Back to Top

America needs the Indigenous church for its own survival

A United State Indigenous Churches policy was born in 1868 in a time when subjugation was the norm for native people. President Ulysses S. Grant advanced a “Peace Policy” to remove corrupt Indian agents, who supervise reservations, and replace them with Christian missionaries, whom the President deems morally exceptional.

“In reality the [peace] policy rested on the belief that Americans had the right to dispossess Native peoples of their lands, take away freedoms, and send them to reservations, where missionaries would teach them how to farm, read and write, wear Euro-American clothing, and embrace Christianity. If Indians refused to move to reservations, they would be forced off their homelands by soldiers.” —Clifford Trafzer, ed., American Indians/ American Presidents: A History, 2009

One wonders why some Native Americans are Christian believers today?  If before sharing the gospel Americans thought they had to dispossess Native peoples of their lands, take away freedoms, and send them to reservations.  So the existence of faith (by the grace of God) in Navajo churches can be seen as a testimony to the faithful God that brought them through the darkness and perhaps gives us a prophecy of what lies ahead.

Maybe there is a faith forged in a Indigenous church that has been a source of comfort and resistance for Native American. Maybe there is a faith informed by the time-tested truths that still support Indigenous Christian.  Indigenous Christian testimonies are full of the faith that prevails against the dark past and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. This has taught us hope in the present.

Today there are still simple churches dotted across on the Navajo reservation today which inspire hope in a stormy land.

I remember in the 1980’s, on cold Sunday mornings, my uncle Logan Yazzie would start his long walk down the plateau to starts the simple church’s wood fire stove before the service started, the humble building had no plumbing and no electricity, which the younger Navajo Government officials today would call substandard. 

In another modest reservation church, the late Pastor Bahe Woodman, who’s first language was Dine (Navajo), who had no formal Bible school and spoke broken English gave profound sermon illustrations using ordinary objects found in the church like a trained thespian. One does not learn these trade crafts in school but only by living in a hard country where discomfort is the norm and people need authentic life answers. 

Yet at a third church between two geologic faults, my aunt and uncle, Arlene and Andrew Leslie, formed a powerful ministry team together in this isolated church in this remote area. As the crow flies, the distance between their house and church was one mile, but one had to drive around the geologic faults, 7 miles, to reach the one room church.  

Today there are still simple churches dotted across on the Navajo reservation today which inspire hope in a stormy land.

In some classrooms, Indigenous preachers may be trained to wash one's hands of their God given traditions. 

By what process did they become the pillars of faith elders?  Maybe their testimony was full of the faith that comes from conduit of ancient Navajo (Dine) traditions that represented dualities in the world, good and evil, day and night, sky and earth, honest and dishonest and function and dysfunction. Despite the persistent and pervasive forces of acculturation, this richness has endured to the present-day reservation churches.

But if we think about the future of the Church, we must consider the possible obstacles that could threaten Indigenous Christian’s very existence when America needs us.  

I think of hundreds of young Indigenous people trained in white academic colonial institutions, who have been instructed to be suspicious of the faith that the shadowy past has taught us. Some are encouraged to view the simple faith of their parents as unlearned and unsophisticated, worthy of dismissal. Others are taught to disregard the apocracy of Americans and their history, viewing the Bible as nothing more than the tools of white hegemony.

Too often institutions provide platforms to Indigenous voices to make them the voice of the Indigenous church because it suits their aims and agendas. For instance, in some of our conservative seminaries and Bible Schools, Indigenous preachers may get a strong handle on the Bible, but they can leave with a weak hold on the authenticity of their own traditional teaching. In some classrooms, Indigenous preachers may be trained to wash one's hands of their God given traditions. 

I have seen many young Indigenous people training for ministry and they are not fully equipped by training in these spaces.

The difference is that we’ve come to see Jesus and his power to sustain and flourish us from the margins

The danger is that in hegemonic institutions, the Indigenous church can become White in ethos, in expression or in its interpretation of Christ. No greater threat to the witness of truth exists than a scenario in which the Indigenous church becomes a captive of white enlightenment which could lead to paternalism with a benevolent accent.  The truth is the Indigenous church is not an exemplification of America churches and will never fit neatly in a Western model.

The Indigenous church brings to the collective table an application of Scripture not as a tool of oppression rather we apply Scripture as God’s rule for our liberty and living. The difference is in how our social ethic is rooted in both righteousness and justice, not either righteousness or justice.

In fact, a testimony of living in liberty are the three stories from the ministry leaders found in the beginning of this article.  All were former alcoholics - including this writer.  

The difference is that we’ve come to see Jesus and his power to sustain and flourish us from the margins without the benefit of large donors in comfortable cloistered suburbs.  The Indigenous church has thrived, using fervent itinerant pastors, preserving the wisdom of elders, feeling the hungry, having evangelical meetings, VBS, faith formation, in a rural church usually heated by a warmed wood fire stove, distributing lightly used clothes and toys, can foods, providing a space for healing community and benevolence.  This faithfulness and proclamation of an enduring hope is a sign as to the outlook of the Indigenous church, traditional or nontraditional.

I see the Indigenous church as a means of hope.

Yes, we have our iniquities. We too often settle for tribal government programs, and not being self-supporting, self-propagation and self-theologizing. We don’t do advocacy around the crisis of addiction and mental illnesses and missing Indigenous women, we have not always honored our women's devotion and their service as well. There is much to rectify, but there is also beauty and endurance, resilience and strength to offer amid the shards of our shortcomings.

Therefore, I see the Indigenous church as a means of hope. America needs the Indigenous church for its own survival because the Indigenous church remains the prophetic and the creation-focused spirituality conscience of the land. There are many broken treaties in the US , America has moved the ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors. We need Indigenous church prayers for a healing of our lands and people.

America finds itself at another reckoning moment. Recent Census Data suggests the nation’s population of young minorities is growing and the old ethnic mainstream is lessening in number.  White America would like to develop and maintain a white racial and national identity again. Some churches have even warmed to Kinist ideas.*  

America needs the pathos of Indigenous people and their messages to all nations and cultures that have a prophetic knowledge of the consequences of living out of balance with prayers, spirituality, and nature. The Indigenous peoples of the world have seen and spoken to you about the destruction of our lives and the earth, and the danger of placing material possessions and physical comfort above spiritual values. Indigenous people speak to the ruination of right relationships with the world around us within a way that sees humanity as an integral part of it unless we have hope to change. 

The Christian faith is a creation-centered spirituality. A song for us to live every day with prayer and love, in harmony with all our surroundings in a way that sees humanity as a liturgy dance that represents a communal response to participate in the sacred praise and thanksgiving. 

*Kinism is rooted in the belief that God designed each race to be separate from every other race. The Kinism ideology takes Old Testament verses; Ezra 6:21, Nehemiah 13:3 and other theology.  Synod 2019 declared kinism a heresy.  

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.