The letter read:
"If you have any ideas as to how I can handle my ‘problem,’ I am open to your suggestions. Your Brother in Christ, John”
The return address was from a correctional facility out east. The letter was handwritten on lined paper; the kind with three holes along the side and a red line margin that you might have used for a high school composition assignment once upon a time.
We occasionally get mail from Native American inmates. Usually, the writer tells us his life’s story or about his faith journey, but this man was asking for advice on a difficult question.
John, a member of the Seminole tribe, wrote:
“I am registered as an American Indian, but my religion is listed as Lutheran. If I want to participate in the Native American activities or classes, I have to change my religion. But, if I change my religion, I can’t participate in the Sunday worship or Bible study.
How can I be Lutheran and Native?”
Sadly, this question is one we are asked often in ministry with Native people.
For more than 500 years, Native Americans were told they can’t be both Christian and Native.
The Native culture, according to early missionaries, did not fit the Christian religion, and belief in the Gospel required them to give up who they were in order to become something they could never be… white.
Perhaps Carlisle Indian School founder, Capt. Richard H. Pratt, summed up this belief best:
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one... In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Only once the Indian part of a man had been purged could the saving grace of Jesus death and resurrection become available to him.
Lutheran Indian Ministries, through your prayers and gifts, works hard, every day, to dispel this aged, false teaching.
Still, this view of Christianity is alive and has been established as truth within many Native communities. This choice between whether to “be Native” or to be a “follower of Christ” still weighs heavily on many.
“The choice” is one of our greatest challenges as we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Native peoples, as Jesus has called us to do.
But, from great challenges comes great joy!
A friend of Lutheran Indian Ministries was asked recently to take part in a Lutheran church service, but he, too, struggled with “the choice.”
He struggled with his newfound faith in Jesus Christ. Standing with his drum, waiting to process into the sanctuary, he thought, “How can I be Native and Christian? How will this congregation react to our drumming and regalia? How can I be one of them and still be me?”
He had been invited, with a group of local Native people to share their faith and their stories, to share their drumming and their culture. Yet, he felt anxious.
The pastor announced his guests and the drum-beat echoed through the crowd.
In a solemn, humble, and worshipful movement, they entered the sanctuary honoring and praising their Savior, Jesus Christ, in the way they were taught by their ancestors. They honored the traditions of their people while worshipping their Holy Father from their inner-most being, with all their heart and all their mind and all their soul.
As he walked down the aisle, tears streamed down his face. The Holy Spirit guided him on and his heart softened. For the first time in his life, he felt free! He was free to be native and to be Christian, praising God with drumming and dancing. He was free to be who God had created him to be. At that moment, he knew and understood that Jesus Christ suffered, died, and was resurrected for his salvation, and he gave thanks to God.
“Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.”
It is in these moments we can all rejoice and thank God that He sent His Son, Jesus, for the salvation of ALL people. This is the message we returned to John, and the message we share daily with the Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people we encounter in this ministry.
Your gift enables us to proclaim the truth Native people need to hear: Jesus died for YOU just as you are!
Please prayerfully consider a gift to support God’s work among Native peoples.
Tim Young Eagle, CFRE (Pawnee)
Executive Director, Lutheran Indian Ministries