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Watching God at work through Arizona Southern Baptists.
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Walking and working together
By Irene A. Harkleroad
"There is an awakening across Native American land," says Eric Gibbs. "It's like God has been preparing for the harvest and it's here."
As the missionary pastor of the 89-year-old First Pima Baptist Church in Sacaton, the oldest Native American Southern Baptist church in Arizona, Gibbs has been making disciples in both the Gila River Indian Community and the second largest reservation in the country — the Tohono O'odham Nation.
"We've baptized 20 people since October 2013," Gibbs says. "In the previous two-and-a-half years we baptized five or six." The church's attendance has grown from 15-18 per Sunday to 75-100.
"The biggest advantage is living here," Gibbs says. "After three-and-a-half years, we are a solid part of the community and a consistent gospel presence. ... They know this is our home, that God called us here. Even the people far from God know and respect us for being here."
In 2009 Gibbs, a Kentucky youth pastor, was asked by his mentor, James Cecil, to join a mission team to Hickiwan village on the Tohono O'odham Nation. A calling was born.
In January 2011, the Gibbs family moved to First Pima Baptist and focused their ministry on teens.
"Life as a teenager on the reservation is borderline impossible," Gibbs says. "Everything they know is broken — marriages, families, individuals. They live in a society of gang violence, teen suicide, alcoholism, drug use and teen pregnancy. Arrests and prison are like rites of passage. Teens exist day to day without hope. We offer them eternal hope and acceptance in Jesus."
Lives are being changed.
Once the object of mission efforts, Gibbs says, "now they are learning that the Great Commission is for them, not just to them. God is raising up a generation of men learning to love and invest in their families, their church and their communities."
Church members recently met the substantial needs of a family of Congolese refugees in Phoenix.
The Gibbs family is evidence of making disciples of all peoples. Eric and his wife, Brittany, have a biological son and daughter, a daughter adopted from the Republic of Congo and two adopted Native American sons. They model a consistent family life and solid parenting — something many have never seen.
First Indian Baptist Church in Phoenix, Heart of Mesa and the Baptist Indian Fellowship partner with the ministry. And the Gibbses are part of a close-knit group of Mission Service Corps missionaries who raise their own support to serve on the reservations. Eddie and Candy Ware, Joshua and Deidra Hodges, and Ken and Thurleen Bain are part of that family.
"We are the only ones who understand each other," says Brittany. "We know the challenges, disappointments and triumphs. We are here for each other."
The Gibbs, Doug Jones (Eric's right-hand man at the church) and the Hodges visit Cockleburr on Tuesday evenings for Bible study, worship and games.
"We prayed that God would give us this village," Gibbs says. "Tribal leaders chased us off, but when they saw how we were helping, they asked us to work with them to clean up the village. They brought tractors and 100 employees and tribal members, and we worked side by side."
One woman trusted Christ. Later, her husband and his brother trusted and became the first men ever baptized in Cockleburr.
The Gibbses and their team have planted churches in Kohatk and Chuichu villages and take mission teams to Hickiwan.
"To see the way God is moving is unbelievable," says Gibbs. "I have truly realized that God takes broken people, restores them and uses them. Then He puts them all together and makes them a family and they serve Him. This is the ultimate story of mercy and redemption."
—To learn more about the Gibbses and their missionary journey check out their blog.
—Pray for the Gibbses and their work on the reservations. Resistance is strong in many areas. Pray for their safety as they travel through the reservations.
—Arizona is home to two of the three largest Native American reservations in the U.S. — the Navajo Nation and Tohono O'odham Nation — plus a number of smaller reservations. Find out how your church can participate in ministry opportunities in southern Arizona by contacting Felix Juan, chairman of the Baptist Indian Fellowship, at 602-400-3237; in northeastern Arizona, by contacting Jon Hoyt, Fourcorners Association director of evangelism/missions, at email@example.com; and in northwestern Arizona, by contacting Tommy Thomas, associational missionary, River Valley Mission Network, 928-753-9262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For opportunities with Eric Gibbs, contact him at email@example.com.