Not many families willingly choose to sell their belongings and take to the road, full time, in a 20-year-old, 28-foot-long camper. But that's exactly what Randy and Cheryl Bear Barnetson and their three teenage sons, Paul (16), Randall (15) and Justice (14), have done.
Cheryl is a member of the Bear clan of the Nadleh Whut'en tribe in British Columbia, Canada. Though Randy is not Native American by birth, he had been heavily involved in ongoing ministry to First Nations people for 30 years, even before he and Cheryl met. "A lot of Native people say he is more native than they are!" she humorously noted.
Four years ago, Randy and Cheryl planted a First Nations church in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Last summer, they "pulled up stakes," consolidated their belongings into the camper and hit the road.
"Over the last couple of years, we felt the Lord telling us to travel full time," Cheryl explained. "Our goal is to visit all the First Nations groups in the U.S. and Canada."
It's a lofty goal—there are 1,000 different reservations in the U.S. and Canada. Since they began their journey last August, the Barnetsons have been to nearly 300. "We've got our work cut out for us!" Cheryl said. "By this time next year, we plan to have gone from the west coast of Canada to the east coast of Canada. We'll then head south, and go across the U.S. from the east coast to the west." Though the Barnetsons do have a few monthly financial supporters, they also rely on "blanket offerings" from the Native communities they visit.
At each community they visit, they do a presentation with drums and Native regalia. Often, Cheryl will do a concert as well, and many times, there are clear-cut opportunities to share the gospel. "We recently visited one community in which all the elders came out to welcome us," she recalled. "We were able to tell the story of Jesus in a Native way, and it was so well-received."
Historically, there has not always been a great receptivity to the gospel among First Nations tribes. Between the late 1800s and the 1980s, Cheryl said, Native children often were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools. "Their hair was cut, they were dressed in Western clothes, and they were forbidden to speak in their native languages," she said. "Native people feel that the gospel and assimilation go hand-in-hand," she continued, explaining that the majority of these schools were church-sponsored.
Her CDs, however, Cheryl Bear and The Good Road, have opened the door for ministry. The Good Road garnered Cheryl three awards in the 2007 Aboriginal People's Choice Music Awards: Best New Artist, Best Songwriter, and Single of the Year. In addition, Cheryl was named Debut Artist of the Year at the Tenth Annual Native American Music Awards.
"Because of these awards, doors have opened," she said. "We are welcomed by chiefs and people who are not Christians. It is a season of favor!"
In between visits to First Nations communities, Cheryl is finishing her doctorate of ministry at King's Seminary. She previously had received a bachelor's degree from Pacific Life College, Canada, and a master of divinity degree from Regent in Canada.
"It's very difficult for Native people to walk into a learning institution," she said. "The culture is very different. I don't know how many times I thought, I just don't belong here; I can't do this. But I get to be a role model to other Native people. And I'm very blessed to be a part of Foursquare!"