They have names like Killing Bear, Squirrel and Youngdeer, and they
have decidedly clung to many of the cultural characteristics passed down
through generations. And while their tribal culture is an indelible part of
their identity, some Native Americans and First Nations people are claiming a
new identity in a man by the name of Jesus Christ.
Merritt Youngdeer, pastor of Cherokee Baptist Church, ministers
on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina.
Merritt Youngdeer thought he had retired in 1997 after
working with the federal government for 31 years. Perhaps his work with the
Civil Service Corps and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was meant to prepare him
for the task he has now of delivering the gospel to the Cherokee people of
A Cherokee himself, he sees the native world as one community needy for,
among other things, the hope of Jesus Christ. He has always had his hand in
native affairswhether out west or back eastand retirement for him meant going
back to school and coming back home. He fits so comfortably into his role as
pastor of Cherokee Baptist Church, you wonder if he ever really left.
Of the 60 to 70 folks who show up regularly at the church, 80 percent are
Cherokee. While Merritt takes every opportunity possible to proclaim the gospel
and ground his congregation in Gods Word, some on the reservation have not
heard or dont acknowledge such a straightforward approach to salvation. Like
other Native American and First Nations tribes, among the Cherokee are many who
mix the traditional native spiritism of their ancestors with elements of
Killing Bear, a Cherokee, often wears the traditional regalia of
My view of Christ is of a being who descended in a cloud of smoke and taught
us how to care for the land and live in peace, says a man named Killing
Dressed in traditional Cherokee buckskin regalia, Killing Bear says he
learned the traditional dances and the dress of the Cherokee when he was a boy,
and he performs dances for tourists and church groups. He stares away as he
talks, his eyes glowing beneath a black band of face paint. His wife, in a Jeep
Cherokee, sits nervously by, smoking and frequently tossing her long, black
hair. Soon shell pick up the kids from school.
Map of U.S. reservations identified in orange.
These are the people Merritt prays to reach. He wants Killing Bear and his
wife to join people like John Squirrel, who prayed to receive Christ two years
ago on his front lawn, and the more than 70 other Cherokee who have accepted
Christ since the Youngdeers returned to the reservation almost four years
World Changers LaneThe chance to reach a people group
300 miles away fell into the lap of Steve Brown, pastor of First Baptist Church
in Walterboro, South Carolina. He was asked to help lead a World Changers
project in Catawba, a Native American reservation just outside Rock Hill, South
While the length of the community could be driven in five minutes, he says,
the distance was great that a white pastor from the coast would have to go to
overcome years of suspicion and Native American culture. Not only are the
Catawba people involved in Native American spiritism, but a large number
consider themselves Mormons, including, of course, the head of the Latter Day
Saints church there.
The Catawba are very cautious of people from the outside, Steve says.
Unconditional love is hard for them to understand. They dont understand that
someone would come and build houses for them without asking anything in return.
So, during our first year there, many of the Catawba were stand- offish.
But this changed. At the end of the first year the Catawba named one of
their roads World Changers Lane in honor of the group that built five houses on
that road and three others elsewhere on the reservation. Now, after eight years
of returning to work and minister on the reservation, Steve says he and other
World Changers volunteers have developed some close Catawba friends, and Steve
was even invited to participate in the powwow circle.
By creating open hearts through service, World Changers helped open the door
for Redpath Community Fellowship, the first Southern Baptist Church to have a
home among the Catawba.
While poverty is not as much of an epidemic in Cherokee as it is in more
remote areas, the reservation is still experiencing some of the same challenges
troubling many other native communities. People there are still weighed down by
alcoholism, drugs and, more recently, the gambling scene at Harrahs casino. And
reaching the younger Native Americans and First Nations people in Canada is
becoming both simpler and more complicated than ever. Thats because many
younger natives are moving off the reservations and exposing themselves to
other ways of thinking including the truth of the gospel while other young
natives are staying on the reservation trying to find themselves, explains
Its not popular for them to convert to Christianity, he says. Theres a
mystique about being called a Cherokee, and, to them, becoming a Christian is
selling out. Still others, he says, think theyre already saved by the religion
passed down through their families. However, God continues to change the hearts
and minds of this nation sprawling around the Oconaluftee River, and He
continues to open doors in other tribes closed off to the world by geography,
culture and suspicion.
While the Cherokee first heard the gospel nearly 200 years ago, many Native
Americans and Canadas First Nations people are only just beginning to hear
about Jesus. They offer great opportunities for on mission Christians
and church groups who want to put feet to their faith.
Nearly 600 recognized tribes and bands of North Americas first inhabitants
are represented on the continent. While a large number of these natives have
moved to urban areas and may be in your classrooms and boardrooms, many tribal
people have stayed on reservations and reserves where they speak their native
language and still hold to many traditional values and practices.
