Tenacious at Tulalip: Native American Heritage Honored, God Glorified

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Home Missions, Western

By Carl Stagner

The 20,000-acre Tulalip Reservation, situated only about thirty-five miles north of Seattle, Washington, isn’t home to just one Native American tribe. Several tribes, in fact, came together under compulsion in the mid to late 19th century to become the Tulalip Tribes, relinquishing land to the American government across the western side of today’s Washington State. Not unlike other opportunities seized by early Church of God leaders, a door soon opened to missions on this reservation known to include the direct descendants of Chief Seattle; in 1947, the Church of God at Tulalip was born. As connections are refreshed with the ministry of the Movement there, evidence of the sustaining, sovereign hand of the Savior on Tulalip Church of God tells an ever-unfolding story in which Native American heritage is honored and God is glorified.

A display once held in the Church of God Interpretive Center in Anderson, Indiana, best summarized the origin of the Church of God influence upon the Tulalip Reservation:

When missionaries visited her church in Detroit, Marjorie responded by dedicating her life to missions. At Pacific Bible college (now Warner Pacific University) in Portland, Oregon, she met Adam Williams, the first and only Native American she had ever known. In 1943 they were married, and four years later they accepted the pastorate on the Tulalip Reservation near Marysville, Washington. Their concern for the people on the reservation prompted them to expand their notion of evangelism. Adam and Marjorie founded a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, which eventually grew to one hundred members. They operated a used clothing closet and a food bank at the church, and reached out to young mothers and children. After Adam died in 1978, the congregation called on Marjorie to be their pastor. She agreed, and for another twenty-five years continued to serve the people she had come to love as her own.”

The number of federally recognized tribes (or nations) of Native Americans in the United States today stands at 574. Among Church of God ministry by, and for, Native Americans, Tulalip Church of God has grown to be one of the most beloved; the names of Adam and Majorie Williams are still revered by the Tulalip Tribes today. Though the Tulalip work was assigned to the Home Missions portfolio of the Board of Church Extension in 2002, the congregation has continued to mature, and even flourish, indigenously.

Kevin Johnson

At the 2023 General Assembly in Tampa, fresh representation of the American Indian Council was voted to the Ministries Council. Kevin Johnson serves as vice chief for this Church of God Partner in Ministry and as a lay leader at Tulalip Church of God, where Cliff Smalley serves as pastor. His voice on the Ministries Council is especially welcome, offering valuable perspective on a wide range of ministry issues, not the least of which is Native American ministry. His insights are already challenging the Church of God to wrestle appropriately with the past, seize the present opportunities, and propel the Movement forward in strategic ways that maximize effective work across cultures.

“Tulalip Church of God has been described by many tribal elders as the place where they learned about Jesus for the first time,” Kevin explains. “Adam and Marjorie were loved and respected among tribal members, and generations of tribal families have attended over the years. The food bank has been blessed to serve thousands of tribal and non-tribal community members, and it continues to be an active outreach.”

Like most church stories, the journey hasn’t been smooth. Challenges of a variety of kinds have threatened the ongoing work there, but the Lord has prevailed on behalf of his tenacious people and kept intact the public perception of Tulalip Church of God as essential. Isn’t that the kind of relationship with the community that most congregations long for?

Kevin Johnson has attended for over a decade and gives particular attention to the board, for which he serves as treasurer, and the food bank. He offers thoughts on Native American Heritage Month, too often overlooked by a church and society whose attention is captured by the holiday season.

A marquee offers hope along the main highway into Tulalip.

“I’m not a tribal member myself,” Kevin concedes, “but I’ve lived on the reservation for twenty-eight years. One source of frustration for native people seems to be the lack of understanding they experience from non-natives regarding their history, especially relating to generational trauma. Most are not looking for sympathy, but understanding and recognition of the truth. The lessons in public schools about slavery and the holocaust are taught while the bulk of native history gets overlooked. It may be helpful for people to visit a Native American history museum or read a book by a native historian. Please pray for understanding among non-natives to accommodate healing and unity.”

Kevin’s desire is that the church continues to reach the lost with favor from the Lord. “May God continue to strengthen the church and reclaim what the enemy has stolen,” he concludes.

Jim Lyon, general director of Church of God Ministries, grew up in Seattle and knew Adam and Marjorie; he was fairly well acquainted with Tulalip, but there is much that he’s still discovering for himself. He observes that “Everybody has a story; every church has a story; the Church of God Tulalip ministry has a story, too. And we are excited about having a new generational and robust voice of the Native American ministry of the Church of God at the Ministries Council (and with a seat on other Assembly standing committees, as well). Learning about, and learning from, our stories can keep us on track for the future. I am so thankful for the chance to dive, once more, into the Tulalip story.”

Learn more about Native American History Month at www.nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov. Learn more about the Church of God at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.

Feature (top) photo: Tulalip Church of God, locally known as the “Red Church,” exterior.

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