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Christmas in Montana's winter wonderland is a blessing, but also a challenge

 

Gerald Harris/Index

Lloyd Crabtree, a member of Peachtree Corners Baptist Church in Norcross, has been serving as pastor of Canyon Baptist Church in Hungry Horse, Mont., as a part of NAMB’s Mission Service Corps.

HUNGRY HORSE, Mont. — Montana has been home to Lloyd and Brenda Crabtree for almost 30 months. The couple has been a part of the Mission Service Corps of the North American Mission Board. In the summer of 2007 they were a part of a mission team from Norcross’ Peachtree Corners Baptist Church to assist Canyon Baptist Church here with Vacation Bible School.

The trip to “The Canyon” (the colloquial name for the area between the south fork of the Flathead River to Coram, including Hungry Horse) turned out to be a life-changing experience for the Crabtrees. Lloyd and Brenda returned to Hungry Horse in December 2007 and were strongly impacted by a missions conference at their Norcross church the following January. After prayerful deliberation and soul searching they sensed that God was calling them to move to Hungry Horse and make it their mission field.

By August of 2008 the family – including sons Sam, Robert and Derek – were settling down 2,300 miles from Norcross in northwestern Montana as volunteer NAMB missionaries.

And what a mission field it is! Canyon Baptist Church is part of Glacier Baptist Association, an area encompassing a land area of more than 34,000 square miles and home to 2,500 Southern Baptists. For the sake of comparison, the state of South Carolina has approximately 3,000 fewer square miles than Glacier Association and the Palmetto state is home to nearly 700,000 Southern Baptists. In summary, South Carolina has more than 22 Southern Baptists per square mile and the association has just over .07 Southern Baptist per square mile.

Hungry Horse, the gateway to Glacier National Park, is a small town but genuinely unique and fascinating place. As of the last day of November this northwestern part of “Big Sky Country” looked typically like a winter wonderland – like some iconic lithographic print right out of Currier and Ives.

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Lee Swafford, in van, safely delivers seven children to Canyon Baptist Church on a snowy Sunday. The ministry is part of the overall outreach effort in Hungry Horse.

Earlier this year “the Glacier” celebrated its centennial anniversary as a national park. Kay Bjork, writing in Montana’s Flathead Living magazine, described the centennial by explaining, “Those hundred years are dwarfed when you consider the park’s real birthday, which occurred 12,000 years ago when glaciers from an ice age carved out a stunning masterpiece of jagged peaks flanked by glacial snows and turquoise lakes; creeks tumbling over rose, copper-toned, and smokey-gray stones; meadows splashed with crayon colored wildflowers; and vast, varied, verdant forests.”

While there are those who contend that such beauty was wrought through time, climate changes and the elements, there are others who believe that God, being the creative genius that He is, did it all with the word of His mouth.

During the winter months access to the park is restricted and many of the concessions are closed, but this offers the tradeoff of a more tranquil and pristine park. The snowy mountains, glistening glaciers and sweeping vistas are just one part of the allure of the park.

However, in spite of all the physical beauty of the area there are great spiritual needs. In fact, the spiritual harvest fields are even whiter than the snow-covered mountains and valleys.

Mark, a security guard at the Kalispell airport, worships Thor, the mythological Norse god of thunder, lightning, storms, strength, destruction, fertility, healing and the protector of mankind.

Others in the area worship Ullr, supposedly the son of Sif and the stepson of Thor. Ullr is the Norse god of justice, dueling, and agriculture and excels in archery and skiing.

Lest you think this is too far-fetched to believe, a ski lodge near Kalispell was reserved for the worship of Ullr on Nov. 27. Wiccans, who practice a Neopagan religion that is a form of modern witchcraft, are also prominent in northwest Montana.

Crabtree reasoned, “Many of the people in this area have adopted a religion that fits their own worldview and includes everything from atheism to the worship of Thor. Most people seem to have an aversion to Christianity because of bad church experiences in the past, but they all need the life-changing Gospel.”

