The drum was so loud that I was sure it could be heard several blocks over at a neighboring church. We are an old, established downtown church. The elders of my church were dancing the round dance around the pews in the sanctuary. Furthermore, everyone was thoroughly engaged in the happenings this Sunday morning. This was the beginning of a new era for our church. Our declining, middle-class white church have opened their eyes and hearts to the culture on the outside of our stained glass windows. One of the things I have found disturbing is the idea that you must become white middle class in order to fit in to Christianity. The Native Americans in my congregation are indistinguishable from the white middle class in our town. There is a subtle and not so subtle pressure to conform to the group. I have also found that in my community there is the pervasive idea that to be Christian, one must give up or forsake their ethnic identity. However, that only applies if you aren’t white and middle class. The disturbing thing is, 20 to 30 % (depending on which statistics you consult) of the population in my community is Native American and there is no church that is currently welcoming them as a group. Most Native Christians drive to neighboring towns, sometimes thirty miles or more to worship.
The group that came to educate us is lead by Pastor Kyle Taylor from White Eagle Ministrieshttp://www.whiteeagleministry.org/ . They have a group of men and women who dance, preach and educate about Native American Spirituality. Because we are “liberal”, we are not so afraid of syncretism (as some more fundamentalist churches are), nor are we uncomfortable with Native American spirituality. We do not find the drum satanic and we all joined in dancing in the sanctuary. We have more subtle issues to overcome, such as racism, ignorance and fear. In the past we have opened our facility for tribal meetings and we have provided help to the children in the Indian Nation Housing project. But we have not made any effort beyond inviting the occasional Native that we know. In the future we hope to be able to offer Native American dance lessons for children soon.
I was surprised at the depth of racism I uncovered in our congregation. We were revolutionary (at least for our small town) when we called a black associate. Yet, he has had 100% support and acceptance. This is why I was puzzled when I encountered such ignorance regarding Native Americans. I found that there were pervasive stereotypes in play. I could see that I would have to begin education to address these issues. I noticed that when we were collecting baby gifts for the infants in the Cherokee Housing project that many people would not give because they perceived that ALL Indians get checks and are really wealthy. When my secretary called the list and asked for gifts for poor children (leaving out Indian) then many people responded by bringing gifts.
IMPORTANT: If you are not person of Native American descent that has actively identified yourself with a tribe, do not attempt a Native American outreach without help from those who have experience in this area. I cannot emphasis this enough. Historically, sincere groups of Christians have done tremendous damage to Indians in the name of God. The saddest thing I saw when I studied history was the push by liberal white Christians for Indian land ownership. The thought was sincere but very misguided with no understanding of the culture of the Native American. It wasn’t war that broke their spirit, it wasn’t disease– it was the breakup of the tribal lifestyle and culture when Indians were given individual land allotments. There are groups like White Eagle Ministries that will come to you and help you develop a plan and your sensitivity to the Native issues. Do your homework! The American Baptists have a long history of working with Native Americans and many of the local Native American Churches are Baptist. I know that the United Methodists have a specific Native American outreach here in Oklahoma but I have not worked with them. I would suspect any organization that is attempting outreach that is not lead by Native Americans. Many denominations have historically worked evangelizing Indians but have forced those converts to become like white Americans rather than keep their own culture while worshiping Jesus.
I am not Native American but I studied Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma for a year. One of the most profound things I discovered was how distinctly different the peoples of various tribes are. I have joined two Internet maillists that I lurk and learn from. These are Christian lists:
“Round Dance is a discussion area for those who are interested in serving the needs of native communities in North America and around the world. We follow Jesus on the Red Road and welcome others to join us. Those who join this group must be willing to be cross-cultural, being willing to learn about others’ ways and lives before trying to “serve” them.”
Our Daily Frybread, a list that originates in Canada. http://DailyFrybread.injesus.com
“Welcome! Come explore “Indian Country” and meet all your relations in native cultural ministry! Each “one-a-day” posting is a snapshot of native life and ministry in North America. We pray that our “Daily Frybread recipe” brings you closer to our First Nations people. Come and help us reach our own people with our vision of 1000 tipis –planting 1000 new native gatherings (churches) across Turtle Island. Join the native pastors, “faithkeepers”, church planters, and spiritual helpers who establish sacred gatherings in respectful ways. Will you walk with us?”
