American Indian Youth Camp Empowers Next Generation
“It used to be we worked all week just to keep things in control, but now we’re seeing returning campers coming with a hunger for God . . . wanting an encounter with Jesus.”
For 25 years, Richard C. Stewart
, an AG U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries missionary, and his wife, Hope, have been directors of IYC — Indian Youth Camp
— held at the district’s Glacier Bible Camp in Hungry Horse, Montana. They also serve as the Native American Ministries Representatives for the Montana District Council.
Richard Stewart, who became director of the camp in 1996, says that the camp used to see about 50 to 60 kids attend, but that number has now grown to more than 200 kids and nearly as many volunteers.
“We have a blended staff of Native American and non-native volunteers, including half of the camp’s board of directors being Native American — many who grew up attending IYC,” Stewart says. “The rest of board and volunteers are made up of a blend of ethnicities and races — Native American, Samoan, white, Korean, Latin, and even a girl from the Netherlands volunteered this year.”
The Stewarts partner with Native American pastors in Montana to reach Native American youth for Christ,” says Wayne Huffman, director of AGUSM Intercultural Ministries. “This partnership is strategic because it places ownership of the ministry in the hands of Native American leaders and together they are raising up a new generation of church leadership.”
Stewart explains that whether Native American or not, the volunteer staff all share common goals that include campers coming to realize they are unconditionally loved by the staff, providing multiple opportunities to encounter Jesus, and making sure the campers have the time of their lives.
“Jesus is the difference maker that brings all the cultures and races together under His banner to love kids,” Stewart says. “And it's remarkable to see what God does through worship services and at the altar.”
In addition to devotional and service times, kids enjoy a wide variety of electives, including top-quality sports activities, rocket launching, metal detecting, a climbing wall, a bucking bull, and other fun activities.
Stewart says that he wasn't sure what to expect when it came to this year’s IYC camp, held June 14-18, as last year it was cancelled due to the pandemic. However, he was pleasantly surprised that the number exceeded 200 this year, with an additional 23 older teens serving as junior staff in our mentoring program.
NOT JUST CHURCH KIDS
Stewart notes that many of the kids, who come from the seven reservations located throughout Montana, are not “church” kids. To some, church and Jesus are fairly foreign to them, and with that comes some challenging, but not unexpected, opportunities.
“One day, I was walking toward the chapel and this 15-year-old camper breaks away from his group of friends, on a path to intersect me,” Stewart recalls. “He had given me a lot of troubles during the week, having kicked in a door and caused other problems, and I had almost sent him home — in fact, I was still debating it. Suddenly he calls out, ‘Hey, Pastor Richard, how do you do that thing? You know, that thing where I get my sins forgiven?’”
Stunned by the turn of events, as the boy hadn’t given any indication of interest in God or that he was even listening in the services, Stewart wondered, What was going on in this young man’s life that he so desperately wanted his sins forgiven?
Confirming that he wanted to give his life to Jesus, Stewart invited him into the chapel and began explaining what it meant for him to give his life to Jesus and what repentance was.
“Then I asked him if he still wanted to give his life to Jesus, and said ‘Yes,’” Stewart says. “When we got done praying, I looked up and then he looked up and this big grin broke out on his face and he just hugged me — he was never the same the rest of the week. He was a model camper!”
Although the camp has multiple “key roles,” being fulfilled by a variety of passionate and compassionate leaders, one of the positions, that of camp pastor, is vital in making connections with kids who are struggling or just need someone to listen . . . or just care.
“The job of camp pastor is to hang out and start conversations with kids,” Stewart says. “Especially looking for kids who don’t seem to be connecting with other kids.” Dean and Annie Buffalo, pastors of Spirit of God AG in Ronan, Montana, on the Flathead Reservation, and Dean serves as the IYC camp pastor.
Buffalo, who Stewart says has a way of connecting with kids, believes that God has prepared him for the role through his own difficult life experiences and a prophetic word.
“I can identify with a lot of things kids go through,” Buffalo states. “I came from a single-parent home, my father was an alcoholic who I only talked to several times when I was growing up . . . and I got into a life of drugs and alcohol at a young age . . ., so I can relate to what some of the kids are going through.”
Buffalo also had a prophetic word spoken over him — that he was going to be like Abraham, and be the father of many nations. Originally, he thought that the prophetic word had to do with his service at his home church, but he has come to realize, as he fulfills the role of camp pastor, that he has become a role model and spiritual father for Native American kids from seven different reservations as well as non-Native American kids.
“I realized I became like Abraham, ministering to children [of many different Indian nations] and having the heart to lead them to Jesus Christ,” Buffalo says. “There are a lot of these sons and daughters of God coming into my life who God is going to raise up and use for His glory.”
Buffalo says he splits time between the younger children’s (9-11) and older children’s (12-15) evening services, interacting and praying with kids.
“The Spirit of God uses me to speak words of knowledge to young people — many times they don’t have to tell me what they’re going through because I already know,” Buffalo says. “It often breaks my heart and causes me to cry with them.”
He can also be found during the daytime, encouraging kids or even participating with them in games. “We have a lot of fun and there’s laughter,” Buffalo says. “I’m so excited by the impact of the presence of God and I also realize that maybe, for some of these kids, they don’t have a dad, uncle, or even a big brother at home who’s interested in being a part of their lives.”
Stewart makes an interesting observation when it comes to the future success of ministries such as IYC and church plants among indigenous people.
“I used to think that the whole idea (in planting a church on a reservation) was to raise up Native American leadership, turn things over to them, and then back out of the way,” he says.
“But I’ve come to see it differently now. Instead of ‘handing over the keys’ and moving on, I think it’s important to come alongside and serve the new leadership, helping them achieve success by encouraging them and serving as a resource when needed.”
Stewart also makes another observation, which is particularly meaningful in the Native American setting. He believes by young people and others in the church seeing Native American leaders leading people that aren’t just Native American, but of other ethnicities, that their vision for what leadership means expands beyond just the reservation — they can impact the world.
The future of IYC looks strong, and Stewart, Buffalo, and a host of other Native American and non-Native American leaders are seeing a spiritual depth in young people blossom.
“Kids are pressing into the Lord, staying at the altar for hours, desiring to give their all to the Lord,” Stewart says. “And I believe it will be these same kids who are going to be the Holy-Spirit-empowered ministers and leaders of the future in the church and society.”
Buffalo agrees, noting his appreciation for Stewart and the heart for God he displays.
“We’re all connected, like spokes in a tire, and the Lord is definitely the hub — it is a wonderful time,” Buffalo says of the IYC leadership and camp experience. “I encourage those who haven’t had a chance to be a part of IYC, to come and volunteer; you’re going to fall in love with the kids, fall in love with the staff, and most definitely fall even more in love with Jesus.”