A dust covered jeep winds its way down the barren, yet beautiful, two-lane road. Hitting a never-ending series of potholes, the car jostles and jumps. The missionary driving grabs a tighter hold on the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white as he attempts to keep his trusty car on the road while also protecting his body from the constant jerking.
The town, though it can hardly be called one, is nothing more than a speck on the map. An overlooked village with a haphazard grid of dirt roads and mismatched houses - small, pre-fabricated houses that sometimes house extended families vying for space and resources. A dilapidated old mill stands on the edge of town, a reminder of an effort to pull the community out of poverty, now overrun with grass and dust.
This is a community in need of hope. This is a community in need of Christ. It is exactly what this missionary was trained for – what he was called for – spreading the Word to a non-believing culture.
He will fill his day visiting houses, making connections, and building relationships.
Thousands of miles away
The warm, salty sea air blows through a bustling town as another missionary walks out the sliding grocery doors, his arms weighed down with bulging bags of groceries: food and necessities that he will spend the day delivering into the hands of the city’s vast and growing homeless population with a kind smile and a word of encouragement.
These are not missionaries serving in exotic, far-off places. They are missionaries serving on rural Indian Reservations and in cities, reaching out to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians with the love and hope of Jesus Christ.
Native Ministry IS International Ministry
Even though they serve in the United States, American-based missionaries face the same struggles as international missionaries. They meet daily with groups and individuals whose belief system and history are strikingly different than that of the typical European-Christian descendant. The stories of their youth speak of Sun Father (Navajo) and Kane (Hawaiian) – both creators and givers of life. Their ancestors were connected to the land and held family above all else.
Many still hold to the beliefs taught to them by their grandparents, while others are returning to a culture that was lost to their family when the residential schools sought to "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." History dealt them a bad hand. Colonialism broke their families and communities, and destroyed their way of life. Whether connected to their ancestors or not, many Native Americans are searching for something to fill the void in their lives. Lutheran Indian Ministries staff, with other Native ministries, work to fill that void with the help of the Holy Spirit.
But, no two tribes have the same exact cultural or historical background. Where one tribe may have been pushed from their homes and moved hundreds of miles to a desolate piece of land; others still live in the land of their ancestors. One tribe may have suffered terribly at the hands of religious men and women; while others have peacefully incorporated Christianity into their belief system. Therefore, outreach to Native peoples requires language, cultural, and historical studies in order to connect to individual tribes and communities.
Just like international missions, Native ministry is really hard.
“The stories we tell outsiders,” explains Robin Santos (Tohono O’odham), staff at the Haskell LIGHT House, “those are the victory stories. But the process is really hard. We never seem to share the failures or the works in progress, but most of the people we serve – that’s where they are.”
At a conference for international missions, D. Ray Davis, an associate director for mission work in southern Africa said:
"There is a thief stalking our continent. The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. But ... [Jesus] came that they may have life and might have it abundantly. Until he comes, we must go."
Davis was speaking of the communties he saw in Africa, but the same could be said of Native communities in the United States and Canada.
Years of trauma have led the Native peoples to a place of hopelessness and despair. Physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug use, and suicide are rampant among Native groups.
But there is hope!
Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the cure for hopelessness, and we are his hands and feet on earth. As individuals, groups, and churches, we can make a difference in the lives of Native people.
We will proclaim, disciple, and heal.
Sidenote: our own Tim Norton, who, prior to serving the Navajo people, served as a missionary in Africa, explained that, though similar, international and Native missions are not identical. There is less of a learning curve when it comes to Native ministry. Many Natives are bi-cultural ("European-ized" and Native) which makes it easier to relate and build relationships. Yet, a missionary still cannot walk into a Native community thinking, "They are American, just like me."
Just like any outreach, a missionary must be relationship-focused. Native ministry is a slow process that only comes from being patient and taking the time to get to know each individual.
Read more about the importance of building relationships in Native ministry: