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Bless God, Bless Others - Cruciform Worship

We welcome Dr. Kenny Wallace to the show.  Kenny is an African American Choctaw Pawnee from the United States living in Canada. He teaches nationally and internationally about multi-ethnic worship with his organization Kingdom Reflections Multi-Ethnic Worship Ministries and today he unpacks with us how multi-ethnic worship can shape our spiritual imaginations.  

The following is a transcript of Season 5 Episode 1 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well, hello, friends. Welcome to another episode of Do Justice. I’m your host, Chris Orme, and I am super privileged, as always. I feel like I say this for every episode, but would it be weird if I said today I mean it? I mean it every time. I mean it every time.

But I think you're in for a treat, Do listeners, because today we're really blessed to have Dr.

Kenny Wallace with us. Kenny is an African American Choctaw Pawnee from the United States living in Canada. He holds a doctorate in worship studies from the Robert E. Weber Institute for Worship studies with a focus on Christian contextualization of indigenous worship. We will unpack some of this as we go along. He teaches nationally and internationally about multi-ethnic worship with his organization Kingdom Reflections Multi-ethnic worship ministries. He is a hoop dancer in the way of Jesus, both at powwows and for the blanket exercise hosted by Kairos Canada. He is an avid bead worker. In fact, as we are talking right now. He is doing some bead work and I think that's just lovely and beautiful. And I maybe would like to take a look at it at the end of our conversation, if we could. He's also a certified ethno art specialist with the global ethnodoxology network. In spare time he runs a jewelry and essential oil business focused on holistic wellness. 

Kenny, that's a lot. Is there anything you don't do? but welcome. Why don't you unpack a little bit of that for us? Tell us you know in your own words, who you are, and what do you do?

Kenny: It's so funny. I feel like I just live life but when you put it that way it sounds all pretentious. But yeah, I just love to worship. I love to worship the Lord, and the fullness of what that looks like right. And so I start with who he's created me to be as an African American Choctaw pawnee male, in the gifts that he's given me in each of those specific identifying factors. You know he has created me marvelously and uniquely right? “We know this full well,” it says in the Psalms.

And then I love to use the arts, right? I love to use my hands to create. There's something about putting things together and so studying how people do that around the world, getting to see different expressions of our faith to God and then for me putting that into my artwork. And then allowing people to wear that. I say, “wear it with pride. You're wearing the story; you're wearing your worship.” 

Chris:  I love it. Like that's a pretty vivid picture. And for this season of the podcast—we are the Do Justice podcast. We like to talk about all things justice. And I think, for the follower of Christ, worship is a huge piece of what we do. And we're really looking at this season at the nexus of worship and justice, and what that looks like. And worship incorporates a lot of the arts right? There's a lot of big pieces of sort of the artistic realm that, you know, if there's a venn diagram of worship and the arts like it's somewhere right in the middle, right?

But there's something about you that is super unique. And you know we said in your bio that you're a hoop dancer. Tell us more about hoop dancing and tell us a little bit about how you got started in hoop dancing.

Kenny: Yeah. Yeah. So I guess it starts back in 2008. I was at a justice conference—justice and theology conference in Princeton. I was helping to lead worship there, and Dr. Richard Twist was there. He’s walked on now, but he was a Lakota Elder and I was asking permission to be able to sing a song, an indigenous worship song, and he was asking me my story. Indigenous elders that have to do that. They don't just give you a straight answer. There's just always a story there, right?

So, I was telling him my story about my mixed heritage and whatnot, and he said, “You know what? You need to press into your heritage, into the fullness of who you are.” He literally placed his head on my head, and he said,  “I bless you to press into the fullness of who you are, because this contextualization movement” right, like that thing we were talking about, “needs people that look like you. And so go and learn as much as you can.”

So I started doing that. And as I began to do that, the Lord began to give me visions. And so at one point I was sitting in worship at our church on Sunday, and the Lord gave me this vision of dancing with these hoops. They look like hula hoops but they were a little smaller, and I was weaving them around my body and I was wearing this regalia. And at this point I didn't do anything I didn't do anything. I didn't have any regalia and so I was like “man, this is this kind of wild!”

So I went to one of my professors at the time. And I explained what I had seen and he said, “Well, Kenny, when the Lord gives you a vision, you just stay as close to the vision as possible and let the Holy Spirit work out the details.”

