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American Indian College: Fifty years and still going strong

By Joseph J. Saggio

Born in San Carlos, Ariz., in a traditional Apache home, Glenn Wayne Massey Jr. is in many ways typical of young people from his community. At 25 years of age, Glen has already “lived a lifetime.”

Losing his father when he was 6 years old, Glenn was raised for a time by his single mom. Growing up “on the rez,” Glenn had constant exposure to drugs, alcohol and despair. By the time he was in eighth grade and throughout high school, Glenn regularly experimented with marijuana, alcohol and cocaine.

When asked what life was like before becoming a Christian, just a few short years ago, Glenn quickly responded, “Hard.” When asked how he became a Christian, Glenn replied, “I went to a tent revival to check out some girls.”

For Glenn, it took more than a week of nightly services before he finally surrendered his life to Christ — but surrender he did. Remembering that night when he accepted Christ, Glenn recalls, “God lifted the heaviness and the shame off of my life.”

Today Glenn is a junior at American Indian College in Phoenix, where he is majoring in Christian ministry and serves as the president of the junior/senior class. Glenn credits the college’s strong Christian emphasis and “Native friendly” atmosphere for helping him to move towards his dream of returning to minister on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

“AIC has helped me to grow in maturity in my Christian faith,” he says.

With plans to become an evangelist and eventually a pastor, Glenn not only spends time studying the Word, but also applying it in real-life situations. In the summer of 2007, he pioneered a youth group at a Native church in Oregon. Realizing that the kids in his group needed some ministry experience, Glenn spearheaded a campaign to raise nearly $2,000 in one week to take the whole group on a ministry trip to Missouri. During that summer he also held the first youth rally at his church, with youth attending from seven different denominations.

Joyful at how God has transformed his life, Glenn’s advice to young people is, “Don’t let your past pull at your future.”

Established in 1957 by missionary pastor Alta M. Washburn and her husband, Clarence, American Indian College began as All Tribes Bible School (ATBS). Classes met on the church campus of All Tribes Assembly of God, at that time located in downtown Phoenix and surrounded by auto junkyards, a tavern and a greyhound track. The kitchen consisted of many borrowed utensils, and the meals often featured commodities provided by a local food banks and other donations. For several years the male students slept on the floor in their dormitory because there were no beds available for them.

In spite of privations, lack of space, and difficulty attracting workers to staff the Bible school, ATBS began to flourish. In subsequent years, academic programs were developed, the school grew and an academic infrastructure continued to develop after the school moved to a north Phoenix neighborhood in 1970.

Founding ATBS was part of the long-term vision of Pastor Washburn, who had been saved as a young mother in Clarksburg, W.Va., in 1931 thanks to the personal witness of her newly saved Aunt Elva. Before finally accepting the saving message of the gospel, Alta received a vision in her sleep one night.

Washburn recounts: “Sometime after midnight I went into the jaws of death. I was suspended over the abyss of hell on a narrow slippery path, struggling to climb and escape the creatures who reached to drag me in.”1

Alta wasted no time in accepting Christ as her Lord and Savior. Soon afterwards she was filled with the Holy Spirit and began a fruitful ministry that lasted more than 50 years, more than 40 of which were spent working with American Indians. During her half-century-plus of ministry, she is perhaps best known for her work as a pioneer missionary to Native Americans and establishing American Indian College. AIC has evolved into the only regionally accredited Pentecostal Bible college for Native Americans in the United States.

Although much has changed over the past 50 years since the school opened in September 1957, its commitment to equip Native Americans for Christian service has not. From its cramped beginnings in the Phoenix downtown area to its move to a more spacious and modern 10-acre campus in north Phoenix, AIC is a small, but vital part of Assemblies of God higher education. Today the nearly 70 students can choose between three majors: Christian ministry, elementary education, and business. The college is also an approved branch campus of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, offering the seminary’s Master of Arts in Christian ministry.

Today dorms are no longer like barracks, but now have many of the same amenities usually found in much larger institutions. First-time visitors to the campus are often impressed with the appearance and spiritual life of the campus, remarking that AIC seems to be a “well-kept secret.”

When asked about that, AIC’s President James V. Comer is quick to interject, “We intend to change that perception. AIC has a great deal to offer, and we intend to get the word out. This college has been successfully producing Native Christian leaders for more than 50 years — and by the grace of God, AIC will continue to do so for many years to come.”

Over the past 50 years, many hundreds of students from more than 50 tribal nations have come through the doors of the college, many returning to home communities to serve as pastors or church leaders. Others, like Sandra (Smith) Gonzales, a Navajo from Cortez, Colo., have returned to the college to serve in a leadership role. In 1996, Sandra arrived at AIC as a single mom with a 1-year-old son and a dream to get a college education so that she would not fall prey to the fate of so many single mothers who end up in an endless cycle of welfare and abusive relationships. Through hard work and perseverance, Sandra has become an AIC “success story,” graduating from the college with an Associate of Arts degree in business, and later a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education. For several years she served as an elementary school teacher.

