Drive-By Missions: The Not-So-Good News
By Corey Greaves, President and Co-founder, Mending Wings
It was early Saturday morning that I received a call — “Come down to so-and-so’s house. There’s been a tragedy!” I jumped into my Jeep and headed the two miles down the dusty reservation road to this family’s home. When I pulled into the driveway, I saw one of our students handcuffed in the back of a tribal police car. He had tears in his eyes as he looked at me.
There were two homes nearby — one was a trailer and the other was a house. I ran into the trailer and saw another of my students lying on the ground dead — stabbed 32 times. After prayer with the family, I headed back home. Once there, I sat on my couch, made a fist as if I was gripping a knife, and “stab” my knee 32 times: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Ten was as far as I got before I broke down and cried. What kind of rage would cause one friend to do this to another friend? I asked myself.
On another afternoon, I received a phone call to come down to a young lady’s house because she had cut herself. Assuming she had cut her finger while cooking, I nonchalantly went down those dusty reservation roads to her house. When I got there, I saw she had cut herself all right — but it was self-inflicted. This was not the first time …
As we rushed to the Indian health clinic, I was full of fear, anxiety, and frustration. “Why do you keep doing this to yourself?” I asked her. “Corey,” she said, “… it’s a lot easier to deal with the pain on the outside than it is to deal with the pain on the inside.”
Mission work on the reservations
These and a hundred other stories await the telling, but they have caused me to reflect. We have been saturated with the “Good News” of Yeshua for the last 500 years. Why do we find ourselves, as a people, in the social ills that we do? Here are a few of my thoughts:
Mission practices among our Native people have been, at best, a failure. We have been inundated with a replacement-oriented theology. Missionaries past and present have told us, “We are Christian. You are not. Therefore, everything we do is Christian and everything you do is pagan. So for you to become a Christian everything that you are must be replaced.” And, of course, the obvious culture of replacement was Euro-American.
The impact of this is shame — and it has riveted itself upon our souls as Native American followers of The Jesus Way. This impact has echoed throughout history, and as a result there exists a dividing wall between Native American Christianity and Western Christianity. No matter how unaware we may be of the reality of our connectedness in Christ, the White still affects the Indian — for good or evil. And the Indian still affects the White — for good or evil.
I see this struggle every day in Native American mission endeavors. Evangelical and Catholic churches try hard to find ways to share this “Good News” with our people, but the result is always the same — a minimal number of Native people profess Christ as their Savior — less than 3 percent to be exact. This doesn’t seem like a very good return on the investment of 500 years of missiology!
Where did it all begin? A little history ...
In 1492, when we discovered Columbus, there were approximately 150 million Native people living in the Western Hemisphere. Four hundred years later, only about 230,000 of us were left! This is one of the greatest examples of cultural genocide, or ethnic cleansing, in the history of the world. All of that happened HERE, and under the guise of Christianity.
So, for our people, Christianity has never been this “Good News” I spoke of earlier. The Gospel came to us as “You are all sinners. And your drums and dances are of the devil. And you’re involved in paganism and witchcraft and you worship demons.” So to become a Christian, we had to get our hair cut, stop speaking our “savage” languages, learn Western musical styles, and trade in everything that is US for everything that is THEM. Christianity has not been Good News to us.
I think some of the church continues to look at us through these same cultural lenses. To them, we are still idolaters, spiritually deceived, worshippers of demons, lost in rebellion, and hell-bound. In essence, the church has told us that we have no value as a people. Our ceremonies aren’t valued, our family values, our languages, our dances, our songs, our customs, and certainly not our theologies. We’ve been told that God loves us, but have been treated like he doesn’t like us very much.
A new way forward
In conclusion , we must change our way of thinking about missions to Native people. To any people, for that matter. If you come to a people group with the idea that you are going to “save those poor people,” then you must get that out of your head right now.
We have groups come to our reservation all the time on their drive-by mission trips. One young woman came to our reservation with a large youth missions organization. At a vacation Bible school they held, this young woman picked up a little Yakama kid who had been playing in the dirt; her hair was messed up and she was a little dirty. She told this child, “Oh, I feel so sorry for you. I wish I could take you home with me,” as she dusted off her little pants and fixed her hair. That screamed loud and clear to me that she thought what she had to offer this child was better than what we had to offer that child. That’s called ethno-centrism — the world I come from is better than the world you come from. And it’s not the first, nor will it be the last, time I have seen that attitude from mission groups.
I believe that when we come to someone else’s land, we should come as a learner before we ever come as teachers. We shouldn’t even go to Indian land unless we have asked if we can come. We need to learn to shut our mouths and open our eyes, ears, and hearts. Because the truth of the matter is — and I tell this to the groups that come — we don’t need you. That stings a little, I know. But it’s a two-sided coin. And please don’t hear the one without hearing the other.
We don’t need you — but we do need you. And YOU need US. And that is the Body of Christ finally working together! One group no greater than, or less than, the other. But equal participants in sharing the love of Yeshua.
Corey Greaves is a Blackfeet Indian whose reservation is in Northwest Montana. His wife, Gina, is Yakama. They have four children and make their home in Toppenish, Washington, on the Yakama Reservation. Corey and Gina are president and co-founders of Mending Wings — one of the largest Native American youth ministries in the country. Corey has served as youth pastor for both the America Indian Evangelism Association/McKinley Indian Mission and the Central Washington Presbytery, where he facilitated the growth of the largest Native American youth ministry in the Presbyterian Church, USA.
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