To learn more about One Church, Many Tribes, please read the introductory post. Be sure to peruse The Nightstand in that post, which has resources for those wanting to learn more about the topic and themes of this month’s selection.
I was a teenager on a high school mission trip when I first encountered the book One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You by Richard Twiss at an Anishinaabe cultural center near the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.
My Lutheran high school had been invited to lead a Vacation Bible School at a Full Gospel church just on the edge of the reservation several years earlier. I signed up not because I particularly liked kids or felt called to missions at the time, but because my family always has spent its summers near reservation land in northwestern Wisconsin. Growing up, I was interested in Anishinaabe culture and read widely about the people’s history, but knowing about something is one thing.
Knowing people, hearing their stories, being part of their lives – that’s another.
The cultural center isn’t there any more, but more than a dozen years later, our summer Hope Camp still is. That’s probably because we picked up One Church, Many Tribes there all those years ago, and while we’ve made plenty of mistakes, we’ve remained committed to its message and to constantly learning and doing better.
In the book, Twiss shares his story as a member of the Rosebud Lakota/Sioux and a follower of the Jesus Way to urge the dominant American church to recognize its need for the Native church and to treat Native Americans as equal partners, not as a mission field.
He also draws on the picture of the church as one body with many parts found in 1 Corinthians 12:
“God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
The Native church is suffering, Twiss said, and every part of the church is suffering for it.
“It may be difficult to hear or to accept, but I believe that because of clashing cultural worldviews, the Anglo expression of Christ and His kingdom has said to the Native expression of Christ and His kingdom, ‘I have no need of you. I don’t need your customs, your arts, your society, your language, concepts or perspectives,” he said.
Sometimes that’s subtle. How often do you see a Native American man or woman headline a Christian conference or gathering?
But often it has been overt. Twiss recounts a “history of bigotry and historical conquest,” of separating Native American people from their cultures. That includes church-run missions, government programs to relocate people from reservations to urban centers and boarding schools that took children from their families to teach them to “look, act and eventually think like their White counterparts,” he said.
He also shares his own story of wrestling with how to reconcile his faith with his Lakota identity after committing his life to Christ. He took his questions to a well-meaning white Christian, he remembered, who told him, “Richard, don’t worry about being Indian; just be like us.”
“Though he was perhaps unaware of it, essentially what he was saying was, ‘Forget your Indianness and embrace our white culture as the only Christian culture,’” he said.
Unfortunately, that attitude is not some relic of a distant past. It’s one I still hear, not only from believers who are white like I am, but also from Native Christians who have internalized the message after 500 years of missions.
On this side of heaven, as Twiss puts it, we all have cultural, national and personal preferences and biases. We all like to think those preferences and biases are normal and those who don’t share them, abnormal. We all like to think God shares the same preferences and biases as us.
But every culture “reflects to some degree the attributes of our Creator Himself,” he said. Every culture also, to some degree, has been stained by sin.
“When we come to Christ as First Nations people, Jesus does not ask us to abandon our sin-stained culture in order to embrace someone else’s sin-stained culture,” he said.
That’s the reason why, when my high school discontinued its summer trip, we created a nonprofit called Hope for the First Nations to continue Hope Camp on the reservation. It’s why we wrote into our statement of faith, “We believe that God hears the honest and sincere praises of His people, whether in a cathedral with organ music and quiet prayer or in an open field with drum music and joyous dancing.”
It’s the reason why we started partnering with our Anishinaabe friends throughout the year on the amazing things they already are doing in their communities, from volunteering at the school and in the community garden to serving dinner at powwow and helping pass out gifts at Christmas.
It’s what sent me back to school when I was elected president of Hope for the First Nations earlier this year, enrolling in the North American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies that Twiss had co-founded.
Reading One Church, Many Tribes was the beginning of the two conversions my professor Randy Woodley, a legal descendent of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and a friend of Twiss’, often references: “God expects two conversions out of every encounter, our conversion to the truth in their culture, and their conversion to the truth we bring to the encounter.”
There is truth and beauty in the Native part of the body of Christ, and the church needs it. Let’s embrace our need of one another. Let’s look for ways to give honor to this part of the body. And let’s rejoice as we walk the Jesus Way together, more fully able to see, hear and experience Christ.
- What did you learn from this book about Native American and other indigenous cultures and expressions of Christianity? How does this enrich your faith, whatever your culture?
- Can you think of a time a relationship with someone different from you helped you to see through another point of view?
- What tribes are native to the area where you live? How can you begin to build relationships and learn from them?
- Building relationships and becoming educated are good first steps. How else can we be agents of change in a system that continues the “history of bigotry and historical conquest” Twiss describes?
- What are your biggest takeaways?
Emily McFarlan Miller is an award-winning journalist and truth seeker based in Chicago. She became president of Hope for the First Nations, a nonprofit partnering with the people of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, earlier this year. Connect with her at emmillerwrites.com.
Our November book is Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles. Come back next Wednesday November 4 for the introduction to the book. The discussion post will be up Wednesday November 25. You can also join the Red Couch Facebook group for on-going discussion throughout the month. Stay tuned for the announcement of our 2016 book selections and a special link-up in December!