Today, Sandra has nearly completed a second bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry and serves as the college’s registrar. Reflecting on the college’s impact on her life, Sandra insists, “AIC has been a vital part of my spiritual growth and development in ministry as well as my career. In chapel and Bible classes my relationship with God grew. My heart was healed and restored, and I knew I had a new beginning and a wonderful future ahead.”

One of the “fringe benefits” of having attended AIC is that Sandra met her husband, Ryan, here, marrying in 1999. Ryan continues to work towards his bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry while also serving as assistant to the executive director of Institutional Advancement. Sandra is pleased that the Lord brought her and Ryan together and is eager to point out, “Ryan has been an incredible blessing to both me and our three children: Christian, Marc and Alyssa.”

Sandra has some advice for prospective students looking to enroll at AIC: “I strongly recommend the college because of the faculty and staff who have committed their lives and ministry towards seeing the fulfillment of God’s plans for your life.”

Another alumnus who has returned to the college after serving in pastoral ministry for a number of years is Dean of Students Vince Roubideaux. Hailing from the Duck Valley Reservation in northern Nevada, Vince’s tribal background includes Shoshone, Paiute and Rosebud Sioux.

Vince was strongly influenced by his sister Rhonda, who accepted Christ after a tragic automobile accident that left her a paraplegic. During the aftermath of that accident, Rhonda came to faith through the ministry of an AG hospital chaplain and then enrolled at the Bible school.

Moving down from Nevada, and enrolling at a technical college nearby, Vince frequently visited the campus to see his sister, and finally came to Christ during a chapel service.

Vince relates, “As everyone was on their knees praying, I felt a gentle tugging in my heart and I knelt down to pray as well. I had never prayed like this before and the words that came out of my mouth were these words, ‘God, I give up.’ I did not know what the ‘sinner’s prayer’ was at the time — but that was what came out of my mouth and a load just lifted off of me that I was carrying for years.”2

During his time at American Indian College, Vince met his wife, Jennifer, and they both quickly became active in pastoral ministry in Arizona, and subsequently in New Mexico, New York and Nevada. Today, he is uniquely equipped to understand the spiritual and cultural backgrounds of AIC students, who are nearly two-thirds American Indian and Alaska Native students. With a rich background in understanding reservation life in many different settings, as well as the full spectrum of social and spiritual issues impacting Native Americans, Vince is an “excellent fit” for the college.

Having been mentored by the former AIC president Jim H. Lopez (Cocopah/Hispanic), Vince is proud to serve in a significant leadership role — the same one that President Lopez served in before he became president. Vince and Jennifer are also especially proud that their oldest daughter Erica is a freshman student this year at AIC. An honors student and member of the Nevada state champion volleyball team in high school, Erica could have had her pick of colleges or universities, but she has chosen to become a part of the AIC student body.

Reflecting on a fruitful ministry, Vince shares, “Now I am ministering exactly in the same place where I gave my heart to the Lord. I am doing exactly the same job as one of my mentors Jim Lopez did on the campus. Now it is my privilege to be an example to young people about what a godly man should be and I intend to be true to that calling.”3

AIC maintains a pivotal role in American Indian Christian higher education. With more than 97 percent of the Christian ministry graduates from the past five years active in church life, and more than 92 percent of the elementary education graduates since 1995 professionally employed as educators, AIC occupies a unique niche. Recent Christian ministry graduates are serving in Native pastorates in Omaha, Neb.; the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho; the Navajo Reservation in Arizona; and an Alaska Native community in northern Alaska — just to name a few. Over the past three years, the student body has averaged leading more than 1,000 people to Christ each year. Alta Washburn’s vision and desire from more than 50 years ago to see Native Americans prepared for ministry is still going strong.

[1] Undated correspondence previously cited in Joseph J. Saggio, “Alta M. Washburn: ‘Trailblazer’ to the Tribes,” Assemblies of God Heritage Vol. 27, 2007, 28.

[2] See Vince Roubideaux, “Alumni Reflections . . . Vince Roubideaux” in American Indian College: A Witness to the Tribes, Joseph J. Saggio and Jim Dempsey (eds.) (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, Forthcoming.)

JOSEPH J. SAGGIO, Ed.D., is a nationally appointed U.S. Missionary serving as the dean of Institutional Assessment at American Indian College in Phoenix. He is also the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary’s Phoenix Branch campus director and an adjunct professor. Dr. Saggio, along with Rev. Jim Dempsey, is also the editor of a forthcoming book from Gospel Publishing House, American Indian College: A Witness to the Tribes.

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