Members of Cherokee Baptist continue to reach out to their
An estimated 95 percent of the North American native population is unsaved,
and there are still some people who could live out their entire lives hearing
only their tribal language, says Mark Custalow, NAMBs Native American and
Emerging People Groups Coordinator. Sometimes its really like visiting another
nation. And often, ministering to the various North American tribal nations
requires the mindset of an international traveler.
So, if you think God is calling you into the harvest field of native North
America, be aware that theres more to it than piling into the church van and
heading to the nearest reservation. Successfully reaching these cultures in our
own backyards will require thoughtful planning and more commitment than a
weeklong summer excursion.
By the numbersFive million Native American and First
Nations people live in the United States and Canada.
There are 550 federally recognized tribes and bands of Native Americans and
Canadas First Nations people. There are an additional 171 groups who are either
state recognized or who identify themselves as a native tribe or band.
70 percent of Native Americans live outside reservations, but 70 percent of
ministry needs and efforts exist on the reservations.
95 percent of Native Americans and First Nations people have yet to accept
500 Southern Baptist churches minister primarily to Native American and
First Nations people .
Do not assume that all Native American and First Nations
tribes are in dire need of a church group to come and save them. While there is
obviously a great need for the gospel among native tribes, your way of
approaching this need may require some cross-cultural tuning. If God is leading
you to a region or tribe, pray that He would reveal to you their
Go through a Southern Baptist native association and a missionary or pastor
on the reservation, and begin building relationships far in advance. For
example, pastor Merritt Youngdeer says he would prefer a group leader to come
in person and spend time in the area before arriving with his group and
starting Backyard Bible Clubs.
A quick phone call saying Here we come is not enough for a serious ministry
to develop, he says.
Six months to a year of getting to know your contact on the reservation
gives him or her enough time to understand your goals as a group, to help
tailor those goals to the vision he or she has and to find the best ministry
fit for you. Sharing the vision of the pastor or missionary will help rather
than weigh down their ministry while also providing a more rewarding trip and
long-term success for your group.
Visit www.nambnativeministries.com for more information on the culture,
demographics and needs of native groups in North America. This site also
provides a list of native Southern Baptist churches.
Contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs at 202-208-3711 for maps, demographics
and other information regarding Native Americans. For First Nations tribes,
contact Indian and Northern Affairs Canada at 819-997-0380.
Before heading to the reservation or reserve, learning
about the culture will help you relate to the people and show them that you
care for and respect them. The missionary or pastor with whom youre partnering
can provide a lot of this cultural information.
Six months to a year before your trip, begin an email or telephone dialogue
with your contact. Questions and concerns may arise that you can run past them.
Keep a file of this information, and discuss it with your mission group during
meetings. Shortly before the tripone to two months outtry to meet in person
with your contact so he or she can go over things such as tribal customs and
clothingthings harder to cover during phone conversations.
Prepare for the need. Meeting the physical needs of the
tribe is one of the best ways to reach the people for Christ. While this may
take extra preparation, the result could be hearts open to the gospel. Find out
what the tribe needs through your contact. If they need housing and other
repairs, round up people skilled in those areas, or partner with another group.
If its food and clothing, give them the best you can. Again, by working with
your contact to assess their needs, you can determine whether some nicely kept
hand-me-downs or brand new clothes would be appropriate. And you want to
provide food that would satisfy their culturally specific appetites as well as
their immediate need. The way you provide for a need has the potential to wound
someones pride or lift the spirit.
Preparing for a trip to native America means more than a
suitcase full of gospel tracts and a group eager to win some souls in the span
of a week. Before piling into the church van or boarding an airliner, examine
and prepare yourself for the journeypraying for both your trip to the
reservation and the spiritual journey of the people youre reaching as you guide
them to the hope you have in Christ.
This means assuming an attitude of ministry more than fun. Even on a
reservation such as Cherokee, where some people have heard the gospel, they
arent going to be as receptive if youre just there to have fun in the mountains
and have a cultural experience, says Merritt. Thats fine if youre on vacation,
but it doesnt make a whole lot of difference in the lives on the reservation.
The fun will come from the joy of changed lives and your personal growth.
Prepare for a long-term partnership with your contact and a
long-term relationship with the tribal people. Native Americans and First
Nations groups are not objectives on a checklist; they should be on your list
of long-term friendships. Go with the idea that this is going to take a while.
Yearly trips are often necessary to really begin to share in the vision of the
missionary or pastor on the reservation and to really make a lasting impact on
the people there.
Take the ministry home with you. This means not only
following up with the people you met on the reservation, but also reaching
Native American and First Nations people nearby.
If you want to reach that guy next door or that lady in the cubicle across
the way, remember their cultural differences even in the urban environment. Get
to know them, study their culture, and focus on a long-term relationship that
shows respect for their background and concern for their eternal future. Sooner
or later, they will take the hope youve shared back to where many of their
hearts arethe reservations.
We need to remember that whatever happens on the reservations will affect
the people who have lived there, even if they now live thousands of miles away,
says Russell Begaye, a Navajo and NAMBs manager of church planter enlistment.
We need to bring the gospel to both the cities and the reservations.
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC