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The Call to Saw
Missionary Pastor Serves Community with Prayer and Sawmill
By Deanna Bunten
Date Posted: 3/1/2007
When people living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Browning, Montana call Pastor Harold Underwood, “The preacher who can turn trees into lumber,” they are referring to his Wood-Mizer sawmill, not an ability to perform miracles. Harold’s mill, an LT40 hydraulic, is, he says, an essential tool for meeting the physical and spiritual needs of the people he serves as well as being vital to his success in planting independent churches.
Harold says he first “felt the call to preach” as a young man living in the Appalachian hills near Blairsville, Georgia. After resisting the call for some time Harold gave in and, at age 26, preached his first sermon. To his surprise that led, 6 months later, to Harold’s becoming the pastor of the church he attended at the time. Over the next 23 years Harold served five different churches in his native South but, to pay the bills, he always worked a “side-job.” One job included running a circle saw mill.
In 1995, Harold says, he felt another call, one requiring he and Janette, his wife, leave behind the security of a successful ministry, a flourishing sawing/building business and a comfortable brick home. In answer to the call, Harold and Janette packed up and responded to an invitation to come to the Blackfeet Reservation. “We liquidated everything,” Harold recalls, “Including my ‘retirement fund’ consisting of about 150,000 board feet of lumber I had sawn and intended to use for buildings in the future.” With $150 a month in promised support and a new name, Highways and Hedges Ministries, the two headed to Montana to help plant churches and get a dilapidated circle sawmill operational.”
Two short years later, ownership decisions beyond Harold’s control resulted in the newly successful sawmill leaving town, leaving behind a financial void for Harold and a loss of services for the people in the area who depended on the mill for lumber. Back in Georgia, faithful folks, aware of what had happened, increased giving to Highways and Hedges Ministries and, arranged for Harold to receive a Wood-Mizer LT40 to help fill the vacuum created by the departure of the circle mill.
According to Harold, “I had dreamed of owning a Wood-Mizer ever since I saw one at an exposition in Georgia and now one had been given to me! The gift was both a personal blessing and a great asset in trying to help people here.”
Tribal members on the reservation are allowed to cut a certain number of logs to be used in constructing homes and for other uses. The mill is valued by those Harold serves because without it a cost prohibitive transportation hurdle would exist. For Harold the Wood-Mizer provides contact with many people who may never otherwise talk to a pastor or come to a church making the mill a truly important part of Harold’s ministry.
When the LT40 first arrived machinery was scarce so horses were trained and used to “yard” logs from the woods but, today, Harold says, he is able to yard logs using tractors, especially a 45 horsepower 4 x 4 John Deere equipped with forks, homemade winches and logging arches.
Harold explains that compensation for sawing seldom comes in the form of direct payment. He sometimes cuts on “shares” and it is not uncommon for him to receive payment in the form of barter for beef or some other item in exchange for milling the lumber. Harold and Janette do still receive some “missions support,” so the mill enables them to enjoy a few things beyond their basic food and shelter, like a replacement piano for the one Janette left behind in Georgia.
Speaking to his Wood-Mizer, Harold says, “The features of the LT-40’s have both improved my productivity and have proven to be beneficial in building good rapport with customers and contacts. Being able to economically produce a higher yield of smooth and consistent lumber at people’s homes gives me great opportunities to speak with and to get to know people and then, perhaps, speak to them about the Lord.”
A couple of years ago Harold he needed to upgrade his LT40 to a hydraulic version but saw no way to do that on the limited budget available. Again, he says, a way was made clear. After applying with Wood-Mizer for consideration as a missionary pastor he received, he says, a sufficient “missions discount” on a new saw to enabled him to sell the first saw and upgrade to the LT40 hydraulic version with a 32 hp Cat engine and debarker.
Harold is grateful and thrilled with his new mill. He says, “Now that I am 60 years old I am still willing to put my back into my work, but it sure is nice for the mill to do the heavy lifting and turning for me.”
Today, Harold is beginning to feel a new call. “I think of the times I volunteered my sawmill and services to cut lumber for Big Sky Bible Camp and I find myself wanting to travel around the country to do the same at other camps or to saw lumber for missionaries,” he comments. And he is grateful that another couple soon will be coming to help with the work and anticipates being more available to saw lumber for other ministries. Someday, he may answer that call, but for even so, Harold Underwood will continue to be known on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana as the pastor who can turn trees into lumber.
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