Native People and Evangelism

Native People and Evangelism
Cynthia Kent embraces her niece, Mara Jade Marshall. Photo by Cassandra M. Zampini.

Just putting together the words Native people and evangelism prompts a conversation. Evangelism to and with Native people has been and continues to be a hard journey. There are too many urban legends and actual stories that make this a roller coaster ride. My own spiritual journey is one of those rides.

I’ve been told that if I wanted to be a Christian, I would have to turn from my Ute ways. I was not to live in the past. If I only knew then what I know now, my journey would have been different. But in a way, I am glad I took the path I did. I think my path is like many other Native Christians, a story of faith and culture.

There were many Native people just like me that had to make the decision, Do I want to be Christian or Native? Ancestors who took that step to become a Christian and to leave their Native ways helped me to start my journey. Where did the steps of our relatives take them?

They were welcomed into the church to be a part of a fellowship. Some of them were given leadership roles, but others, at times, were there to represent the success of Christian evangelism.

Native people, considered heathens, had given up their Gods. There they were, Native people coming to church. They represented the “saved,” but were also seen as conquered people whose lands and cultures would be removed from them.

Native people would be placed in schools to make them “white.” This leads to the question, What is the intent of evangelism?

Is evangelism sharing the word of God with people so that they live their lives in accordance with God’s teachings? Is evangelism a tool once used to change a person from what God has made them to be into someone else for a hidden purpose? Is that kind of evangelism still happening today?

Early Native Christians struggled and made hard decisions during conversion. If they did become Christians, a majority lost contact with people in their own communities. Others worked hard at balancing their relationships with their Native communities and the church, at times, not sure where they belonged.

As I look at evangelism today, we need ask ourselves, Why are we doing this? Are we sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and letting people make a choice to live according to the Word of God? Or is there an alternative motive to make them Christians like us?

We are a second generation, and in some cases more, removed from the first Native Christians. Native people today live in the white world so we do not need to be made into white people. Native people will choose to follow only our Native ways, to be a Christian or to do both, which is contrary to what some missionaries told us.

Like the hymn, “Just As I Am,” Native people come to Christ as they are, bringing their heritage and culture into church.

As we do evangelism with Native people in the United States and with indigenous people around the world, we must be respectful of their cultures. People want to be what God made them. Future evangelism should be a respectful sharing of the Gospel.

Children of today’s Native Christians are watching how God relates to their parents. They will be comfortable living a Christian and traditional life, and they will expect to hear preaching of the Word of God as an individual and no longer as a “heathen” who needs to be saved.

My spiritual journey is about the heart of a Native woman who has a personal relationship with Jesus and is also proud of her tribal heritage and culture.

Cynthia Kent is former staff of the United Methodist General Board of
Global Ministries. Ms. Kent is a frequent study leader at United Methodist Women’s Schools of Christian Mission.

Posted or updated: 3/31/2010 11:00:00 PM