PEMBROKE — Mike Cummings’ retirement after 30 years leading the influential Burnt Swamp Baptist Association lasted only a few days before he began another phase in a life dedicated to the Gospels.
Cummings retired Feb. 28 and returned to the pulpit on the first Sunday in March at Deep Branch Missionary Baptist Church. He couldn’t be happier.
“It’s a lovely little church,” Cummings said recently. “My wife and I sing in the choir.”
Deep Branch is the latest stop in a journey that began with his first church at age 19, while a college student. Cummings had “surrendered to the gospel” as a second-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the late 1960s, while other students protested the Vietnam War, Cummings found a separate peace in the word of God that would last a lifetime.
New Bethel Baptist Church in Clinton figures large in the journey because that it is where Cummings settled into a career as well as Quae, his wife of 48 years. Husband and wife retired hand-in-hand from the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association, Quae with 40 years of service.
“As director of the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association, I was consumed by administrative details,” he said. “Now, I can spend three or four hours in the morning to study and contact members of the congregation.
“I’m loving this. My first love has been pastoral work.”
As head of the 67-church strong Burnt Swamp Association, Cummings was “pastor to pastors,” said Steve Strickland, who replaced him at the association.
“I’ve come in many times to talk, get advice, wisdom and insight,” Strickland said.
As Cummings described it, Burnt Swamp is “a significant body of fellowship.” Under its umbrella are American Indian churches across North Carolina and South Carolina and stretching to the Lumbee community in Baltimore. Burnt Swamp pastors are leaders in the community, and, historically, many of them were instrumental in building schools in their communities.
In Clinton, Cummings was a well-liked young man. The congregation sold fried chicken plates to buy him a car to commute between Chapel Hill and Clinton.
“I started in the ministry as a student pastor of sorts,” he said. “I grew up in that culture. Churchgoing defines our culture.”
The road from Chapel Hill to Clinton went through Campbell College, then a little Baptist school in Buies Creek. He finished his undergraduate education there in 1974 and graduated from the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1977.
“I really enjoyed the Sampson County community,” Cummings said. “It was like a second home, and I thought I would never leave.”
But leave he did, coming home to pastor Mt. Airy Baptist Church, not far from where he grew up. Cummings is from the St. Anna community, just a stone’s throw from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He explained how one of 12 children of a sharecropper could go on to become a leader of his community and its people.
“Life was about survival then,” Cummings said. “Dad farmed 20 acres of his own and sharecropped a neighbor’s farm.
“We kept gardens, livestock and mules,” he said. “When my father finally got a tractor, he kept talking to it like it was a mule.
“I never got tired of my mother’s cornbread or biscuits.”
A successful family, Cummings said, “starts with a hard-nosed mother who kept an eye on her children’s education.”
Education is a continuing theme in the Cummings family. Both sons received advanced degrees from Ivy League universities. His daughter and Quae are UNCP graduates.
Cummings served Mt. Airy for 10 years, and Quae started work at the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association in 1979. When the director left the association in 1986, Cummings was asked to served as interim director while continuing his work at Mt. Airy.
“I couldn’t imagine leaving Mt. Airy. I have never been a person who is always looking for the next opportunity,” he said.
With two jobs, “something had to give.”
Cummings had his first experience with the Burnt Swamp Association when an elder took him to a meeting.
“The association meets four times a year,” he said. “I fell in love with that fellowship, and I have been deeply committed to it ever since.
“It’s difficult to grasp the importance of the association to the life of its churches and communities. It’s an important connection point for communities, and it is a big factor in the life of our churches.”
While serving as interim director, the importance of the association became clear to him. As its leader, one of Cummings’ major accomplishments is the the positive relationship between the Burnt Swamp Indian churches and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and Southern Baptist Convention.
Cummings said the Indian churches felt marginalized. Patience and determination won out.
He was elected first vice president and then president of the Baptist State Convention from 1999 to 2001. He was the first minority president of the Convention.
“We moved from the margin into the inner life of the Convention,” Cummings said. “It was a struggle, but they were willing to become diversified.”
At the same time, Cummings focused on building up the Burnt Swamp churches. Pastor training was an important mission and not without challenges and rewards.
“Most of our churches are pastored by bi-vocational pastors,” he said. “Our churches struggle with daily pastoral care, and lay involvement in this care is one of the strengths of Indian churches.”
The problem persists for many evangelical congregations everywhere who cannot afford a full-time pastor. One of the great strengths of Indian churches, Cummings said, is that they are community and family-based churches.
This model is changing among Burnt Swamp churches and churches in the larger Robeson Baptist Association.
“Our churches are becoming more diverse,” he said. “Indian-only is not our future.”
Cummings finds this area of progress “delightful,” but some things have not changed.
“We are still a very conservative group that is scripturally based,” he said. “We find right and wrong in the Bible.”
As a church leader, Cummings has successfully combined progress and conservatism with an inward and outward focus. His work to build North Carolina native churches led to an outreach to American Indian churches in the West.
“We’ve come to see the strength of reservation churches is poor,” Cummings said. “They face hard problems, social struggles.”
The differences between Eastern and Western churches is stark. Eastern Indians, Cummings said, assimilated early on in their history, but Western Indians had bad experiences with white culture that spilled over to the gospel.
“The gospel was crammed down their throats by whites,” Cummings said.
In the East, Indian found “the power of the gospel so powerful, they were able to receive it despite history.”
Cummings believes that “if Indians in the West are going to be reached, it will have to be by Indians.”
“Life may be hard, but God is good,” he said.
Life is good in retirement for Cummings. He can look back on a remarkable career, and he can look forward to challenges of building up a small church deep in the heart the community he has spent a career caring for.
Strickland said Cummings’ retirement will not stop him from serving the community.
Throughout his ministry, Cummings has had the strong support Quae.
Not only has his wife done an excellent job welcoming people to the association, but she “has kept me on track in the sense of putting my best foot forward, Cummings said.
“She’s been a major foundation for all my ministry,” he said.
“Together they have been a great team,” Strickland said. “It’s hard to talk about one without mentioning the other. Both of them have set a great example of leadership and ministry for us to follow.”
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]