"I've never really sat down and tracked how many people have come out here, but it's in the thousands. I never counted how many wheelchair ramps were built, roofs replaced, or houses painted. Instead, I kept track of the relationships that were built between the two cultures," said Pastor Mike Flowers. Mike and his wife, Libby, serve as the co-directors of Spirit Lake Ministry Center. Mike and Libby will retire on May 31, after serving the people of the Spirit Lake Nation for 16 years. It is all about relationships and trust.
Mike Flowers grew up as a child of an Air Force family. His family ended up in West Monroe, Louisiana. Libby Flowers lived in the same community in northeast Louisiana all her life. They met in 1976 and were married in 1978.
"I lived there all my life. I ended up working together (with Mike) in high school at a Dairy Queen. We met right before graduation," said Libby.
Mike entered the Air Force, and the couple headed to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The next stop was Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Then they headed to Yokota Air Base in Japan. After Japan, they were stationed at Minot Air Force Base in Minot, North Dakota.
"We chose to stay in North Dakota. We wanted to raise our kids here because it's a good place to raise your family," said Libby.
In September of 1994, Mike retired from the Air Force. Both ended up working in retail. "I had a job on the base where I worked three days on and six days off. I needed something to do on my days off. So, I started working at Wal-Mart part-time, where Libby was working," said Mike.
When Mike announced his retirement from the Air Force, Wal Mart hired him as a district manager in Fargo. It was in Fargo, at First United Methodist Church, where they found their church home.
Mike was raised United Methodist, and Libby grew up in the Catholic denomination. "I was raised United Methodist, but after we got married, we quit going to church. So, for 17 years, we didn't go to church," said Mike. "God called us back to the church in 1995. We were involved in almost everything at Fargo First, including substitute preaching."
The first time they attended worship at First UMC, they heard terrific music and met many people. After that, they got hooked in a ministry called Shoebox Christmas.
"Some people from Children of the Harvest ministry came to First UMC and talked about Shoebox Christmas. For the next two years, we led the Shoebox Christmas ministry from Fargo First," said Pastor Mike.
In 2007 they responded to God's call to serve at Spirit Lake Ministry Center. "We were both praying the same thing and didn't realize it. We prayed that God would show us what he wanted us to do—where he needed us," Pastor Mike said. "We both loved our jobs in retail. Then we talked to Bishop Deb [Kiesey]. We asked her how to tell the difference between a call and our want. She said there are three signs, 'First, if you go to bed at night and wake up in the morning and that's what you're thinking about. Second, if other people tell you that that's what you should be doing without you even telling them that that's what you're thinking. Third, you know you can't do it by yourself, that you can only do it with God. You are being called.' So those three things that Bishop Deb told us were the three things that happened. We were called to serve at Spirit Lake."
The Flowers stepped into a different culture to build relationships and establish trust with the people of Spirit Lake Nation. Getting to know the families and the people has been critical and rewarding. "The people of Spirit Lake are resilient. You learn to look at their face. Sometimes that's all they have is the expression on their face. People are people. There may be different cultures, but we are all God's children," Mike said.
The ministry reaches hundreds of families annually by meeting their basic needs through the food pantry and Community Children's Fund. "I remember Maxine," said Mike. "Maxine came into the food pantry and tried just to take everything there. She believed we might not be there the next time she needed something. Finally, we built trust with Maxine. She told everybody else we would be there if people needed something. Maxine became our friend and invited us into her house to pray."
Bringing the story of Jesus and his love to children is at the heart and soul of the ministry for Libby. Shoebox Christmas continued and grew to serve 6,000 children. Gifts were distributed to eight reservations in the Dakotas Conference and the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota. The gifts provide the children with the story of Jesus' birth, warm hats, scarves, mittens/gloves, and fun toys.
Sidewalk SONday School morphed into the only faith-based summer day camp on the Spirit Lake reservation. Children come to the Summer JAM, a fast-paced Vacation Bible School experience. Monthly, families enjoy games, movies, and meals at Spirit Lake Ministry Center.
"We've watched the little ones grow up," said Libby. "Now they're adults and bringing their children to church. A generation is graduating, getting married, and having babies. Most of the groups we worked with when we first got out here were five and six. Some in diapers. Now they are bringing their children to church, summer JAM, and the other children's activities.
The Flowers brought the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission program to Spirit Lake. Teams come from all over the country to repair homes, build wheelchair ramps, or paint houses. The construction ministry helped build homes and relationships. "It's important to be able to get into your house. It's important not to have a leaky roof. But, you know, the most important thing was the relationships. We have witnessed spiritual growth and the connections in families and the teams that traveled here," said Mike.
A worshipping community sprouted. The Journey is now a congregation that worships each week, has small group Bible studies, and does community outreach and youth and children's ministry. Mike attended licensing school and completed the Native American Course of Study program in 2011. He is affectionally known as Pastor Mike.
After an extensive seven-month remodel, a 53-year-old Quonset hut became the new worship center and dining facility for the Spirit Lake Ministries. The new worship space, a dream of Mike and Libby Flowers, became a reality after a successful fundraising campaign. With the help of donors from all over the country, many having volunteered on the reservation, and two significant donations, the dream became a reality.
"What happened was that we were connecting with people all around Spirit Lake Nation through our work with Volunteers in Mission (VIM) teams," says Pastor Mike Flowers, pastor of The Journey. "People started asking, 'Do you have worship?'"
"The partnership has made us stronger and both congregations stronger. First UMC is supportive of the Ministry Center. It has been a great partnership," said Pastor Mike.
Mike and Libby have this advice for those who might adventure into a mission ministry. "Don't make promises you can't keep because this culture has so many broken promises. Stand behind what you say. Always trust in God. Trust the plan God has. Every day, pray that God will put someone in your path to reach."
Their hope for Spirit Lake Ministry Center's future is that it will grow beyond where God has allowed them to take it. They hope that it will grow in scope to reach and touch a new generation.
In retirement, Mike and Libby will travel in their motorhome to visit with children and grandchildren and vacation. "Our daughter, Beth, and her husband and our three of our grandkids live in Alexandria, Virginia. We are heading there. By the time we get out there, it will be two years since we've seen them," said Libby Flowers. "Our son lives in Fargo with Abby, his wife, and Grayson, our other grandson. So, we will be back in Fargo to see them."
"We'll come back. We just won't come back when there's a lot of snow," said Pastor Mike. "The only white stuff we want to shovel is sand."
They will take their time traveling out to the east coast. They plan to take their grandchildren on vacation to Virginia Beach. Mike and Libby will go to Destin, Florida, to assist with a ministry by Christmas. They will continue their journey by doing ministry on the road.
"We're going to do ministry on the road. We're going to go to a campground and stay for a month. Then, we plan to volunteer for two weeks of that month at different organizations," shares Mike. "We will promote those organizations on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. It just came to us. So, we're thinking it's a God thing."
"We know what it is like to try to make your way in the mission field. We want to walk alongside others in ministry," said Libby.
Mike and Libby's ministry journey at Spirit Lake has been fulfilling and a powerful witness of faith. "We've gotten to witness the miracles that God performs, through us, the people at Spirit Nation, the VIM teams that come out, and the churches that support this ministry. The relationships built over 16 years are life-giving. It is something that only God can do," said Mike and Libby.