As one of the most marginalized ethnic groups in the United States, Native Americans can be hard to reach with the gospel. However, pastor Jacob J. Valtierra, 41, felt called to move from Minneapolis to plant a Native American church in Milwaukee.
After attending a Church Multiplication Network Launch training event, Jacob and his wife, Maria , last September planted The Gathering Place in Greenfield, Wisconsin. Its parent church is Poplar Creek in New Berlin. Despite launching during the pandemic, The Gathering Place averages 50 in-person attendees each week.
Valtierra grew up in the Twin Cities in a large, interracial family. He often felt as though he belonged to three separate worlds, with a white mother, Cindy, and a father, Thomas, who is Native American and Mexican.
As part of the Ojibwe tribe, his family often visited the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. A son of Assemblies of God church planters, Valtierra was active in church as a kid, but started to rebel during high school.
Through early adulthood, Valtierra was addicted to drugs and alcohol. By age 26, he had repeated stints in jail and two felonies on his record. After several incarcerations and returning to his old ways, he recommitted his life to Christ in 2006 and has been sober since.
Valtierra obtained a bachelor’s degree in youth ministry and a master’s degree in strategic leadership from North Central University. As a credentialed Assemblies of God minister, he served as student ministry and associate pastor at Cityview Church in Minneapolis from 2011 to 2017.
When sensing the Lord’s direction to move, he discovered no direct outreaches to Native Americans existed in the Milwaukee area. Wisconsin has a population of more than 86,000 Native Americans, with 11 federally recognized tribes.
Initially he accepted a position as transition coordinator at Indian Community School in Franklin, Wisconsin, as a way to connect with Native Americans. Before the launch, Valtierra became close to a family in the Potawatomi tribe. The grandmother asked him to come over one day to share his testimony with her family.
Valtierra sat with the grandmother, her three adult children, and 11 grandchildren, and shared how God changed his life. He asked if they wanted to receive Christ, and immediately the whole family said yes.
“I went over the gospel three times to make sure they fully understood what they were doing, and they said yes every time,” Valtierra says. The family now attends The Gathering Place.
The Gathering Place uses Native American phrases in greetings and worship, and encourages its Native American attendees to wear clothing that reflects their culture. Valtierra is taking an Ojibwe language course at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He hopes to reach more Native Americans through language revitalization.
Maria Valtierra, 32, is co-lead pastor and administrator. Originally from Michigan and from Mexican heritage, Maria has no Native American background. She met Jacob at North Central University, where they both played basketball. She majored in elementary education and worked as a fourth grade teacher before moving to Milwaukee. The couple have four young children.
Maria puts together content for their church’s classes, and has a team of volunteers who teach the programs. Almost half the churchgoers are children. She uses the Tru Fire curriculum because of its emphasis on baptism in the Holy Spirit. Many children at The Gathering Place come from broken homes where they had never heard the gospel before.