Spotlighting ABHMS’ Native American Ministries

Photo by Raychel Sanner on Unsplash.

VALLEY FORGE, PA (11/22/2023)—During this Native American Heritage Month, American Baptist Home Mission Societies delves into its complex relationship with Native American Baptists. To learn more, we turned to our own ministry resource right here at ABHMS, Rev. Ben Sullivan, who is the ABHMS’ national coordinator for Native American ministries. Rev. Sullivan shared how he found his way into this role, as well as the hopes and challenges for Native American ministries today.

Rev. Sullivan comes from a family that is deeply involved in the American Baptist life – both his parents and grandparents were involved in the American Baptist Indian Caucus and the Oklahoma Church Association. After discerning his call to ministry and becoming ordained, he began to serve as executive director of the Christian Center in his hometown of Anadarko, Okla. He was initially invited to serve with ABHMS as the Eastern coordinator of Indian Ministries, in 2011, moving to the position of a national coordinator in 2017.

Rev. Sullivan’s great uncle, Rev. Herschell Daney, was a prominent American Baptist who served with ABHMS between 1985-1996, as well as in many other distinguished roles within the denomination. His 2016 obituary on the ABCUSA website describes him as a visionary: “During his tenure as director of Indian Ministries, Daney developed a new vision for the future of Indian Ministries as well as the relationship among ABHMS and all Indian churches—a historic change that continues to positively impact ABHMS.”

The new relationship indicated in the obituary was prompted by ABHMS beginning to withdraw commissioned missionary pastors from Native American churches in the mid-eighties. Since the early 1800s, missionary pastors of all Christian denominations were central to spreading the Gospel to the different Native American nations. They “divided” their spheres of influence among the nations; most of the missions were claimed by Baptists and Methodists.

Many components of Christianity indeed appeared to be aligned with Indigenous beliefs. The idea of a man giving his life for the community resonated with the legends of the White Buffalo Calf Woman or the Corn Mother who gave her life for her people. However, the insistence of the missionaries that Native Americans give up their cultures was in stark contrast to the Gospel of Jesus who loved all, and especially the marginalized.

Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, ordained American Baptist minister and author-activist, described the historical relationship between Christian mission and Native Americans as “devastating.” Politicians and church officials alike thought that the Indian question could be resolved swiftly, humanely, and irreversibly by converting to Christianity. The Board of Indian Commissioners did, in fact, observe in its annual report of 1869 that, in terms of Indian assimilation, “the religion of our blessed Savior is… the most effective agent for the civilization of any people.” Since 1830s, churches and mission stations were working in tandem with schools for Native American children, including many boarding or residential schools.

Children at these schools were generally forced to adapt to the European American environment. As part of their assimilation and Christianization efforts, schools cut off the children’s hair, made them wear American-style uniforms, prevented them from speaking their native tongues, and replaced their names with English language names. The schools were often brutal, particularly to younger students who had to give up their Native American identities and customs after being forcibly removed from their family. Investigations conducted in the later part of the 20th century turned up evidence of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse.

The project of wholesale Euro-American style Christianization and deculturation failed, as Native American Christians developed their own leadership, theological lenses and protected their languages and traditions, often by incorporating them into liturgy. In the 1980s, Daney, himself a member of the Choctaw nation, developed with Harvey Stewart (ABHMS’ North-West and South-West Indian Ministries Coordinator at the time) an accredited program for the training of Native American clergy. He was also one of many Native American ministry leaders who protested the presence of missionary pastors in their churches. In 1991, Rev. Bill Baldridge, a member of the Cherokee nation, and Rev. Ken Momaday, a member of the Kiowa nation, urged the American Baptist Churches USA to “cease the commissioning of missionaries to Native Americans” and to develop a program of support for Indian ministries “that does not compromise the ability of local Native American churches to be self-directed and self-sustaining.”

Since the missionary pastors were replaced with Indigenous leadership, it has been a challenge to ensure that there are enough Native American pastors to lead churches in their communities. Says Sullivan: “Once the missionaries left, there was a lot of transition that had to take place because the churches had to, all of a sudden, function without the minister that they were used to. People had to take on roles that maybe they weren’t trained up to do.”

In the early 1990s, it was difficult to attract Native American candidates to seminaries, likely because the education offered was not context sensitive. At the time, Baldridge described it as “another acculturation program that takes Indians away from their home communities, requires them to absorb other cultural values and then sends them back, where they become alienated from their people.”