And so I started making this regalia. And I started doing research. And lo and behold, I found out that there actually is a dance called the hoop dance. And so I began learning from various elders that were proficient in hoop dance, much better than I. And I just began with one hoop, and then I added another and another.

And what happens is, it was initially a healing dance—intercessory prayer but in the form of dance. And then it became more of an exhibition type dance. It tells a story. And so as you're forming these shapes, you're creating animals or you're telling a story.

And for me as someone who walks in the way of Jesus, I tell the story of creation all the way through Jesus incarnate, right? Coming into the world.

And so I danced that in powwow and people have asked like, “there's something different about you. Like there's something special.” And I’m like “yes, that's the Holy Spirit.” And I get to tell the Gospel story in that way.

Chris: Wow! Do you go into it with like “this is the shape and this is the direction that I'm gonna go and kinda meet the Spirit there? Or is it just kind of like stepping, “I'm on a path. And wherever I'm being led to go in the moment.” How does that work? What's that process look like?

Kenny: Yeah, that's a good question. I think, for me, usually there is choreography because there's a skill in being able to link the hoops in a particular way to form different shapes. There have been times when someone has asked, “would you dance like in the moment?” And then that is very much like where the Spirit is leading.

So I got a chance to, up on the top of the mountain in Guatemala, to be able to dance for some of these war widows in the Ixil Triangle. And the story had to be contextualized for them because of their experience of trauma and grief. Because of the civil war that happened in Guatemala, the dance looked different. Right? The story looked different. The shapes looked different.

And then, when I dance for Kairos, like the blanket exercises here telling the history of indigenous folks through the Canadian context in Canadian history, that looks very different versus when I'm in powwow. But otherwise I would be dropping the hoops and getting all tangled up there in my shapes.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, like for me, I love to move. I profess no skill in dancing. Like I'm into music, I play music and stuff like that, and I do the typical bob up and down kind of thing. I just love to move and when I've actually been able to see some of your dances, it's beautiful, man. I’m in awe of what God is doing through you. Like it's just beautiful and I feel the story. So thanks for filling that in for us. That's awesome. Very clear.

So we are about to talk about multi-ethnic worship, and we're really into that nexus of justice and worship. What's important about our posture and the posture of churches you work with in order to be able to work towards multi-ethnic worship? If that's even like the phrase. Is that a good phrase for it? You know what I mean. Like if we start saying multi-ethnic worship are we—like that aside—but like I think we can all envision what we're talking about here. So what's that posture look like? 

Kenny: Yeah, Well, I think one of the first things I would say is that multi-ethnic worship is a means to an end, right? We're not working towards multi-ethnic worship. We're using multi-ethic worship to preach a message, that particular message, that God is bigger than the little box that we try to cram him into right? Or that his work in creating us uniquely is to set up his throne room to look a particular way. Or is it to bless the nations right?

One of the beautiful images that I always return to is the trees alongside the river in heaven, and the leaves are for the healing of the nations. So multi-ethnic worship in some sense are like those leaves right? We don't focus on the leaves, we focus on the throne.

So I think the posture that I always encourage churches to have is that there is space. And there is a message that you can't claim them corner on, by yourself. It's like a puzzle piece. If you have one puzzle piece, you can look at it and say, “well, that kind of looks like a hot air balloon, I guess?”

But you can't get the full picture until you put all of those pieces together. And then you get a clearer image of what it is. And so that's why I say we need to do multi-ethnic  worship. And it's not just about God but it's cruciform, like there's a vertical thing that happens. There's also a horizontal thing that happens as well, and relationship with each other when we worship this way. 

Chris: Okay, alright, I want to go deeper into that. I want to talk about that cruciform nature.

Kenny: Yeah. So when we worship, worship is about our response to God, right? So whether that's a joyful response because of the mighty works that he's done, or whether that's lament because of the brokenness and the injustice that we see around us: that's the vertical piece. But when we worship, particularly when we worship corporately, we are drawing closer to each other. We are living out the mystery of the gospel that Paul talks about in the Ephesians, that we are all one body. We are one in Christ, and that reality oftentimes is not expressed, or we act like it's not reality.

But when we worship together, particularly when we worship cross culturally, or in a multi-ethnic setting, then we are drawing together as a body of Christ. That's that horizontal piece as we are worshiping God, the vertical piece.

