Big Sky country is missionary's sanctuary
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the seventh of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2008 Week of Prayer each March and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $61 million to help support 5,000-plus North American missionaries. 2008 Week of Prayer missionaries are Daniel and Marta Caceres, Dewey and Kathie Aiken, Melanie Lawler, Jon and Mindy Jamison, David and Shirley Proffitt, Jon and Linda Hodge, Brad Lartigue and Chris and Monica Woodall.
BIG SKY, Mont. (BP)--Because his mission field is based in Big Sky, Mont., where Lone Mountain stretches 11,000 feet high, Brad Lartigue reports to work every day sky-high -– geographically and spiritually.
For 20 years, Lartigue has served as a North American Mission Board missionary -- the last 17 as a resort missionary in Big Sky during the ski season in winter and at Yellowstone National Park in summer.
Lartigue is one of 5,000-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and Southern Baptist churches' gifts through the Cooperative Program. The theme for this month's annual Week of Prayer is "Live with Urgency: Seize Your Divine Moment." The 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering's goal is $61 million.
"My place of work is basically the outdoors," Lartigue says. "Our sanctuary is in the mountains that rise above us, among the trees and the animals that God has created. That's where worship happens for us.
"I believe that my area of special ministries in resort and leisure settings is a good place to present the Gospel to people," he continues. "After all, our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the example and foundation for ministering to people outside the walls of the church.
"Jesus spoke to the multitudes from the bow of a boat, from the mountainsides, in the gardens, in the marketplaces. He met people where they were, in times of work and play. It's a wonderful thing to have the opportunity of using God's creation as a ministry tool to point people past that creation and toward the Creator."
Commissioned and supported by NAMB and the Montana Southern Baptist Convention, Lartigue leads worship services and campfire devotionals, marries couples, dedicates babies and even conducts funeral services on the powdery Big Sky snow. He witnesses to tourists who wouldn't be caught dead inside the walls of a brick-and-mortar church.
During the peak ski season -- between Thanksgiving and Easter -- some 5,000-6,000 people a day come to Big Sky to challenge the world-class ski slopes, which get blanketed by 400 inches of new snow each year.
"Every Sunday when I ride the chairlift going up the mountain to do my worship service, I meet people who have no intention of going to a worship service. They're coming to find a place for recreation and to relax -- not for a place of worship or for a minister. But when I ride the chairlift, I never ride without speaking to someone about why they are here and what we are doing here.
"I think it means a lot to people to see a minister snowboarding, skiing or cross-country skiing, who takes the effort to hone these skills to meet people where they are," he reflects.
Citing the Apostle Paul's admonition to "be all things to all people so that we might reach some," Lartigue recently invited a couple of young men on college break to his worship service.
"They saw me on my snowboard and said, 'Oh, you're the shred chaplain.' Shredding is ski slang for snowboarding. I think God gives us passions in our lives that drive us to do the things we do. God has given me the passion to snowboard, cross-country ski and go backpacking in the wilderness.... And what better place to do ministry than a place where people can be inspired, because God and His creation are inspiring."
It's a long way from the sultry summers of Lake Charles, La., where Lartigue was born and raised to the crystal-blue skies and frosty air of Big Sky.
He grew up in a Christian home in Lake Charles, a bayou town in the heart of southwest Louisiana's Cajun country where his father serves as pastor of a Southern Baptist church and with a devoted preacher's wife for a mom. With a French surname and black, Cherokee and Italian family bloodlines, he is proud of his heritage. One of five children, he accepted Christ at age 14.
Always interested in adventure and public service, Lartigue was active in the Baptist Student Union at McNeese State University in Lake Charles. While at McNeese, he cut his missions "teeth" while serving as a summer missionary on Hawaii's Big Island and as a short-term resort missionary at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico.
After graduating from McNeese State, he attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where he earned a master's degree in religious education and church recreation. In 1990, he accepted a career missionary position at Big Sky and Yellowstone National Park from NAMB and the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He's been there ever since.
"When people think of Big Sky or Yellowstone National Park, they think of the beauty and what a pristine place it is," Lartigue says. "But people don't realize that behind the scenes, there are hurting people –- people very much disillusioned about who God is. I come across alcoholics, those into drugs, the promiscuous, those whose lives need to change."
As with any Southern Baptist pastor, Sunday is a long and busy workday for Lartigue.
"I am part of three worship services on Sundays," he says. "I begin the day with an outdoor worship service at 9:30 a.m. at the Moonlight Basin Ski Resort. Then I drive back down to the Big Sky Christian Fellowship worship at 11 a.m. and back up to Mountain Village to conduct the skier/snowboarder worship service in the snow at 1:30 p.m.."
After a few hours of skiing or snowboarding, he closes out the day by directing a youth ministry for junior high students on Sunday nights.
During summer, he shifts the focus of his ministry to Yellowstone -– about 50 miles away -- where he supervises college and seminary volunteers called "Innovators," fulltime summer missionaries appointed by NAMB and sponsored by First Baptist Church of West Yellowstone, who work alongside park employees in a secular environment. They intentionally share their faith in Christ through lifestyle evangelism, Bible studies, hiking, backpacking and "one-to-one" witnessing.
In October, Brad is a swimming instructor and coach for the local elementary school in Big Sky, and a lifeguard instructor in Bozeman, about 45 miles north of Big Sky. With Thanksgiving comes the return of ski season.
Year-round, Lartigue works as a firefighter and chaplain for the Big Sky Volunteer Fire Department. He also is a certified emergency medical technician (EMT), a CPR instructor and a volunteer for the Big Sky Ski Patrol. Regardless of the hat he wears, he ministers to all, all the time.
Dean Hall, a fellow EMT on the Big Sky Ski Patrol team, has known Lartigue for several years, describing him as "a great asset to the community here and to the Big Sky Ski Patrol, both as a chaplain and as a trained EMT."
"I think all resorts need somebody like him," Hall says. "This is sort of a la-la land in many respects. There's lots of alcohol, lots of drugs. Brad is an anchoring force and some of these young people need that."
Southern Baptists' support through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and the Cooperative Program, Lartigue says, "offers so many different opportunities that we will never, ever see the results until we're in heaven."
"I love what I do because it is making an eternal difference in people's lives and I look forward to seeing these people in our heavenly home for all of eternity."
Mickey Noah is a writer for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.