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Wolf Anderson, once a Sundancer for the Blackfoot Indians, is now a follower of Christ and involved in Ray of Hope, a ministry to help people with addictions and anger management.

“The Canyon” is an interesting piece of landscape that has more saloons than churches. In fact, country music singer-songwriter Toby Keith might well have had the Hungry Horse area in mind when he wrote “I Love This Bar.”

The bars and saloons of “The Canyon” offer a place of solace and friendship for the otherwise long, lonely winter months. Some of Montana’s “good ‘ole boys” have even chosen to have their funeral services in their favorite tavern. Typically, there is nothing Christian or even religious about such a funeral service, but the service usually is marked by the eulogies of friends, a toast and commemorating the memory of the deceased with a few rounds of drinks.

Additionally, in Montana many people grow marijuana, because the state legislature voted to legalize the drug for medical purposes. Methamphetamine, a dangerous drug often concocted with such harmful ingredients as battery acid and drain cleaner, is readily available.

In the midst of this plethora of bizarre religions, belief systems, ideologies and spiritually needy people is Canyon Baptist Church. CBC is all about loving the people in their part of northwestern Montana and helping them experience the transforming power of the Gospel. Interestingly, the church secured an old saloon, The Silver Basin, as the center of their spiritual life and worship.

There are certain fixtures and architectural indicators that hint of the building’s former usage, but the purpose of the building has dramatically changed and the objective of the church is all about turning sinners into saints.

Crabtree insists, “The attitude of our people [at Canyon Baptist] is decidedly different from the people in the community. The outlook, the disposition, the spirit of the people has been lifted by the love of the Savior.”

Ralph “Wolf” Anderson, a former alcoholic and Sundancer with the Blackfeet Indians, is now a part of Canyon Baptist Church. Sundance is a ceremony celebrated in the summer, usually on a full moon. The actual Sundance may last for days, but the last four days are the ones in which the dancing and most of the ceremony takes place.

A person invited to Sundance must be prepared for the rigorous ordeal. The final four days of the Sundance are of fasting when the men are pierced from one side of the shoulders to the other until the piercing instrument is exposed on both sides of the back. Ropes are attached to each side of the piercing instrument and buffalo skulls are attached to the ropes.

Wolf had eight buffalo skulls weighing 200 pounds attached to the ropes. The Sundancers then dance around in a circle until the skin is torn away from the body and the buffalo skulls fall to the ground. These dancers suffer excruciating pain for the welfare of the tribe in what can be interpreted as a kind of atonement for the people.

As a pipe carrier Wolf became a part of a sacred tradition among the Indians. It is an honor one grows into slowly and is a sign of “worthiness” among the Blackfoot nation.

Crabtree Family

Newlyweds Sam and Faith, at left join the rest of the Crabtrees – Robert, Brenda, Derek, and Lloyd. The Crabtrees moved to Hungry Horse in Aug. 2008, establishing a ministry and eventually gaining a daughter-in-law with Faith, a native of Montana.

Wolf, as rough and rowdy-looking as anyone might imagine, speaks in soft and gentle tones and testifies, “Thankfully, through Canyon Baptist Church I discovered that Jesus is the one who died on a cross to atone for my sins. The church is home to me; it is my family. They treat people with love and respect here. They welcomed me with open arms. In fact, I found much more than a home here; I’ve found freedom.”

Wolf is now involved in a ministry at Ray of Hope, a Christian based ministry in Kalispell. The rugged former Sundancer and pipe carrier for the Blackfeet tribe explained, “Ray of Hope takes people who get out of prison and helps them learn how to live in a family setting. I assist in a Bible-based ‘Twelve-Step Program’ to help people with addictions and anger management. Compared to other such programs our recovery rate is phenomenal.”

Wolf points to the pastoral leadership of the church as the reason for his newly-found “freedom” in Christ. The Crabtrees arrived in Hungry Horse in August of 2008 and were preceded in their arrival by Lee and Joy Swafford from Athens, Tenn., who had moved to the Canyon country in June. Together the Crabtrees and the Swaffords have combined to make a formidable ministry team at Canyon Baptist Church.