Chris: I love that. So let me press a little more on the posture piece. One more kind of dive into it. So at its best, at its peak perfection: what does it look like? I know that I know that's kind of—maybe it might be too out there. But like no holds barred, at its best what does that posture look like for a church that's like “Okay, We want to embark on this journey. We want to step into the stream. We don't wanna focus just on the leaves. We've got our eyes on the throne.” But like so at its best, super practical first step, what does a church need to do? What does a church need to look like in order to take a dip? You know what I'm saying?

Kenny: Yeah. And here's where the crossing with the justice piece comes in: what does right worship look like? Well, “God has told you, oh mortal one. Do justice, seek kindness, and walk humbly before your God.” And that's the posture we have to have. In fact, if you don't even have that posture, God’s  like “I don't want it. Don't even come. I hate your worship.” Right? 

And that shocks people. Sometimes they're like “well, what do you mean if we don't have this posture of humility? If we don't have this posture of loving our neighbor, whoever our neighbor is, God doesn't want it. What do you mean?”

It's right there. He's revealed it. In his Word he says my heart is that if you are not in a place to be able to do these three things, then don't even talk to me about singing songs in different languages, or proclaiming the Scripture in every tongue. I don't want it. It’s not worth it.

And so that's a hard call. It's a hard exhortation, but I think that a posture of humility and of love is huge, first and foremost, before all else. And then, it's bringing the fullness of who you are to the table. Right, I say—when I talk about racial reconciliation—I guess I say “it’s me being fully who I am and you being fully who you are at the table.” 

And so in the best case scenario, it means that everyone in the church is bringing their gifts into the community to bless each other and to bless the Lord, right? But we don't live like that right? It's them up there,  those professional people, doing it and then we're sitting back and just receiving. And if I don't like it, I'll go somewhere else. 

Chris: Yeah, man. You know, I don't wanna get to editorial here. But I think sometimes the packaging gets focused on before we kind of know what it is that we're trying to do. And I think we've all been there when the packaging—like I've picked stuff up, “man this looks amazing!

Then you get home, and it's like “aw, man. I was duped. I was duped!” So that is a challenging, strong word. But moving from the superficial is a hard process.

So, we talk about worship, and I think this is where we can get into more of a space of like, let's talk about our structures. Let's talk about how we can actually give shape to these spaces. But our thread for this season is—our conviction is that worship shapes our imagination. And we've seen and we've all been in corporate worship settings where our understanding of who God is, and what the world that God loves looks like has been  jarred and shaped. And I guess the question is in that setting, how can we shape our corporate worship so that it'll align our hearts or orient our hearts toward anti-racism? And to engage in a deep sense, in multi-ethnic worship? So that's a mouthful I know. But you know there's a lot there. 

Kenny: Yeah, so I think the word that comes to mind when I hear that question is holistic, right?

When God created people, he created them holistically. So let's create them in our image, male and female. Alright, this whole package deal. When he created creation he's like I'm gonna make this entire thing, and it is good.

When he starts to establish, even at the Tower of Babel—people think of that as like a punishment—but God was like “No, I have a vision for what my kingdom is gonna look like and that's gonna happen.” So even creating the various languages, that was good.

And so I think, if we orient our worship in a holistic manner, it trains our minds to think and to remember—that word that keeps coming back over and over again throughout Scripture—to remember who God is and his purpose.

And so think about our bodies. We are our sensing beings. We have five senses. How many of them do we use in worship? Maybe two? Maybe three, if you count communion, okay, cause you got your taste. But where is the sense of smell? Where's the sense of touch right?

Talk about creativity. Worship orients our imaginations. Allowing people to create in worship, that's a rare thing. But the beauty that can come out of that, the corporate expression of honoring God, of loving our neighbor, of telling the story. When you are corporately creating it’s a beautiful thing. 

I had the chance to be a part of a community of practice, actually through the CRC. It's an amazing group of people, urban practitioners that are doing this kind of Christian community development work and worshiping at the same time. And in this gathering, where we were together just recently, we created a communal piece of bead work during our worship service on that Sunday morning. And as we are putting our emotions, as we're putting our stories, as we're putting our reflections of the experience that we had that week together, when you stand back and look at it, altogether it creates a more beautiful picture than if we just sang songs or we read Scripture passages. 

And it honors the fact that I am an African American Choctaw Pawnee using this art form that came from my people. right that my Dutch sister—I'm like how did I end up with this group of people? You're all awesome—but like they're able to share in who I am. That shows love to me. And that is an expression of who Jesus is. In fact, he says that's why you're supposed to love one another. 

