American Indians aren’t beating a path to Christian colleges, so Cook College and Theological School in Tempe, with 95 years of educating Indians, is reinventing itself. Now called Cook School for Christian Leadership, its administrators and board say they recognize some harsh realities: Opportunities today for Indians for education with scholarships at community and four-year colleges are tough to compete with.
Cook was offering an associate of arts degree in a state with three universities and a metropolitan area with 12 community colleges, all of which can offer attractive enrollment packages, including free tuition in many cases.
“We just can’t compete,” said the Rev. Larry Norris, Cook’s president with more than 20 years of association with the school, 708 S. Lindon Lane (www.cookleadershipschool.org).
During much of the past decade through a series of presidents and interim leaders, Cook struggled to gain academic accreditation by creative linkage with accredited schools — first with one in Oklahoma and then the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa. But Indian students showed too little interest, and those plans were abandoned.
“We were having trouble finding enough Native American Christian students,” Norris said. “There were certainly students that would qualify to come here, but they were not interested in coming to a Christian school — and we were told that pretty directly.” Some of that, he said, stems from historical issues between tribes, churches and missionary outreach.
“Only about 6 percent of all Native Americans nationally are Christians, and that is a pretty amazing statistic,” said Norris, a Methodist pastor who became Cook president in May 2005. Most, if they practice religion, embrace traditional, native religions, with their distinct ceremonies and folklore. As a result, Cook’s market for students interested in a Christian associate of arts degree was rapidly shrinking, Norris said.
In the fall issue of Indian Highways, the school’s newsletter, Norris said his board affirmed a core mission emphasis: “to educate and empower native Americans for leadership in the church and community.” The school “must recognize the changing needs of those we serve … be flexible and adapt to new realities that face Indian people, both on the reservations and within the urban environment.” The school will continue to target American Indian church clergy and laity for specialized training and deliver relevant, practical classes to people on reservations.
The school was founded in 1911 by a German immigrant, Charles Cook. It has maintained that affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Classes were first offered to the Pima Indians in Sacaton, were moved briefly to Tucson and then, in 1913, to Phoenix. In 1965, 17 acres were purchased in Tempe for $147,000 for the permanent home. In time, Cook became a magnet for training of Christian pastors on American Indian reservations. It could boast that 75 percent of Christian pastors on reservations had completed classes through Cook, which today has relationships with about 75 tribes, with more intense ties to 15 in Arizona, Oklahoma and the Dakotas.
With the move away from offering associate of arts degrees, the Cook faculty has been busy designing a range of classes and seminars for what it calls Workshops on Wheels. About 30 classes will be offered on such topics as domestic violence, youth gangs, dealing with methamphetamine use, healthy families, native spirituality and nutrition. “We are willing to go out anytime and anywhere, and we will make it work financially,” Norris said. “We know the churches are relatively poorer and they can’t afford a lot for speakers, so we go out and it is really almost essentially free.” Outside professional specialists will be enlisted for some classes. A $100,000 Ottens Foundation grant will be used to develop health and wellness programs, for example.
The long-standing winter term has been expanded to three weeks with 12 offerings for clergy and lay leaders for residency learning, such as worship and pastoral leadership, spiritual renewal for Christian leaders and Christianity and traditional spirituality.
The changes are lauded by Sallie Cuaresma, a Cherokee and the associate for American Indian congregational enhancement for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a Cook ex-officio trustee. Competition for Indian students with “secular educational opportunities” made it necessary, she said. “Now the work is toward developing programs that will develop leadership skills for lay people that work within our churches.” Indian churches suffered from a leadership vacuum, she said, noting that there are only about 40 ordained American Indian pastors who are Presbyterians, while about 110 are needed. Of those 40, only a third is actually serving congregations.
For some Indians who have embraced Christianity, Cuaresma said, there has been a “disillusionment with the application of Christian principles.”
“Somewhere along the way, there has been a disconnect, and people are still searching and looking: Do we go the native way in their searching and trying to find out … or the Christian way? They have many options to take a look at,” she said.
“The hard decisions to go in this direction came directly from native peoples,” said the Rev. Judy Wellington, chairman of Cook’s board of directors and a member of the Gila River, Pima and Dakota Sioux tribes. She said the Cook community realized that, if Cook was to survive, “we have to remake ourselves in a way that fits with a real need that isn’t being met by other institutions.” She said while Cook is committed to deliver education to reservations in new ways, there will be programs to continue to bring people to the campus that can house up to 150 students and their families for residency education.
Norris said the school is debt-free. With the 17-acre campus estimated to be worth as much as $40 million, options exist for leveraging it for revenue, for development of academic programs and for constructing a new conference and retreat center to replace one that has 100 outside groups using it each year.
“Our mission is still to empower and equip native peoples for leadership — and that was Charles Cook’s vision,” Norris said. “We are probably getting back to that.”