In 2023, there is still a shortage of Native American pastors – there are four Native American ABC churches without one. Sullivan suggested that for a long time, in addition to problematic Western-centric approaches to training, the issue of financial support and having to separate from one’s family have also played a part. There are certainly more financial aid options – for example, Palmer Seminary offers the Belvin Trust Scholarship for Native American students; the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Churches USA offer scholarships to Native American students pursuing education at approved denominational seminaries.

The absolute number of Native American students enrolled at theology schools has risen somewhat since 1990. According to the Association of Theological Schools, 147 of the 56,270 (0.26%) students enrolled at 208 theology schools in the United States and Canada were Native American that year; in 2021, the equivalent numbers were 262 out of 78,488 students total (0.33%).

As decolonial approaches to theology gained a stronger foothold in seminary education, works by prominent Native American theologians were included in curricula: Vine Deloria Jr.’s “God Is Red: A Native View of Religion”; Clara Sue Kidwell’s “A Native American Theology”; George E. Tinker’s “American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty” and “Missionary Conquest The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide”; or Randy E. Woodley’s “Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine.”

American Baptist Native American churches are located in the Northeast, Southern Plains, Northwest and Southwest. What started out through missionaries sent to Indigenous communities, continues to evolve as a growing partnership in ministry.

“Through dedicated program staff for Native American Ministries, ABHMS has provided culturally contextualized programming and advocated for inclusion of Native American leaders and their perspectives and gifts in national gatherings,” said Rev. Dr. Marie Onwubuariri, director of ABHMS’ Intercultural Ministries. “With the growing collaboration among all ABHMS staff, ABHMS will continue to involve local leaders in identifying and providing the leadership training and education they desire.”

Quinton Romannose

ABHMS’ cultivation of North American leaders necessarily goes hand in hand with addressing the difficult history related to questionable mission practices that affected Native American communities such as the boarding schools. A current ABHMS Board initiative aims to research ABHMS historical involvement in Native American communities, particularly researching its potential connections with Indigenous boarding schools. Quinton Romannose, an ABHMS Board member and Cheyenne and Arapaho nations member, is leading the new initiative. Referring to this new enterprise, he said, “I would hope that denominations support tribal nations in their quest for self-determination to tell their own stories.”

Sullivan underscored how important God was for him and Native American congregations. He said: “My own opinion is, I don’t regret that the Gospel came to the native people. At some point we acquired copies of documents that talked about how my tribe, Kiowa, understood the Gospel. They understood what it meant, and they had a knowledge of God. And then, when the introduction of Jesus as the Son of God came along, it wasn’t hard for them to accept that. They knew who God was, and they called God ‘Daw Kxee.’ And when they learned of Jesus, they named him ‘Daw Kyah Ee,’ the Son of God.” He added: “And originally, all people came from tribes.”

In the egalitarian Native American cultures, the concept of God as the Lord, originating from feudal European systems, is foreign. God is understood as the ultimate Creator and humans are but one element of the universe. Following from that, Rev. Daney stressed in his 1999 Christian Citizen article that faith and healing are holistic, encompassing all aspects of one’s life: “Reclaiming the Spirit is communal and recognizes the kinship systems—at gatherings, pow wows, feasts, ceremonies, church, and business. Such experiences enhance the Indian peoples’ understanding of the spiritual and their knowledge of their relationship with all things. When one can see and feel this connectedness, as God the Creator intended, then meaning is given to the concepts of harmony and balance, health, and life. One can then see the path to reclaiming the Spirit of God, Our Creator, for healing is communal, and communal means ‘all my relations.’”

Woodley writes that “holistic, culturally sensitive, contextual community-based mission models that are rooted in non-Western values and that produce a sense of well-being for Indigenous and other peoples in the world” will only emerge through engagement between particular cultures and the Scriptures, rather than through the Western culture.

In November and December 2023, an Intercultural Ministries delegation led by Sullivan will travel to Arizona to reconnect with Hopi nation’s churches. Sullivan will also be focused on delivering youth ministry training to a year-long cohort of five pairs of senior and youth ministers from Native American churches. This will hopefully begin to bridge the gap in terms of Native American clergy, as many pastors start their careers as youth pastors.