We're just not intentional in our worship, right? Like what we're doing matters, right? 

Chris: Okay let's stick with that then. Because I've been in pastoral ministry. I've been a worship leader. I've been in those settings, and I know a lot of our listeners have too. You come from that space as well, that's who you are, what you do. It's awesome. It can be beautiful. But where we are being invited to go, that place—this is such a compelling invitation, the way that you paint that picture. I'm like “I want to go to there. I want to be there now. But I'm thinking in the back of my mind, like going back to my practitioner hat, I'm like, “what if it doesn't work”—it takes a certain amount of courage. So for you, where does that courage come from?

Kenny: I have to say the Holy Spirit, because in my own personality and in my own life, I don't like to fail. In fact, full transparency. I will usually quit before I fail, because I don't like to fail. And I can't tell you the number of times that I've tried something in terms of leading people in this way, and it has failed. But what happens over and over again is God says “it's okay. It's okay. This was for me, and maybe they're not there yet. But you keep walking and keeping faithful.” And I get that strength.

I also find that I live by the principle—this gets me in trouble sometimes—but the principle of “do it, and then ask for forgiveness later.”

Chris: amen. Come on!

Kenny: Because that same fear that's in me is the same fear that's usually in the leadership that's around me, right? “Oh, man, what if it fails? What if someone gets agitated? What if someone is not happy?” 

And I hate to say—but going back to the justice thing—it comes down to the money. If you scare them away, then they'll take their tithes, and then we won't have the money. No one will say that verbally but we're all thinking it.

But what I found is when we take that risk and someone is blessed when we take that risk, and then we sing a song in Mandinka. And then someone who actually is from that tribe comes up later and is like “hey,  I'm actually from there.” Or “I didn't know that I could pray in my own language. Like, it's okay for me to be able to pray in Zulu?” That's worth it. It's worth pushing through the fear. And sometimes you will lose folks. There will be people that are angry. But then that gives you the opportunity also to preach the gospel. “Why are you angry? God loves these people and You're supposed to love these people. And you are being blessed by this as well.” 

And so taking that risk is—I would say—it's more than just worth it. It's the command of God. Going back to Revelation, and I think it's chapter 21 where he's saying all of the kings of the earth, and all of the nations bring their glories—that word is “doxa,” that's “worship”—they all bring their worship into the throne room as tribute to the king. Right? That means you have to do it. You don't get a choice. But we act like It's an add-on that we can do instead of the actual character and part and parcel of worship.

Chris: Right. Oh, man, again! Another just vivid, very colorful picture that you've painted for us.

I think too—that's the Holy Spirit like. Just follow the Spirit. It'll be okay. “But what if it's not okay?” Well, that'll be okay, too. Don't pretend that you have it figured out man. It's okay, just go.

But I think there's something, too, about community. There's something too about togetherness.

Like I feel even now like talking to you, I'm thinking of church coming up this week. And how, you know, “Kenny said this. I think I'm gonna…” My brother, you are a pure expression of God's grace to me in, this moment. And I think we have those people in our lives, too, that we can walk alongside.

And sometimes the courage—yeah definitely the Holy Spirit is drawing us—but sometimes I also need to see someone doing it. I need to see it.  I'm a disciple. I'm wired as a disciple. I like to look at Jesus and see the stuff that Jesus does. I like to look at Jesus-y people and see the things that they're doing. And so I think we work it out in community, too, right?

Kenny: Yeah, absolutely. I think so. Every church community has what I call hidden treasures. 

They have these gems in their community. I bet if you got up this Sunday and you said, “is there anyone out there who is an artist?” Someone will raise their hand. “We need you in worship.

Come. Come and help me to enliven my creative imagination in how to use the arts in worship.”

Those people that you're looking for—like I love to be that for people, that's only who I am—but they're in your community, whatever your community is. But they're hidden, because we've created this pre-packaged expression of what corporate worship is supposed to be. And so people don't feel free to walk in that creativity, if that makes sense.

And so the other thing, too, is there's this image that I use of a rubber band. And you, if you just go out and you start doing all this crazy stuff is like “well, Kenny said,” you can stretch that rubber band so far that it snaps. And being pastoral, we don't want to do that right? You have to know your community. So what are the small risks that you can take to stretch them just a little bit, just enough, just past the point of them being comfortable, but not so far that they stretch and walk away from the faith. 

