BEMIDJI – Why would a young Native American man of Mohawk heritage leave his home in Bagley to pursue a missionary career on the Flathead Reservation in Montana?
The answer to that question has its genesis in a vision that Earl Shongo, Jr. saw when he was 13 and attending a youth group worship session.
“I told God that I would give my whole life to Him,” Shongo said. “I saw these large purple letters before my eyes, ‘Missionary,’ and then realized that I was the only one in the room to see them. And I was filled with such joy, the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
He said he didn’t share his vision with others at first, but also knew that if this was to be his life path, things would happen to fulfill its promise.
Shongo, who moved to the area with his parents Judy and Earl Sr. from upper New York, graduated from Bagley High School in 2008.
In high school, Shongo started to take short mission trips with “Youth with a Mission,” (which those familiar with the program pronounced as “way wam”) to native reservations in the Dakotas.
The international Christian organization, founded in 1960, trains more than 25,000 mission volunteers annually. Today, 16,000 full-time volunteers in more than 1,000 locations in 180 nations spread The Word and help youth reconnect with their native cultures and roots.
And it is from a high school project in English that Shongo drew his materials for his first book, “Chippie the Squirrel.”
The Flathead Reservation was established in 1855 with the Treaty of Hellgate by the U.S. government. Flathead Lake lies at the northeast corner of the reservation along with part of the Mission Mountain range in Montana.
There are 23 reservation towns, with a population of 28,000 in 2010, and eight towns have a majority of native people. Non-native people own one-half of the land but as they leave, much of the land is being bought back by tribal leaders.
“A lot of youth are losing their culture,” Shongo said. “They are no longer interested in drumming, dancing and spiritual ceremonies. I like to help them to find their way back to the creator. I am now in a different ministry within “Youth with a Mission” called Tribal Waves and have a five-year commitment as a volunteer here. If you look it up on the internet at ywamtrivalwavesmontana.org you will see our work.”
To help him continue that work, Shongo has taken a school project and developed it into a book for middle-school children.
The printing of “Chippie the Squirrel” and its eventual sales will help him financially to continue the missionary work he loves so well among the Salish and Kootena peoples.
“I am a volunteer so I rely on the generosity of friends and odd jobs to support myself,” said Shongo. “I usually get 50 or more kids on a Friday night and I work with youth and older kids. My book is about a squirrel who is so taken with himself that he forgets about others.”
Chippie has an “attitude” problem which causes him to just want to play and not do his job of burying acorns for the winter. He laughs at the other hardworking squirrels but in the end it is Chippie who proves that he is really a “team” player after all. However, what Shongo really wants to convey is the knowledge that God is the heart of forgiveness and He provides for us in His great mercy.
When asked about his life at home with his six siblings, his mother Judy is quick to say that “he always had a heart for the Lord.” Earl Jr. is next to the youngest child in the family.
“Our home congregation is Becida Community Church,” said Judy. “We are so thankful that the Lord has called him to this field. He just blesses us so much with his attitude, love of life and people. Just being around him, you can feel him lifting you up.”
“Chippie the Squirrel” can be ordered through the publisher at authorhouse.com or at local outlets including BCC, the Old School House, Cabin Coffee House and Café, Cantabria Coffee Company and Kat’s Book Nook, all located in Bemidji.