When people at Onecho Bible Church talk about “the mission field,” they mean the many places around the world where Christians are sharing the love of Jesus. But sometimes, they’re also talking about a literal field in Eastern Washington, where the congregation grows crops to support the people proclaiming the gospel around the world and fulfilling the Great Commission.

The 74-member church, smack-dab in the middle of a vast expanse of wheat fields 80 miles south of Spokane, has donated $1.4 million to missions since 1965. They’ve funded wells, campgrounds, and Christian colleges. This year, they want to provide food and shelter to asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.

“Being as isolated as we are, it’s our missionaries and this mission field that keeps us very focused worldwide,” said Brian Largent, Onecho’s volunteer farm manager. “This church is a very mission-oriented church—always has been.”

Onecho Bible Church traces its history back to Mennonite migrants in the 1890s and Methodist farmers 20 years before that. But the unique fundraising program started in the 1960s. One of the church elders, Gerhard Dyck, passed away at age 65 and bequeathed 180 acres to the church. He supported missionary work his whole life and considered that his legacy. He asked Onecho to use his land to continue the work of spreading the gospel.

The church decided it wouldn’t sell the field but would farm it with volunteers. The proceeds from the harvest would fund various missions. The first year, the harvest yielded $5,500. Revenue fluctuates, based on the success of the harvest. In 2021, the field earned $39,000. Last year, it was $178,000.

“We just put the seed in the ground,” Largent said. “Then … it’s all up to the weather and what God’s going to do to produce the money.”

It’s not uncommon for churches to have special fundraisers, said David P. King, professor of philanthropic studies and director of Indiana University’s Lake Institute of Faith and Giving. After direct giving, they are the second most common funding source for American congregations. But fundraisers are often bake sales or craft fairs. Farming is pretty unusual.

However religious people give to charity, they are extraordinarily generous, King said. Onecho is one example.

“You can’t underestimate the financial value the volunteers are contributing to the church, especially if they’re bringing their combines and doing some fairly significant labor,” King said.

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Research shows that religious participation is the leading predictor of generosity. Congregational living encourages people’s better angels.

“In community,” King said, “you’re more likely to run across needs and run across positive peer pressure, social pressure, to get up and engage.”

And as congregations tell the story of their life together, such as recounting the work that goes into the field and planning for harvest, that adds positive reinforcement. King said it’s remarkable how that kind of religious practice changes people in measurable ways.

“In the midst of our growing polarization that’s threatening our communal life together,” he said, “there are stories that demonstrate how we take care of one another.”

Inside Onecho Bible Church, the story is recalled with framed photos of the mission field’s early beginnings. There are also plaques that commemorate Dyck, recalling the late elder as a gentle, humble, and generous farmer. According to one, “his generosity was born of a deep love for God’s work.”

One church member, Darrel Claassen, said those pictures always remind him of how mission work connects his family through the generations. Dyck was his great-uncle. His dad, Rudy Claassen, worked side by side with Dyck and ensured the farm was turned over to the church after he died. Now Darrel Claassen volunteers in the mission field, and his children and grandchildren are cheering him on.

“That’s a real delight for me to see that my children and my grandchildren have the vision of supporting missionaries,” he said.

It’s not just family, though. At Onecho, everyone is welcome to join in the vision. The congregation holds a gathering every year to celebrate the harvest, inviting friends, family, and people from the surrounding community. They often host international students from Washington State University in Pullman. One year, 62 came for rides on the combines.

The field helps the church reach out to neighbors. And it inspires them to look beyond the golden hills of wheat and think about what God is doing in faraway places.

By December, church members propose mission projects to the congregation. It doesn’t matter whether the missionaries are formally connected to the church. All suggestions are welcome, though the church generally favors one-time gifts over ongoing support. Then the missions committee looks at all the proposals and makes a decision. The money is typically given out in the spring. Over the years, it has supported more than 150 different projects.

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In 2023, Onecho is partnering with the El Paso-Juarez Border Initiative Ministry. The Border Initiative was started by the Presbyterian Church in America a few years ago, and Gary Largent, Brian Largent’s brother and the chair of the missions committee, learned of it in a conversation about the immigration crisis with a pastor at a church near the border. The ministry helps 20 to 60 migrants a week at a small church in northern Mexico on their way to the border to apply for asylum. Gary Largent is leading a team of 18 people to visit and help with small construction projects and deliver food and clothing.

“We want to just do whatever we can to invite migrants, to work alongside them, so we can hear their stories and just show them the love of Christ in very practical ways,” he said. “They each have needs, and we wanted to get a firsthand look.”

Whether the church supports a school in South Africa or a migrant shelter in Mexico, Gary Largent said he’s always overwhelmed by the thought that a little church of farmers can have such a far-reaching impact on so many people’s lives.

Over the years, this approach to missions has come to shape Onecho Bible Church, too. Senior pastor Mike Nyholm says the mission field has given the church its sense of purpose. They start from what they’ve been given.

“God has us here, so why?” he said. “We can do something here that no one else can—because he’s put us here.”

Loren Ward is a journalist and storyteller in Arizona.

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