Donna Meskimen has only missed two Sundays at Canyon Baptist Church in three years. She admitted to praying for years for someone to come to Hungry Horse to start a church that would love people and provide solid biblical teaching. Former CBC pastor Jim Burdett and his wife Mary visited Donna when she was in a coma in the hospital and the love and concern demonstrated by the Burdettes during her illness made an indelible impression upon her heart.

Meskimen, who was baptized in March, admitted, “I have been involved with the Jehovah Witnesses, the Lutherans, the Pentecostals and the Church of Christ, but I was not happy or fulfilled until I came to this church. I love the way Lloyd (Crabtree) and Lee (Swafford) teach the Bible.

“We are a family here and I feel the presence of God in this church. In fact, I am the happiest I have been in the 26 years I have been living here and the church is the reason for that joy. Jesus is my life, my breath, my heart.”

Comparison Chart

 

Glacier Baptist Association

South Carolina

Population

295,000

4,561,262

Square miles

34,000

31,189

Number of Southern Baptists

2,500

691,832

Number of churches

29

2,100

Southern Baptists per square mile

.07

22

Canyon Baptist Church has made giant steps forward in the last two years, but not without help from Georgia Baptists and others. Peachtree Corners has sent several of its families on mission trips to Hungry Horse. This year the children of the Norcross church’s Vacation Bible School sent their offerings of nearly $3,000 to Canyon Baptist. Barbara Fain’s Sunday School class sent hats, scarves, and gloves to the Montana church to help the people stay warm during the northwestern wintry blast.

Some of the members of Cumming First Baptist Church have assisted in the ministry and First Baptist in Fayetteville recently sent a team to explore the possibility of providing assistance to Canyon Baptist.

Last summer the North American Mission Board provided two summer missionaries for Canyon Baptist Church. Crabtree reported, “The summer missionaries have been a godsend to the church and I hope and pray that this needed service to the church will continue.”

First Baptist Church on the Square in LaGrange has had a 12-year relationship with North Valley Baptist Church in Columbia Falls just west of Hungry Horse. North Valley pastor Rick Rhubottom commented, “Paul Baxter’s church has sent volunteers, helped pay my salary, helped construct our building, conducted marriage conferences, financial conferences and essentially given us an extreme church makeover. I don’t know what we would have done without the help of Dr. Baxter and his church in LaGrange.”

The Crabtrees made an initial commitment to serve in Hungry Horse for two years, but stretched their service into almost 30 months. Since NAMB does not provide salaries or benefits to Mission Service Corps volunteers the couple have primarily used their savings to meet their financial needs. They have made a significant impact upon the church and community, but will conclude their work there this month and return to Norcross to determine the path God has chosen for them in the next chapter in their lives.

The Crabtrees will leave a void at Canyon Baptist Church, but perhaps there is another Georgia Baptist family that will be willing to invest their lives in His service in Hungry Horse.

Lloyd exclaims, “No one will find a more loving and accepting community inside and outside the church than in this community. This is also an atmosphere where all Bible-believing churches want each other to succeed. It has been a great place to serve the Lord.”

NAMB has posted the needs for MSC volunteers on its website at www.answerthecall.net/opportunities. Canyon Baptist Church’s need to have a family or a couple receive the baton being handed off by Crabtree is listed. Maybe picking up the baton would be your gift to the Lord Jesus this Christmas.

 

Gerald Harris

Snow will likely cover the ground in much of Glacier Association until April or May.

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Lloyd Crabtree teaches the book of Proverbs to the Sunday evening congregation at Canyon Baptist Church.

Gerald Harris/Index

At left Sam Birky, association missionary for Glacier Baptist Association, expresses to Lloyd Crabtree the need for Baptist churches in the South to adopt a pastor or church in Montana.

Gerald Harris/Index

Lee Swafford, left, will become the sole pastor of Canyon Baptist Church this month. He stands with his arm around Bert Hill, who was saved at Canyon Baptist on Nov. 28.