by Michael Reneau
On this July morning, a group of men hammered nails, measured planks and sawed wood in front of a mobile home. With cicadas buzzing in the sticky North Carolina mountain air, they labored, trying to finish the stairs for a front porch. As their sweat dripped into piles of sawdust, a group of girls could be heard in the backyard, yelling as they played.
This team from East Cobb Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Ga., spent a week of their summer in Cherokee, N.C., at the Goose Creek Campground located in the Birdtown community of the Cherokee Reservation, replacing a rotten front porch for Penny, a Cherokee woman. While the men built the porch's steps, a group of girls from the church's youth group built a bond with Penny's daughter, tackling each other and giggling on the trampoline. Mike Peifer, the project administrator at Goose Creek, teased them about exceeding the weight limit of the trampoline. Then he stood back to watch.
"This is what this ministry is all about," he whispered.
The Presbyterian Church in America's (PCA) Mission to the World (MTW) runs Goose Creek Campground on the property of this Cherokee Indian Reservation for this very thing-to build links to the community. Tammy Jackson is MTW's local missionary to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Even though Goose Creek only operates during the summer months, Jackson, a Cherokee herself, lives here year-round and continues to develop follow-up programs with the tribal members, especially the young girls and women.
The federal government removed most of the Cherokees from their lands in the Southeast in 1839, in what came to be known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees there today are the descendents of those who refused to leave. They, with the help of Will Thomas, an adopted member of the tribe, purchased the 56,000 acres that is called the Qualla Boundary. Today their land is held in trust by the U.S. government.
The tribe is working to revive its culture, Jackson said. Many children attend summer camps that pass down Cherokee culture and history. In school, Cherokee children learn their language. Even the street signs in Qualla are written in Cherokee and English.
"Our language has been slowly dying," Jackson said.
A few miles away from Penny's trailer where the group from East Cobb Presbyterian worked, a casino run by the tribe was being expanded. Gambling has been legally allowed on many U.S. Indian Reservations for over 20 years. Such casinos draw tourists and extensive revenue to reservations, but often also bring along compulsive gambling and other social problems. According to Jackson, each Cherokee receives per capita checks twice a year from casino revenue. The final treaty issued by the U.S. government stated that it would provide housing, medical care, and education for all Native tribes, but with huge profits from casinos, many tribes have now taken over these programs.
But with prosperity have come other issues. "Drugs are eating us alive," Jackson said. In sad confirmation, two reservation teenagers overdosed on drugs just weeks before this interview in July.
This is where MTW wants to impact the Cherokee community. According to Jackson, the Cherokees have always had missionaries among them. Missionaries even shared the hardships of the Trail of Tears. What the Cherokees really need now, she said, is discipleship and God's gospel of grace. "But unfortunately, what we have now is a 200-year-old spiritual baby."
Teams like the one from East Cobb can shift paradigms, though. By working on construction projects and hosting VBS-type programs with the Cherokee children, these teams gain credibility with the Cherokee and open doors for real discipleship.
"They're seeing beyond just the porch or a can of paint," Jackson said
With Peifer and MTW, Jackson is working on building a staff of full-time missionaries to the Cherokee in Qualla. Peifer said the ultimate goal is for the PCA to establish a self-supporting congregation in Cherokee, though that may be years down the road.
"We want to work ourselves out of a job," he said. "That would be a great blessing."
People like John Amelong also want to see MTW work itself out of a job at Goose Creek. He has been coming to Goose Creek once a summer for nearly 15 years, and this year he is an associate staff member-a volunteer who stays on site for one to two weeks.
Amelong, from Good Shepherd Presbyterian in St. Louis, Miss., also worked on the porch with the team from East Cobb. Having come to Cherokee for so long with his wife and son (also named John), Amelong and his family have developed relationships of their own with some of the Cherokees.
"We've watched some of them grow up," he said. "Some of them go to church and some go to jail," he added, referring to the persistent drug problem. Amelong's son was a friend of one of the Cherokee teens who recently overdosed fatally.
Amelong said he keeps coming back, and volunteered for associate staff this year, to see some Cherokees come to Christ.
"You have to keep coming back and trying," he said. "You do a little work and talk with people, and people like Tammy [Jackson] can do their thing."
"This ministry is one of the easiest to get involved with we've got," Jackson said. The campground has bunk houses that sleep 10 each, a main office, and a dining hall.
Peifer and Amelong said that a site like Goose Creek is great for teams that have children or for those on their first mission trip. A typical day for a team includes morning devotions, breakfast, working at a job site (construction, a sports camp for kids, or a VBS-style program), eating lunch on site, more work in the afternoon, dinner at the campground and group worship.
Jackson added, however, that as important as are the teams that come in, the real focus of MTW's ministry is lasting relationships with the Cherokee people. "This is about the ministry that God has-to bring the gospel to the Cherokees," she said.
For more information on the Goose Creek Campground project or other MTW American Indian projects, go to www.mtw.org.
Michael Reneau is a student at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn..
He served as a summer intern at AMG International and Pulpit Helps.