In 1881, Burnt Swamp Baptist Association, an association of Native American Baptist churches, was established. From its humble beginnings of three churches in Robeson County, North Carolina (two of which still exist), the association, which may be Southern Baptists’ first affinity-based association, now includes seventy churches in ten North Carolina counties and two neighboring states.
“In southeast North Carolina, there are a lot of swamps,” said Mike Cummings, director of missions for the association since 1988. Bear Swamp, Rat Swamp, and White Oak Swamp are some of the nearby swamps. “No one can tell me where we got our name.”
Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Pee Dee, Tuscarora, and Waccamaw Siouan make up the multi-tribal association’s membership, which was distinctively Baptist from its beginning.
“As far as we can tell, it’s the first organization of an association set up by Indians for Indians,” Cummings said.
Identity and Strength
Associational strength and community gave the southeastern North Carolina tribes perseverance to battle harsh realities in a segregated South.
At its first meeting, the association appointed a Domestic Board to evangelize Native Americans and established Indian education as a core concern for the association’s churches. The association aggressively raised money to develop elementary schools, often planting churches in the same communities where schools were built. The association also engaged in a larger effort to raise funds for a high school for Indians.
“This was the only place we could come; [we] couldn’t go to black or white meetings,” said Cummings, who is Lumbee. “We were on the fringe of North Carolina Baptist life.
“Burnt Swamp was us. That’s ours. Association pride has been strong because of that factor for one thing.”
Early on, Indians could vote and share the rights of other citizens, but in 1835 the North Carolina Constitutional Convention removed those rights for “free persons of color,” including Native Americans. According to The History of Burnt Swamp Baptist Association, written by Tony Brewington, the association’s director of missions from 1969–1986, this had a devastating effect upon Indian communities and contributed to an extended resentment between the races.
“In every community where there are Indians, they have suffered through discrimination just like blacks have,” Cummings said. “I was a tenth grader [before] Indians could go to white schools. I felt the brunt of that rigid prejudice against Indians.”
In 1921, Burnt Swamp Association sought admittance into the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC). From the outset, associational leaders had supported and promoted BSCNC programs, and the two groups often received and sent representatives to each other’s meetings; but they had no formal relationship.
After languishing during the 1920s, the association’s petition was greatly assisted when Mary Livermore, an Anglo who worked with the Native Americans, wrote a long plea that included the following:
“They feel so isolated, and are losing their young people especially because they had asked the convention before and been refused, and the Indians resent such rebuffs.”
When the state convention approved the membership petition in 1929, Burnt Swamp got what Brewington called a “bittersweet” response. BSCNC received Burnt Swamp as an associate member of the convention, meaning its churches participate in the convention’s programs but their messengers could not vote.
Though disappointed, associational leaders responded cordially to the decision. Soon, relationships with the broader Southern Baptist family began to strengthen, first through joint missions endeavors with Woman’s Missionary Union and the SBC’s Home Mission Board (HMB), then with the seminaries through Seminary Extension.
A New Day
In 1999, seventy years after being initially accepted as an “associate member” of the BSCNC, Cummings was elected to serve as president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the first Native American to do so. He served two-and-one-half terms.
“That did us a lot of good to see ourselves recognized by this convention,” Cummings said of his tenure. “We were basically fringe participants for years because it was like we were going to somebody else’s meeting.”
Not only did Cummings preside over the annual meetings in his role as president, he later served as the BSCNC interim executive director before Milton Hollifield began his tenure in 2006.
“The BSCNC elected Mike Cummings as our state president and later the interim executive director-treasurer not because of his ethnicity, but rather because of his ability as a leader,” Hollifield said.
“Although Mike Cummings has great pride in his Native American ethnicity and rich Indian heritage, North Carolina Baptist people looked beyond that positive attribute and recognized his love for God, his wisdom, his commitment to Kingdom building, his love for this state convention, and they believed that ‘Brother Mike’ would lead with a spirit of integrity and fairness toward all ethnic and language groups in North Carolina,” Hollifield said.
The churches of Burnt Swamp Association take pride in the national leadership of former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who is a Lumbee Indian. Timmy Chavis, pastor of Bear Swamp Baptist Church in Pembroke, is chairman of the SBC Executive Committee’s Multi-Ethnic Advisory Council (see related story).
Driven by Missions
Cummings and Chavis know that Native Americans have some advantages when propagating the Gospel among their own people.
“Indigenous people need to be reached with indigenous people,” Chavis said.
The association is “guided by its vision to be churches in fellowship and on mission together with God,” according to the associational website. To that end, Burnt Swamp Association began engaging in short-term mission projects in 1986 when they helped a Native American church in New Mexico with construction. The next year, a team went to South Dakota.
Cummings said that 1987–1988 “launched us into understanding the impact we can make.”
Soon, that impact reached overseas. Mannie Mintac, a Filipino, married a Lumbee girl. In 1993, he showed up in Cummings’s office and shared the call of God in his life.
“God wants me to go back and plant churches in my home,” Mintac told Cummings. Home was a remote region of the Philippines with no evangelical church.
Since 1997 when Burnt Swamp volunteers first went to the Philippines, they have built ten churches and a school. Routinely, the association sends ten missions teams annually to perform a variety of services, including medical missions. Meanwhile, they continue to minister to North America’s native people.
“We see our identity with these people,” Cummings said.
After four hundred years of Anglos evangelizing Native Americans, only 10 percent have become Christians, according to Emerson Falls, who serves as a Native American specialist with the Oklahoma Baptist Convention and is chairman of the SBC Fellowship of Native American Christians.
Burnt Swamp is a story of the success of home missions as Indians were once the objects of home missions, Cummings said. The association got a subsidy from the HMB to support the director of missions. That subsidy ended when Cummings started in 1988.
Now, there’s a new message to the North American Mission Board, which replaced HMB and two other agencies in 1997.
“This association is not part of your mission field,” Cummings said. “It’s a part of your missions force.”
With an estimated 75 percent of Native Americans living in urban areas, Burnt Swamp is looking to turn its “missions force” to church planting there.
Union Meetings Maintain Unity
Cummings inherited a tradition that started in the earliest days of Burnt Swamp Association. The association’s churches gather four times a year on the fifth Saturday of a month for strong preaching and singing at their Union Meeting.
“Those guys preach like it’s nobody’s business,” Cummings said of the Indian pastors. “Indians like to sing and get happy when they worship. You would think we were Pentecostals.”
Passionate preaching is a reflection of their theology.
“This is a community that takes the demands of the Gospel literally,” Cummings said. “Someone has to agonize in response to Gospel preaching. Almost every church here believes you have to have a come-to-Jesus meeting to be saved.”
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming, Georgia. He served twenty-five years in mission education and mobilization through the Brotherhood Commission and the North American Mission Board.