In Search of a School

Marian stood and looked at the building. It was just a plain white building that had once been a mortuary. To her it was beautiful. Currently, it was being used as the Ft. Belknap (Harlem, Montana) Church, but someday it would also become an Adventist school—“her” school.

She had attended Vacation Bible School, Sabbath School and church since the Adventist church moved to the reservation. She listened to the adults dream, talk and pray about someday having a school where children could be in a safe environment, where the classes weren’t overcrowded and students could get the attention they needed and deserved, and where students could improve their social skills while learning a healthier lifestyle. Their goal was to have a place where a new generation of tribal members could learn and follow new values. Their dream was a school where each student would know God.

That’s what Marian wanted, and she told the other children that this was “her” school. She watched as the adults began laying plans for “her” school, but it seemed that every step of the way they were met with insurmountable obstacles.

First, there was no place to meet. As they began to look around, they realized that their church building could be remodeled to accommodate a one-room school. They would need new bathrooms and a new kitchen, and the attic would have to be restructured for a classroom. It seemed like a dead-end as there was no money for renovations.

One day John Loor Jr., Montana Conference president, called Jim Jenkins, Ft. Belknap Group pastor, and asked if he had filled out paperwork for a Versa Care grant. Pastor Jim hadn’t, as he was sure nothing they were doing would qualify. The pastor sent in the request anyway, and the small group of church members prayed for God’s leading. Three months later, Pastor Jim received a phone call saying they had been selected for a grant in the amount of $15,000—just the amount they needed to do the remodeling. This was truly an answer to prayer.

Now they could see hope for a school, but would the tribal council even allow it on tribal land? Since the resurgence of native religion, there seemed to be growing reticence for allowing an Adventist Christian school on tribal ground. More prayer followed, and with the leadership of Neoma Abbott, local church leader, the request was made to the council and granted.

Since there were only limited funds available, how could they pay a teacher's salary? Shortly, Larry Unterseher, Montana Conference education director, informed the congregation that the conference executive committee voted to cover the costs of the teacher/evangelist completely for the first year with evangelism funds. With that knowledge, a request was made to the K–12 board to operate the Ft. Belknap School, and it was granted.

Now, a teacher needed to be found who was culturally sensitive, willing to begin a school from scratch in an attic with no budget, supplies, library books or help. The teacher would need the ability to work well in a multi-grade classroom, prepare meals and be willing to live on the windy northern plains. The education superintendent warned the people that it might take a long time to find a person to fit this school.

Again, the people prayed earnestly that God would lead them to just the right person. When Debbie Smart, Walla Walla College School of Education and Psychology secretary, heard that we needed a teacher with those special qualifications, she said, “If that is what you need, I know just the person—Carrie Ferguson. She has been praying for a place where her talents could be best used.”

Debbie was correct. The interview, board approval and acceptance of the position were undeniably God’s leading. Carrie's degree, with major emphases in elementary education, special education and art, prepared her with the skills we needed in a teacher. The fact that she has served in the Coast Guard, raised her own family, served the world church on several short-term mission projects, and was trained at WWC with the latest educational thought was just a bonus. Even though she will be a new graduate, she brings a wealth of experience to this position.

“This new school is nothing less than a miracle,” says Pastor Jim. “Every time it looked like we came to a dead-end, I hoped for a resolution, but was comfortable in feeling that God might be shutting the door. Now we can see God’s leading. We received funding, conference approval, and had a teacher accept the position in only 15 days. It certainly was God, for all we did was pray."

There are many obstacles left unresolved as Montana Conference and the people of Ft. Belknap move out in faith with this evangelistic outreach. We need text books, library books, supplies and student scholarships. We also need funds for the teacher's salary so our dream can continue beyond the first year.

There are many more answers to prayer yet to come, but for now, when Marian stands and looks at the building, her prayer for a school, “her” school, is becoming a reality.

Author’s note: As of this writing, Marian is nine and part of the Assiniboine/Gros Ventre Tribe living on the Fort Belknap reservation. There are seven reservations in Montana, encompassing about 13,100 square miles, which are home to 11 tribes. This area is larger than nine of the US states, and yet taking the Adventist message to these nations is just in its infancy.

June 01, 2005 / Feature