By Jennifer Ferry
A Cooperative Baptist church is leveraging trust and service as a way to carry the gospel message to a close-knit and highly impoverished Native American community in Mississippi.
In the rural town of Decatur, located in one of the poorest areas of the state, Church Arise is ministering to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribe whose members reside in nearby Conehatta.
Church Arise has been intentionally focusing on ministry with the Choctaw community, which is battling obstacles such as alcoholism, abuse and poverty, according to Christian Byrd, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi.
The Decatur congregation works to identify and meet the needs of the Choctaw community, build long-term relationships and provide a safe space where the Choctaw people can feel accepted and cared for.
“It’s a unique and complex situation that is unlike the experience that most evangelical churches have when they minister to people outside of their walls,” Byrd explained. “Their effort is not short-term — it’s a life effort.”
The church is building community together with the Choctaw by spending time on the reservation, eating meals with them and playing with the children, Byrd added.
As part of the church’s ministry, Church Arise has followed the model of a popular ministry, Operation Christmas Child, providing clothing and personal hygiene items to Choctaw children during the Christmas season. Members of the congregation collect clothing, toiletries and toys to fill shoebox-size boxes that are distributed on Christmas Eve.
Byrd said that most of the children have only one outfit of clothes to wear to school and are unable to wash their clothes regularly because they do not have dryers in their homes.
“The Choctaw of Conehatta face poverty on a level that most people don’t want to believe exists in the United States,” Byrd said. “You don’t expect to see poverty like this in your own ZIP code.”
Some members of Church Arise are only able to attend services once or twice each month because of their economic situation.
“Just having the money for gas to come our way is often difficult,” said Gabe Swann, pastor of Church Arise.
Church Arise puts its energy into reaching out to an area that has long been neglected, and the congregation wants those who have had bad experiences and have been cast off to come to the church, Swann said.
“We focus more on people who are unchurched or people who have been rejected or feel like they’ve been rejected by church,” Swann said. “We are not bound by what you would think of as ‘traditions’ of the church.”
The congregation is a relatively new church that formed in 2005. Several years ago, the new church connected with the CBF. Out of that connection, a partnership began to grow.
Betty Sue Chaney, the church’s worship leader and a founding member, noted that the congregation has made strides in the past nine years. While it takes time for the Choctaw people to accept outsiders, they have come to accept Church Arise and its pastor with open arms, Chaney said.
“We’ve come a long way in trust, I think, and that’s what you have to have to be able to share the gospel,” Chaney said.