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 – two of which still exist – the association now includes 70 churches in 10 North Carolina counties and two neighboring states.
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,” said Mike Cummings, a Lumbee who, since 1988, has led what may be Southern Baptists’ first affinity-based association.
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 of its churches.
Photo by Alan Oxendine
The original Burnt Swamp Baptist Church hosted meetings that led to the formation of the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association in 1881. The association moved the structure, which has its original floor joists, to the current association office property in Pembroke, N.C.
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,” Cummings said. “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” by Tony Brewington, the association’s director of missions from 1969-86, this had a devastating effect on 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 10th-grader [before] Indians could go to white schools. I felt the brunt of that rigid prejudice against Indians.”
In 1921, Burnt Swamp Baptist Association sought admittance into the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC). From the outset, associational leaders had supported and promoted BSC 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 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 received a “bittersweet” response, as Brewington described it: the association was accepted as an associate member of the convention, meaning its churches participate in BSC 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 Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board), then with the seminaries through Seminary Extension.
Photo by Alan Oxendine
Mike Cummings has served full-time with the multi-tribal Burnt Swamp Baptist Association since 1988. His wife Quae (pronounced kway) has served the association in administration support since 1979.
A new day
In 1999, 70 years after being initially accepted as a BSC associate member, Cummings was elected as the convention’s president, the first Native American to hold the office, serving two and a 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 BSC interim executive-director before Milton Hollifield began his tenure in 2006.
Cummings held those positions “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 Baptist 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.
Cummings and Chavis know that Native Americans have some advantages when propagating the gospel among their own people.
As Chavis puts it, “Indigenous people need to be reached with indigenous people.”
Burnt Swamp Baptist Association is “guided by its vision to be churches in fellowship and on mission together with God,” according to its website.
To that end, the 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.
Those ventures “launched us into understanding the impact we can make,” Cummings said. Soon, that impact reached overseas.
Mannie Mintac, a Filipino, married a Lumbee girl and, in 1993, he showed up in Cummings’ 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, regarding a remote region of the Philippines with no evangelical church.
Since 1997 when Burnt Swamp volunteers first went to the Philippines, they have built 10 churches and a school. Routinely, the association sends 10 missions teams annually to provide a variety of services, including medical missions.
Meanwhile, they continue to minister to North America’s native people, with Cummings noting, “We see our identity with these people.”
After 400 years of Anglos evangelizing Native Americans, only 10 percent have become Christians, said Emerson Falls, who serves as a Native American specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma 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. A subsidy from the then-Home Mission Board to support the director of missions ended when Cummings started in 1988.
Now, there’s a new message to the North American Mission Board, which replaced Home Mission Board and two other SBC entities 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.
Though forward-looking, the association continues a tradition that started in its earliest days. Its churches gather four times a year on the fifth Saturday of a month for 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.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming, Ga. This article first appeared in SBC Life, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.)