As a long-term NCEM field missionary, I feel blessed to have many friends who are First Nations followers of Christ. Lately I’ve been struck by their incredible courage, faith and strength. Sometimes I wonder, if I was in their shoes, would I even follow Christ? And if I did, how victoriously would I live? Many First Nations believers are paying a high price to serve Christ Jesus; and they are of great value to God’s Kingdom at large.
First Nations Christians pay much more to follow Jesus than I’ve ever had to pay. I see it in three main areas. First, many have their identity attacked. Secondly, they experience the extra pressure that comes with being functional families in a society with many that are dysfunctional. And, thirdly, their faith has survived a residential school experience.
When Native people surrender their lives to Christ, for many their identity is called into question. They are oftentimes accused of becoming “white.” Their loyalty to their own people is doubted, and they may be emotionally ostracized from their community. For such relational people, this has to be incredibly painful.
A few years back, when I was conducting a study and interviewing Cree people about their reaction to the Gospel, one reason for rejecting a relationship with Christ was mentioned more than any other. It was that it would set them apart from their friends and family, and that price was too high for them. I have felt out of place and unwelcomed because of my faith in Christ, but I have never lost my family and close friends because of my connection with Jesus.
It costs them to be identified with white missionaries. Their relationships with us further the perception of forsaking their Native connections for nonNative ones. I am very thankful for the Native Christian friends I have, and the emotional sacrifices they have made to be my friends.
One family has invited us over for many holiday meals, and for family events such as birthdays. They are unashamed to have us there along with their siblings, parents and cousins … not to mention the financial and time cost of feeding 20-plus, and then also including our family. I think of hosting something like that as a strenuous undertaking, but they do it with frequency and apparent ease.
Native believers have been a spiritual support to us. Awhile ago one of our sons was going through a crisis of faith. With one phone call, and within a few minutes, there were five Christian Native men sitting at our kitchen table counseling and praying for him!
For years I have been distributing culturally-relevant Christian literature to the many Native agency offices and schools in our city. Inside the papers I include a flyer advertizing the Native church that our family attends.
One particular agency, after a change of administration, communicated to me that I was going to have to stop, and that there would be consequences for me and my church for having brought the literature, even though I had been given permission by an employee of the agency.
That’s when I realized that I had been distributing these flyers without first asking permission from my church leaders. My first reaction was to protect these relatively young Native church elders by setting myself apart from them. But I had to tell them what had happened, as they were going to suffer because of my practice.
I expected reprimand — instead I got support! They not only stood with me, but took over the battle for me, and dealt with the agency at their own peril. To this day I am moved when I think of how they were willing to pay the price to be associated with me.
I’ve also become aware of how much it costs to be a functional family in a society where many are dysfunctional. When Native people become followers of Christ and allow Him to change their lives, their families become more stable and whole. But there is a cost to being so.
One couple came to Christ, were baptized and married in the Native church they had begun attending. Addictions were dealt with. After completing his schooling, the husband began to work, and that is when his past caught up with him.
Previously, as part of his drinking lifestyle, he had been sexually promiscuous and fathered children with various women. They had never claimed him as the father of their children. What was the point? … he was of no benefit to them in his state. But now that he was getting his life together, they came forward, claiming him as the father of their children and wanting child support.
I’m not saying that he should not have taken responsibility. But it became a great strain on his wife emotionally, and on his young family financially, as they were just getting established. To have this onslaught on their resources and on their nuclear family was a high cost in choosing to live for Christ.
Another couple got saved and has had Christ change their lives. As a stable home in the midst of many relatives with addictions and other destructive problems, their home has become a safe haven for extended family. At various times they have nephews, uncles, parents and cousins staying with their nuclear family. They freely welcome them in, even though it makes the home very busy, and there are added financial demands. They want their relatives to be looked after, and they don’t resent that it’s them who does the work of caring.
It seems to me that a high percentage of Native Christian families take in foster children. There is a big demand for stable homes free of substance abuse, and Native Christians seem to take up care of the whole community with large hearts. I remember one Sunday, while her husband was away, a woman got four of her own children and six foster children ready and to church on time (I can’t say I could pull that off!). With many Native Christian families fostering, the church is sometimes full of children. That makes for a lot of activity during meetings!
The news media has helped bring awareness of atrocities associated with government authorized church-run residential schools. I have been in awe of those brave ones who have come through such abuses and still have a faith in Jesus Christ. As children, our first experiences are cemented into our minds and hearts. To have the first person who tells you of Jesus be the same person to rape you, beat you, and rip you from your family, would permanently scar your soul.
Many brave and insightful Native Christians have shown incredible courage and wisdom as they sort through the inconsistencies of the actions and the words. Instead of cringing at the name of Christ, they have embraced Him. They have sifted through the lies and hypocrisy, and hung on to the truth of Jesus Himself. They have remembered with fondness the school staff who did treat them as Christ wanted. I’m not sure I would be capable of such graciousness and mental strength.
Not only do First Nations believers pay a high price to follow Christ, but they are also a great asset to His worldwide kingdom. For one thing, they teach the rest of the North American church how to keep God’s emphasis on relationship instead of possessions. They also have a greater potential for spreading the Gospel to the majority of the world because of their history and culture.
I’ve already mentioned that First Nations people are very relational. Although there is movement towards materialism in Native societies, too, I believe that particular human sin finds less of a home in such a relational and generous culture. I repeatedly find myself amazed at the giving nature of these people.
One couple gave themselves to Jesus Christ. Prior to their salvation they had been involved in gambling and, as a result, had lost their vehicle. Another Native Christian family lent them their car for months. That act of generosity made them feel as if they had friends for the first time in their lives (who weren’t related).
When someone asks to use our vehicle, I can hardly bring myself to allow it, yet our First Nations Christian friends exchange and lend vehicles as if it is nothing. When a group of us are together at an event and an errand has to be run, it doesn’t seem to matter who takes whose vehicle. Their loose hold on material possessions and high value on relationship is an example to their nonNative Christian brothers and sisters.
Historically and culturally, First Nations Christians are better able to relate and identify with the majority of the people in the world than are white missionaries. As a result, they have the potential to be more effective in ministering the Gospel.
The relational nature of First Nations people is similar to tribal groups worldwide, as is their view of the spirit world. Their history of oral rather than written communication, and emphasis on teaching by modeling rather than theorizing, makes them better able to communicate.
They have no history of colonialism to create barriers in missions. I have Native friends who have been short-term missionaries in Mexico, Peru, India, Philippines and South Africa. In each case the Native missionaries experienced almost instant acceptance, while white missionaries work hard and long to gain trust and credibility.
Born again Native Christians are a blessing to the world, to the North American church, to their communities and extended families, to NCEM … and to me! They should be acknowledged and given the praise that is due them.
Unfortunately, many communities still have very few, or sometimes no First Nations believers at all living in victory. Please pray, and consider serving with us, so that there would be many more. What a blessing they would be!
Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #504). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.