When deciding to reach out to Native Americans, much depends upon which group of Indians you live near. They are all very different. Some are easier to reach than others. Some are so angry that they equate Christianity with white people and can’t get beyond that. There are two major views on evangelizing Natives. Some believe that we have no right to impose Christianity on Native Americans and that we can only share if we join with the Natives to work on Native Issues and don’t overtly Christianize anything Native American. This view is very sensitive to the anger and is very cautious to not offend the Natives. The opposing view mixes Christianity and appropriates the Native American religion and shows the parallels and demonstrates how one does not have to forsake their heritage to embrace Christianity. There are several things that churches can do to make themselves more Native friendly. Churches can ad Native items to their décor. I would be cautious with this and consult with local tribal leaders before choosing what is appropriate. We must always be cautious to WORK WITH the Natives instead of doing things FOR the Natives. A very simple way of doing this is to add the local tribe’s flag, next to the Christian and United States flag on the podium. The following artist paints beautiful religious/Native American art that is appropriate for church décor. http://www.bridgebuilding.com/catalog/jg1.html
Flags can be purchased in various places: TME CO., INC http://www.tmealf.com/indian.htm November is Native American month and Pastor Kyle is helping our church to plan a large dance exposition in which we are honoring the tribal elders of the two Cherokee tribes in this area. We are going to dance and have lots of food, including a chili cook off contest. Our goal is to reach those Native American Christians so that they will come to our Church building and know that we are welcoming them. We are doing things in a manner that is proven to reach this particular group. This is not necessarily an evangelistic outreach as we are aware that we need a solid group of Native believers in order to welcome and work with new Native believers. We want to make sure that we are able to make new Native American believers comfortable while respecting their culture and circumstances. I am learning that Native American children do not learn as well in our traditional Sunday school classes. In my observations I have found that African American religious educational styles often work well, such as incorporating stories and myths from the minority traditions as well Biblical faith stories. Native Children learn better in family groups, rather than isolated from the adults. I am sometimes overwhelmed at the amount of white culture that is intertwined with how we do church today.
Here are some helpful articles:
AN INTRODUCTION TO ESTABLISHING HEALTHY FIRST NATIONS CHURCHES WITHIN THE CHRISTIAN AND MISSIONARY ALLIANCE http://online.cbccts.sk.ca/alliancestudies/dsmith/djs_fnations.html#B1B
How Can We Present Jesus to a New Culture without Bringing Our Own? http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&id=5299
Reflections on Churchless Christianity http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&id=5402&mode=v&fto=601&
The Missionary as Listener: Responses to Transplanted & Contextualized Churches http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&id=6051&mode=v&fto=601&
Drumming, Dancing, Chanting and Other Christian Things: Getting Beyond the Fear of Syncretism to Face the Challenge of Sanctification http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&id=5551&mode=v&fto=799&
The Red Road http://www.theredroad.org/ministry.html The Red Road is a non-profit organization established to serve two purposes:to educate students on the ways of First Nations people by allowing children to see the world through the eyes of Native Americans, and to open the eyes and hearts of all people, Native and non-Native, that they may recognize the value in First Nations people and to see them as God sees them.
Native Web http://www.nativeweb.org/
First Nations Monday http://www.firstnationsmonday.com/
Indian Country news http://www.indiancountry.com/
The Native American Christian Fellowship at Stanford University http://www.stanford.edu/group/nacf/
Native American Ministry finder ( I am not sure these are indigenous Natives) http://www.missionfinder.org/nativeamer.htm
Study of find out more at First Nation’s Learning Center While we aren’t an “online seminary”, we do teach classes at the First Nations Learning Center at http://www.firstnationscenter.com/
There are 6 courses each with a good sized bibliography. Let me know what you think. Currently the course “Native Spiritual Abuse” is being taught. The next course begins in January and goes 8 weeks: Contextual Theological Issues. There is no charge to use the site for your personal studies but there is a cost for taking an instructor-led course
Phillips Theological Seminary offers a course in Native American Spirituality. Http://www.ptstulsa.edu Drumming, Dancing, Chanting and Other Christian Things Part 1 of 3 of an Article http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.asp?loc=kb&id=5551&mode=v&fto=799& tellray
Eagle’s Wings Ministry Culturally appropriate ministry to Native People led by Randy (Kituwah Cherokee) & Edith Woodley (Eastern Shoshone / Choctaw) http://www.eagleswingsministry.com
Establishing Healthy First Nations Churches A new conceptual paradigm of preferred characteristics could assist church leaders in establishing healthy First Nations churches within The Christian and Missionary Alliance. http://online.cbccts.sk.ca/alliancestudies/dsmith/djs_fnations.html#B1B