For all of us (and you) busy with our day-to-day work and service for the Lord, it’s important to stand back and take a look at the “big picture.”
When we in NCEM do that, we’re reminded again that we’re but one of several ministries God has raised up within the past 60-or-so years to reach Canada’s First Peoples with the Gospel. We’re really part of something that began much earlier … and something that is building for the future.
In August (2007) our workers met for four days of teaching and fellowship with nine other *IMCO missions, and other evangelicals involved in Native ministry. The following is adapted from an article presented by IMCO Administrator, Dan Woodard. It’s a concise and very intriguing account of God’s sovereignty, and our responsibility. — ed.
David Thompson was putting what is now western Canada on the map — literally. His love for the outdoors and his surveying skills combined in a calling to explore the mountain ranges of the northwest, drawing maps as he went. He took his Indian wife and 13 children everywhere he went.
The greatest love of David Thompson’s life was Jesus Christ. Everywhere he and his family walked and canoed, he would tell the story of Jesus’ love, planting seeds in the hearts and minds of many Indian people, that their Creator sent His Son to be their sacrifice for sin.
This year, 1807, he surveyed the homelands of the Flathead Indians of what is now southern Alberta and northern Montana. David noted in his memoirs that his stories of Jesus excited the entire tribe. These people were on a search for truth, a search that would culminate 25 years later in one of the most riveting speeches a Native Indian man has ever made!
Flathead Indian Rabbit Skin Leggings and three other men decided to make the treacherous trip from their homeland to Saint Louis Post (now St. Louis, Missouri) to find what David Thompson had referred to as the Book of Heaven. After walking 1600 miles they were greeted by General William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition), then ushered to the priest with their request. They were received with the greatest hospitality and shown pictures of the Virgin Mary and of the saints, but they were steadily denied their oft-repeated request for the Bible.
Their journey had been so exhausting that two of these Native men died from their hardships. The other two after a time became discouraged and prepared to return to their far-off home. Just before leaving the city a feast was prepared, speeches were made, and the general and others bid them God-speed on their journey. During the addresses at the close of the feast Rabbit Skin Leggings was asked to respond. He spoke with conviction and grave disappointment:
“We came to you over the trail of many moons from the land of the setting sun beyond the great mountains … we came with an eye partly open for our people who sit in darkness; we go back with our eyes closed.
“We made our way to you with strong arms through many enemies and strange lands, that we might carry back much to them. We go back with our arms empty … Our people sent us to get the white man’s Book of Heaven … You took us where they worship the Great Spirit with candles, but the Book was not there. You showed us images of the good spirits and pictures of the good land beyond, but the Book was not among them to tell us the way.
“We are going back the long, sad trail to our people of the dark land. You make our feet heavy with gifts, and our moccasins will grow old and our arms tire in carrying them, yet the Book is not among them. When we tell our people after one more snow in the big council that we did not bring the Book, no word will be spoken by our elders or our young men. One by one they will go out in silence. Our people will die in darkness … they will have no white man’s Book to make the way plain. I have no more words.”
Word of this speech spread quickly. In a few years numerous missionaries from northeastern US and England began coming west to tell the story of Jesus and the life He offers. One of them, James Evans, invented the Cree syllabics and began translating white man’s Book of Heaven into Cree. By 1857 the Cree Bible translation was completed! A missions movement was well underway among Native people from lands that are now Quebec to Alberta. Family devotions became a widespread tradition. Literally thousands of Indian families burned the fetishes of their traditional spiritism and embraced the Gospel of God’s grace. New believers were discipled. Churches were established.
Sadly, the memories of the life that Jesus gave their parents and grandparents began to fade. Gaps in missions strategy resulted in fewer and fewer Native men becoming equipped to pastor their churches. The baton of Native Christian leadership was not being passed from second generation to the third.
With the founding of the Dominion of Canada (1867) and the Indian Act of Canada (1876) came a major blow to Native dignity. According to the Indian Act, the definition of personhood was the absence of Native heritage!
Darwinism and liberal theology were infiltrating colleges and seminaries that had been producing evangelical missionaries committed to the inspiration of Scripture, evangelism, discipleship and church planting.
This downward spiral of Native missions and church life became even more dismal when the Canadian government began requiring (by law) Native children to leave their parents and attend residential schools. Mainstream mission policy reinforced this by providing staff for the schools. Many of these schools became known for their stories of abuse.
Christianity among Aboriginal people across Canada reached the lowest point yet. This year you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of missionaries telling the love of Jesus and teaching the Bible among Native peoples. You could possibly count on the fingers of your other hand the number of Native people in Canada who were known born again Christians.
Spiritual darkness ruled the North once again. The revival stories of the latter 1800s were only a memory of the grandparents.
By now the light of God’s grace was once again shining beams in a few communities across central Canada. A couple of missions were started. The remote community of Weagamow Lake (ON) had recently experienced a major spiritual awakening with the majority of the community accepting the life that Jesus offers. “Has Jesus given you life yet?” was the question they asked one another as they visited in their homes.
The Good News spread. Native men emerged as leaders of their fellowships. Eventually a group of Native pastors birthed a larger fellowship of Native churches that were springing up across Canada — the Native Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (NEFC).
Along with the efforts of a few denominations, by now there were 10 interdenominational evangelical missions across Canada that had covenanted to partner together to reach Native peoples in North America with the Gospel, toward the establishment of a strong and reproductive Native church.
The partnership was known as *IMCO — Inter-Mission Cooperative Outreach. These mission agencies had about 700 missionaries committed to evangelism, discipleship, and leadership development for the churches being established in Native communities and urban centers across Canada, Alaska, and parts of the US and Mexico.
The NEFC was in the process of passing the baton from its first generation to its second. Every year hundreds of Native people were accepting the life that Jesus offers.
Today, a full 200 years after explorer David Thompson first shared the story of Jesus’ love with the Flatheads, there are probably some 100,000 Native people across North America who’ve accepted the life that Jesus offers.
This is the 21st century. We’re living in post-colonial times! Colonized people around the world are assuming their Indigenous people’s identity, independence, and self-governance. This is of God.
Native Christian leadership increasingly recognize their God-given responsibility to initiate ministry, partner strategically and “go for it!” First Nations leadership is pioneering new structures to equip leaders to more effectively reach the exploding First Nations population.
IMCO leadership is transitioning to at least 50% Indigenous leadership representation around the IMCO table. Together IMCO is committed to adjusting our methodology while remaining firm in our passion for the spread of the life Jesus Christ offers.
And this time, by God’s grace, we are partnering together to prevent the baton being dropped again between the second and third generations. Amen.
Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #501). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our NCEM missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.