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A Native Success Story

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The turning point for Native Americans Joel and Sharon Cornelius happened when the troubled young married couple attended a service at an Assemblies of God church in Durango, Colorado. Immediately after surrendering their lives to Jesus, the couple wanted to share their newfound joy with others.

Their pastor suggested they attend Bible college. Sharon, a Navajo, had a cousin at American Indian College in Phoenix.

“The Lord was there,” says Joel Cornelius, 54, who is half Oneida Indian. “People were going out and sharing the gospel. Something just felt like I should try that.”

Within a year of coming to faith in Christ, the couple began their studies at AIC. While being discipled there, the couple took part in inner-city ministry. In 1989, Joel Cornelius earned a degree in church ministry; Sharon finished her degree a year later. From there, the couple pastored in Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, and Washington state, reaching Native Americans with the gospel, and participating in many short-term mission trips.

In the two years that the couple has pastored Tuba City Assembly of God, located on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, the church has doubled in average attendance to 240, making it among the country’s largest Native American congregations. As with the Corneliuses, most congregants in the church come from non-Christian backgrounds.

“We want to help Navajo people fulfill the Great Commission,” Cornelius says.

The United States has 5.2 million Native Americans. John E. Maracle, 66, a Mohawk Indian and chief/president of the Assemblies of God Native American Fellowship, notes that AG ministry among them began in the 1930s. Of 601 tribes, today 190 Assemblies of God churches minister on 104 reservations in 27 states.

Sixty years ago, AG missionary Alta Washburn founded AIC to prepare Native peoples for church ministry. That mission today includes an Associate’s degree in Bible and a Bachelor’s degree in Church Leadership, as well as an Associate’s and a recently added Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. The College also offers a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. These degrees fit AIC's goal of preparing Native American men and women for life and ministry service, AIC President David J. Moore says.

Today, AIC is the only Christian college with multiple majors serving primarily Native American students, thus revitalizing their communities spiritually and professionally. AIC’s mission is to provide students with one-on-one attention to help them succeed. To that end, average class size is 10. While most students are Navajo or Apache, in any given year, as many as 40 tribes have been represented at the school, according to Joseph J. Saggio, administrative dean of the college. This semester, 82 students are enrolled.

Last year, AIC partnered with the Waxahachie, Texas-based Southwestern Assemblies of God University, which allows AIC students to study additional subjects online. The school is now called SAGU American Indian College.

Social woes abound for Native peoples. Median income for Native American families is about 70 percent that of the overall national population. By race, the highest national poverty rate is among American Indians and Alaska Natives. Nine states have Native populations with poverty rates of about 30 percent. Likewise, unemployment is high.

Reservation communities are often economically depressed, stricken with alcoholism, and pervaded by a sense of hopelessness, Moore says.

“Spiritually, there's a void,” he says. AIC’s most recent reported graduation rate is 50 percent, giving it the second-highest rate nationally for colleges serving primarily Native American students. AIC alumni have become teachers and school administrators, substance abuse counselors, hospital workers, community leaders, a postmaster general, and ministers, including more than half of Apache and Navajo pastors.

Today, Christianity is spreading throughout those tribes.

“Reservation communities are expanding the growth of the church and are strongly influencing the community,” Moore says. Native American teachers are particularly important examples to their people.

“A Native American with an education degree is in a powerful position to influence,” Moore says. “(Students) identify with them, and the kids have someone they can look up to as a role model.”

For example, SAGU AIC foundation board member Rea Goklish is the first Native American school superintendent on the White Mountain Apache reservation. Fellow graduate Deborah Tom supervises all 12 elementary schools on the New Mexico side of the Navajo reservation. Both women hold Doctor of Education degrees.

Moore notes that five of nine elected to the White Mountain Apache tribal council attend Assemblies of God churches. The other four are Pentecostal. While some Native American peoples remain largely resistant to the gospel, nearly all the 150 Navajo communities have an AG congregation or Pentecostal church, Moore says. SAGU AIC graduates pastor many of these churches and are active in community life and leadership. Many tribal council members have been from the AG, and one current council member is a graduate of AIC.

SAGU AIC fulfills an essential role in reaching these populations, because Native Americans are more receptive to the gospel from other tribal members rather than those from other races.

“This school has a huge place in equipping young people to do what I do,” Cornelius says. “There is desperate need for young pastors to become equipped and come back and have the baton passed to them.”

Cornelius continues to preach at reservation church camp meetings and point Christian youth to SAGU AIC, which he cites as integral to his spiritual formation.

“It started a process in my life that God has continued to build on,” he says. “It equips people to follow God.”

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