Monday, December 2, 2013

"I will spend the rest of my life as a missionary from the Kiowas to the white people..." ~ Do you know who said that?

Last time I wrote, I asked y'all about some of your heroes. Today, I'd like to share about one of mine - albeit a bit obscure, mostly unheard of single missionary woman. Her career did not end illustriously - but rather under discipline from her mission board because she could not obey their directives and consider herself acting with integrity... 

But I'll let her story, as I was first introduced to it, speak for itself ~
Six young Kiowa braves sat on their horses, calmly watching her. All were naked to the waist. Their heavy black hair hung in thick braids, interwoven with rawhide and strips of ermine. All wore bone chestplates and copper bracelets.

Isabel pulled her team to a halt. Moving slowly to hide her racing heart, she raised her right hand, palm forward in greeting.

One by one, the Indians guided their horses down the slope toward her and formed a semicircle, blocking her path.

"You come here all alone and you no scared? Maybe we scalp you." The leader's face was solemn.

The banks of the dry wash screened Isabel and the six Indian men from the outside world. She was truly at their mercy.

"I think maybe we scalp you now." the leader signed. He prodded his horse forward. A knife appeared in his left hand. He snatched the Winchester from his lap and placed the end of the barrel against Isabel's head. She heard the click of the hammer as it was cocked.

Isabel went completely numb. Every thought went out of her brain. The roaring in her ears grew into a crescendo as she awaited the fatal bullet. Cold chills shot up her spine. She closed her eyes and prepared to die...
A few years ago, my daughter handed me a book. The cover of Light on the Mountain, by Leonard Sanders, shows the picture of a beautiful young woman and several Native Americans in the background behind her. Those words above formed the teaser paragraph on the front pages, designed to hook prospective readers. My oldest girl emphatically proclaimed this to be her favorite book ever when she placed it in my hands. At that point, I figured it was nothing more one of those formula-pioneer-western-romance-sort of novels. But? I'd promised my girl I'd read it, had the gift of some unexpected time available, and so I opened the pages to "do my duty."

Picture from the cover of
Isabel Crawford's autiobiography -
KIOWA: A Woman Missionary
in Indian Territory 
Boy, was I wrong!

The book tells the story of Isabel Crawford. She moved onto the Kiowa Indian reservation on Oklahoma Territory, against the recommendation of her colleagues. Mostly deaf, she communicated through sign language, reading lips and worked through a Kiowa man who agreed to serve as her interpreter. She encouraged the Kiowas to "walk the Jesus-road" while never forgetting that God had created them Kiowa, and that that fact was "very good." By God's grace and with His strength, her life, her words, her service and her consistent, persistent, gracious yet meticulous application of Scripture to daily life  penetrated Kiowa society with the light of the Gospel message. Through her, God did what no "Jesus-man" had been able to accomplish.

At the beginning of the book, she defines her approach to one of her colleagues: "I'm confident that if you approach a savage in a womanly way, he will respond with respect." Thus, it was never her goal to "preach the Gospel" or "shepherd a church," but rather to help the Kiowa learn to live and walk a new path and point him to Scripture to determine what that meant in his world and his culture and his day. She wanted to live in community with the Kiowa as a godly woman, and to disciple them through Bible study so that her community would also desire to walk the Jesus-road with her. After several unbelievably hard years (she experienced first hand the white man's cruelty and ignorance towards Native Americans as well as the frequent lack of integrity by the United States government), the impact of this approach that God had impressed on her heart was unmistakable; several of the Kiowas had organized into a church and were determined to find (or disciple) their own Indian pastor.

I was in tears as I read the final chapter of this book. Isabel held fast to the authority of Scripture, regardless of the accepted traditions of the church. She valued immensely the cultural fingerprint with which God had created and marked the Kiowas, clearly recognizing many aspects of their way of life where God had already revealed Himself to them. She discovered that she had much more to learn from them than she had to teach, once she had introduced them to the Jesus-road. She guided them to a salvation by faith, given by grace. For example, the greater church at that time flat out stated that an Indian who had more than one wife could not become a Christian. Several Kiowa men said that they would not become Christians because they could not abandon the women who were their wives. Isabel helped them see that even though the church might never recognize them as "Christian," they could still choose to walk the Jesus-road, believe that Jesus died for them, trust Him as Savior and Lord, and ask Him to live within them and guide them.

Because of church politics, after nearly 11 years, she was asked by her sending agency to leave the reservation. She felt obliged to resign her position because their stand was contrary to the authority of the Bible: a man-created mission organization was trying to dictate and interfere with the autonomy of a local church seeking to obey Scripture. Her final words to this godly congregation of Kiowa believers?
"For ten years, eight months, and three days I have been a white missionary to the Indians. I have thought hard and I have prayed hard and now I know what I must do. This I promise you. From this moment on, I will spend the rest of my life as a missionary from the Kiowas to the white people. I will write books and magazine articles. I will make speeches. I will do anything and everything I can to tell the world about the most wonderful people I have ever known - the Kiowa Indians.... If I said good-bye to each and every one of you, there would be nothing left of me to put aboard that train this afternoon. I know that. So I want to ask of you one last favor. [A friend] has agreed to take me to the railroad in his new surrey. My trunk and bags are already in it. He is waiting at the door of the church. I want you now to bow your heads in silent prayer. I want you to keep on praying until I am out that door and gone. It is the way I want to remember you -- praying in the church that we built together." For one heart-stopping moment, Isabel feared they would not comply. But they were only taking one last lingering look at her. The heads went down...
I cried as I read those words...

I don't often do that...

Since that point in time, I've researched some to find out more about this incredible woman. I'd encourage you to do the same. I know that I've been challenged once again to consider what it means to minister to others and share what it means to walk the Jesus-road in a foreign-to-me cultural context.

What do you think of Isabel's stand?

Has God ever placed you in a similar situation, where He's asked you to act contrary to established protocols?

If you were to be a missionary from your local group of believers to those living in the United States, what would you share?

Edited from the archives


  1. Wow! So encouraging! I just ordered this book for a dear friend and former teammate of 7 years who just moved back to the states. Her family has just begun ministering to Native Americans. I was looking for a good birthday present idea, and this is perfect! =) I hope to also read it myself. Thanks, Richelle!

    1. hope your friend enjoys it as much as my girl and i have!

  2. Hey--I found a downloadable copy of this on Archive. Thanks for the great review. It made me want to learn more about her and her life.

    Joy in Nepal

    1. that's cool. never thought to check someplace like that!