Since college Jessica Grahmann has felt called to minister to Native Americans. For the past two-and-a-half years she has been an InterVarsity staff worker at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. With help from several other people with a heart for Native Americans, she has worked to start an ethnic specific ministry to the native students there. While the work is wearing and challenging, the new chapter has thrived.
Jessica’s life has been marked by a devotion to prayer, reflection, and obedience to God. Until she heard God’s call for her to minister Native Americans during college, at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, she had considered dropping out of school to do mission work overseas. But she felt God calling her to continue her education. She began to fast and pray, and it was during that time that she began to recognize God’s call upon her life.
For six years after college Jessica worked with the International InterVarsity chapter at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. But she continued to pursue God’s calling by finding ways to incorporate ministry to native people.
She established a spring break immersion trip for InterVarsity students to pray and serve the Lac Courte Oreilles, an Ojibwe tribe in Northern Wisconsin. During those trips Jessica taught students important lessons she had learned in approaching other cultures – to enter into a native culture and see what God is already doing, and to pray and discern how to proceed.
Observing a New Culture
When Jessica moved to Arizona with her husband and two children in the fall of 2006, she did exactly what she had taught her students for so many years. She spent the entire school year praying and interceding on behalf of the native students before she started actively pursuing a campus ministry. This gave her a chance to discern and observe the native culture in Arizona and how it differed from the native culture she had grown accustomed to in Wisconsin.
Jessica and her ministry partners started ministering on campus in the fall of 2007. After a lackluster first meeting, the chapter began to grow. During a spring conference, two of the men from the chapter accepted Christ – and their testimony led a third man to accept Christ as well.
A New Ministry
By the end of the year about twenty students were actively involved in the chapter, almost half of whom are still not Christian. Jessica said, “A lot of the students feel very connected to the chapter, and even experience God, but have a hard time making the decision to follow Christ if they come from a traditional family.”
It is difficult for students to consider sacrificing family or religion in order to follow Christ. But when the students do submit to Jesus, there is a significant change in them; they are finally able to release the tension that had been building in them from their resistance to the Lord.
This year the returning students came to campus excited to reach their friends with the gospel. About 40 students now come to chapter meetings every week; the chapter has doubled in size. The non-Christian Bible study has about 17-20 people attending. And over the course of the semester five women accepted Christ.
But ministering to Native American students has brought many challenges to Jessica – not the least of which is her different ethnicity. As a white woman, it took some discernment on her part to figure out how God would use her to minister to a group of students from a very different culture.
She wants to lead her students to the feet of Jesus without dictating to them how they will incorporate their new faith into their culture – it is left up to them to discern what it means to be Christian and Native American. Jessica said, “It’s my job to lead them to Jesus and help them along the way as they discern what it means to follow Jesus as a native person. But it’s hard. As leaders we’re torn between the need to do something and the need to let them stand up and figure out for themselves what it looks like.”
Jessica has also felt the burden of trying to reach a student population that has proven very transient. Because of family situations, or other reasons, about one-third of native students don’t return to school.
“Seeing the weight of spiritual and physical oppression on these students, it’s hard to stay in a place where you can walk in that and not be overcome by it,” she said. She and others who have developed this ministry have held practical seminars on relationships, finances, and study habits, to help the students to avoid common pitfalls.
Despite the challenges, Jessica has never wavered in her commitment to following God’s call. Seeing God work in the lives of her students brings her joy. “Their lives may have many hardships and they face things that I have never had to face,” she said, “but I can see God in the midst of their suffering and diversity. I see it in their spirit – their ability to be all that God as called them to be when they are in the midst of very difficult places. God is moving powerfully!”
After a difficult, but rewarding couple years starting this ministry, God has blessed Jessica with the opportunity for a sabbatical. For the past several months, Jessica has been able to step away from the ministry and replenish herself. Already God has taught her to let go of the ministry to which she had a firm hold. “The ministry is not mine,” she said. “What God is calling me to right now is rest.”
In her first year of ministry Jessica’s job was not to build, but to pray, now her job is not to build, but to rest. At the end of her sabbatical Jessica says she will return to the ministry refreshed and ready to take on new challenges, but right now she reminds herself, “God is the God of all cultures all the time, and he is still working.”