Luckey said.
The women of the church have sewn together “teeny weeny pieces” of bright-colored material into beautiful patterns that they fashioned into skirts and jackets, Luckey said. They sold the clothing at festivals and in the past have donated all the proceeds of the clothing, beadwork and food to the missions offerings and the Cooperative Program, Luckey said.
First Indian Baptist has been central to the small reservation since the 1960s when it grew out of the ministries of two Southern Baptist missionaries who came to work with the Seminole people in south Florida, Luckey said.
Some of the elders have told her about how they gave their lives to Christ, facing their disapproving families, after hearing about Jesus from Willie King, a missionary from Oklahoma, and Genus Crenshaw, the regional missionary to Florida Indians appointed by Southern Baptists.
Eva Wolever is a writer with the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.