By Paula Schlueter Ross
Thanks to the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT), the number of Native American pastors now serving The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has doubled: from two to four.
The two newest Native American pastors are the Rev. Will Main and the Rev. Park Timber — both 2011 EIIT graduates.
Of the 35 students currently studying for church-work careers through the EIIT, two others also are Native American — one each in the pastor and deaconess programs.
And, the Rev. Dr. Don Johnson, executive director of Lutheran Indian Ministries in Brookfield, Wis., says he knows of at least two other Native Americans who are interested in enrolling in the EIIT.
The EIIT, a distance-education program based at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, is valuable, Johnson said, because “it enables Native people [to train as church workers] without leaving their cultural context. They can stay in their communities and be useful in ministry while they’re also [taking classes].”
Main, a 47-year-old Dakota Sioux, began his ministry on the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., in 2006 — a year before he enrolled in the EIIT pastor-training track. Over his four years of EIIT study, he and his wife, Patricia, served students through “Haskell LIGHT,” a 39-year-old campus ministry that offers free personal items and school supplies, weekly Bible studies that include free meals, and Sunday worship.
Main’s dream is to build a “leadership institute” adjacent to the campus that would teach “life skills and [address] spiritual matters.”
“God is leading us to equip and train more of my Native American brothers and sisters to take this Good News home to their reservations, where it’s desperately needed,” Main told Reporter.
Main, a former auto-repair technician, “never in a million years” thought that he would be an ordained pastor. In fact, when Johnson asked him to consider campus ministry at Haskell — and even after Main visited the campus — it took him nine months to say yes to the idea. He said he felt the Holy Spirit tapping him on the shoulder every night at bedtime, and when he finally made his decision he “felt a weight come off my shoulders.”
Main credits his wife as his “encourager,” helping him complete his EIIT studies, which he describes as “the most challenging four years of my life.” But, he adds, “it is my belief that we have been thoroughly equipped with good, balanced doctrine — we’re equipped to take the field now.”
Timber, 35, a Northern Cheyenne Native American, served his vicarage at his home congregation — Circle of Life Lutheran Church in Muddy Cluster, Mont. — and now continues to serve part time as associate pastor there. The congregation is located on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where fewer than 20 percent of the residents are Christian.
Longtime Circle of Life Pastor Rev. Dennis Bauer has known Timber since the EIIT graduate was 6 years old and calls him a “fantastic” associate pastor.
Timber said he is “really thankful” for the EIIT program, which is the only way he could make his dream of becoming a pastor a reality. There were “plenty of challenges and plenty of blessings” along the way, he adds, but he knows “God is with me” and he hopes he “will be an effective servant in sharing the Gospel with many people.”
One of his goals is to start a “youth camp” that would serve local teenagers and their families.
EIIT Director Rev. Dr. John Loum says the EIIT program, which began in 2002, has “a very, very strong missional emphasis” and has trained some 40 LCMS church workers from African immigrant, African-American, Hispanic, Hmong and Native American backgrounds.
Most EIIT students work full time, have families and serve Lutheran ministries, which means “you have to be intensely determined to pursue this program,” Loum said.
It also means, he added, that students “are really passionate about the program — my heart always goes out to them and their determination and passion.”
The EIIT, he adds, is “one way of diversifying and making our church be inclusive” of foreign cultures.
Even with the increase in the number of Native American pastors, Johnson acknowledges the continuing “desperate need” for more Native Americans to serve the LCMS as church workers. No one is as ideally suited to Native American ministry as a Native American, says Johnson, of the Makah tribe.
Because of their heritage, many Native Americans “can tell good stories,” which is a valuable asset to church workers who serve in those ministries, he said.
Even more important, he added, are their common experiences and struggles: when a Native American sees another Native person who has risen above his or her own hardships and “has hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ … that’s the key.”
In his autobiographical book, Broken Parts, Missing Pieces, not yet published, Johnson describes “the struggles I had as a young student [that] were in part related to growing up in an environment that left me feeling that I was not capable. And I believed that.”
Over the years, he added, “God has shown me that I can do much more than I had thought, but this has all taken me a long time.” His struggles aren’t unique in Native American settings, Johnson says, and he believes those negative experiences, transformed by the Holy Spirit, can make a positive difference when reaching out to others with the Gospel.
“So often we discover that dysfunctions are passed from one generation to another,” he said. “Somebody has to break the cycle, and the people who do that best are those who experience the grace of God in a way that enables them to be used to reach out to others similarly affected by life experiences.”
To find out more about Lutheran Indian Ministries — a ministry of the Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots U.S., an LCMS Recognized Service Organization, click here.
To read a related story, click here.
For more information about the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology, click here.
Posted Dec. 1, 2011