We don't want that. And so you're right. There is a balance. But that community—tap into those hidden treasures, those gems in your own community.

Chris: It's funny oftentimes—it just made me think of this, Kenny, what you just said. Isn't it funny how we've talked in the show or in the podcast about how there's that prophetic aspect of doing justice. And practitioners in this arena tend to be walking prophetically out ahead. Or even behind, pushing, you know, dragging people, right? But you can get too far ahead. And like I've said to folks before, like, “hey, you aren't the gatekeeper of all things justice. You didn't invent this. You discovered it. Make sure you're a conduit.” The elastic thing yeah it really clicks on that. 

Kenny: some people much wiser than I said, “if you're walking in everyone's following you you're a leader. But if you get too far ahead you're just a stranger who's lost.” 

Chris: Right? Where'd everybody go? I thought we were doing good here.”  Okay, so I really want to end our time together with this. I want to hear a story from you. You've painted, like I said, these vivid pictures of just beautiful moments. So can you tell us about a time when you were overwhelmed with the beauty of many nations coming together in worship? That sort of Revelation

Chapter seven kind of image of just everything bleeding into one? Like has there been a time where you are just totally overwhelmed by that beauty?

Kenny: Yeah, absolutely. So it was December, probably December 31st around that time of 2000, no, 2001. I was at Urbana, the Global Missions Conference. This is when it was still in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. And I was a freshman, my first year at university. And my campus minister invited me to go. He was like “God's doing something awesome.” Me being one of only a few people of color in my chapters, my worshiping community, so he’s like “God is doing something amazing. We need you!”  And so I went to this conference. I didn't know what I was getting into and I'm sitting in this arena with like, 50,000 people. It was crazy. These missionaries are getting up there telling these really deep stories. And I'm like yeah, “this is great. This is good. This is good.”

But then the drum started. And this group, Broken Walls who is from Canada, Jonathan Maracle who's Mohawk man came out with his group, and they were playing the drum. And Robert Soto—who ended up being one of my elders in terms of hoop dancing, but he wasn't hoop dancing at the time he was, he was fancy dancing—he came out in his full regalia and he told the story about how he became a Christian. 

And this little white woman came up to him and said “that's great that you're dancing. But I know how to make your dance better.” And he goes “How? Tell me how to make my dance better.”

She said, “if you were dancing for Jesus. If you dance for Jesus.”

And so, as the drum started going, he began to dance for Jesus on the stage in his full regalia.

The feathers were going and his bustles were going. And then they shut off the lights, and the black lights came on. And it was glowing, like his feathers were glowing. And the entire stadium was just kind of lit up with this hue, this kind of blue glow of people from every tribe, tongue and nation, worshiping with this Indigenous man who is being fully who he was.

And it was in that moment that the Lord spoke to my heart and said, “this is what you'll be doing for the rest of your life.” And this was long before I began to walk in my Indigenous heritage. He was like “this is what you're gonna be doing, helping people to worship in the fullness of who they are.” 

And I was just floored. I was like “this is what the throne room looks like. This is Revelation 7, right here. Every tribe, tongue and nation around me, worshiping the Creator.”

Oh, man! And it changed the trajectory of my life. It really did. I was gonna be a chemical engineer.

I was gonna make a lot of money. I'm a long way away from that now!

Chris: Kenny, I'm glad you didn't. I'm glad you didn't, as I sit here with the goosebumps from what you just described. Kenny, where can people keep up with all that you're doing? How can people get connected with the work that you're doing and check you out?

Kenny: Yeah. We're on Facebook. We're on Instagram: Kingdom Reflections Multi-ethnic Worship Ministries. The healing work that I'm doing with my wife—which has been a huge part of our recent life—is Wallace and Wallace Healing Center. Same thing on both Facebook and Instagram. I haven't quite gotten hip, to like Tiktok and Twitter. I can't keep up with all that. But you can find us on Facebook and Instagram. And just reach out, say hello, and I'd be willing to chat with anybody.

Chris: Awesome, Kenny. Thanks for joining us. Folks, our guest today, Dr. Kenneth Wallace. What a privilege. Will you come back sometime and hang out again?

Kenny: I’d love to.

Chris: awesome. Thanks man. God bless you.

Kenny: Blessings.


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