There’s a special event coming up at the Community Baptist Church of Gay Head in Aquinnah. Pastor Sean McMahon tells me that the Rev. Gerry Locklear, a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, is coming to visit and preach at the church this Sunday at 10 am. This presents a great opportunity for all of us. Locklear is a Baptist Native American who is a missionary to Native American tribes across the U.S., Canada, and Alaska. I wondered how the two ministers got together, and it turns out that Locklear has visited the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and came here last November and met with McMahon then. Locklear has a passionate love of Native American history, and that ties right into Martha’s Vineyard. The Baptist Church in Aquinnah, constituted in 1693, is the oldest Native American Baptist church in North America. I forget that sometimes, but it is truly remarkable.
Locklear has researched the life of John Eliot, a Christian missionary who arrived on the Island to convert the Native American tribe. An industrious undertaking to translate the Bible into the Wôpanâak language was Eliot’s doing. He worked with others, some tribal members, to accomplish this, something that has helped reclaim the language today. The Bible was first printed in 1663 with support from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, a charitable British foundation.
“I connected through my research of John Elliot, he was a missionary in the 1600s,” Locklear explained in a phone call from North Carolina. “I’ve studied his life for quite a few years, and wanted to meet with the Wampanoag people.”
In November 2021, Locklear came to Cape Cod to visit the Mashpee tribe, and then took the ferry over to the Island. That’s when he went out for coffee with McMahon.
“I met him for coffee, sort of spur of the moment, and I found out what he does as a Native American who is a missionary to Native Americans,” McMahon explained. “He goes from reservation to reservation, and I think what he has to offer goes beyond the congregation at our church.”
McMahon said that for as long as he’s been a member of the Gay Head church, a goal has been to get a tribal member in the pulpit. He says Locklear knows what it’s like historically to bring Christianity to Native Americans, and what it is like now. “I think it is in his heart to want to share God’s love and the story of Jesus with the members of the tribe, and he’s aware of the sensitivities around that. He brings a lot of sensitivity and awareness to that.”
Locklear told me he was able to see an original printing of Eliot’s Wampanoag-language Bible on a visit to Harvard, and he was moved by that opportunity. Locklear, who ministers alongside his wife Sheril, also a member of the Lumbee Tribe, is in the midst of his own project to reprint Eliot’s Bible in its Wampanoag language. Then, he said, he’d love to give a copy to all the members of the tribe.
“This would serve as a good teaching tool for the school as well,” Locklear says. “I know most native schools are heavily involved in maintaining and restoring their language, and that would be a good tool. A lot of the tribes have limited resources when it comes to their languages.”
It’s the rich Native American history that Locklear truly loves, along with his passion to bring the words of the Gospel to everyone he can.
A retired law enforcement officer, Locklear said he was called to preach in 2009, and ordained in 2010. He and his wife have been doing Native American missionary work for 30 years. He says he’s just trying to “fulfill the Lord’s command to go to all the world and preach the Gospel,” and he’ll keep doing that as long as God allows, he said.
“He’s going to be fascinating to lots of people,” McMahon said. “This is a man who goes from reservation to reservation, and that’s something you don‘t come across all the time, and I think that would be of interest to anybody. He’s a fascinating fellow, and he is a Jesus-loving dude.”
Well, I’m going to try my best to make it to Aquinnah for this service. Hope to see you there.