The Christian Church has taken seriously the words of Jesus found in Matthew 28:18, 19, “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (NASB).
Indigenous work in North America has not been easy for a variety of reasons including wars, the government’s attempt to assimilate the indigenous population, and efforts to eliminate Native American languages.
The result is a general lack of trust by nonindigenous people and a scarcity of hope among Native American people. Their fight with the U.S. government resulted in Native areas turned into “reservations,” many of which are economically disadvantaged. But Native Americans have not surrendered their fight to keep their culture alive.
Something in Common
Indigenous people in North America share more spiritual beliefs with Seventh-day Adventists than any other religious entity.
If people read the actual diary of Christopher Columbus, and notes of people who first landed on the shores of North America, indigenous peoples were described as having no religion. Having no religion to Europeans meant they had no temples, no idols, and no required meetings. All diaries record, however, that several times a day the indigenous people raised their hands to the Creator in “praise and thanksgiving.” The indigenous peoples were generous “to a fault.” Christopher Columbus said there was no disease, the people were healthy with ruddy skin. He describes fruits and vegetables never seen before that people grew in mountainous areas.
In the contiguous United States there is a Seventh-day Adventist Church within 25 miles of all of the 573 federally recognized tribes. Adventists are logistically close to this mission field, but most of the people of these tribes are still unreached with the true gospel of Christ.
All things to all people
Unfortunately, in the past, far too many Christians in their effort to share the good news did not take to heart an important statement made by the apostle Paul. Writing to the church in Corinth, he said, “. . . I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some” (I Cor. 9:22). In their enthusiasm to share the gospel, many have forgotten that Paul’s work was successful because—without compromising the core concepts of Christianity—he presented Jesus in the culture of the people he worked with.
For too long, missionary work among Native peoples involved forbidding their language, customs, dress, and anything else that tied them to the culture they were born with in favor of western-based Christian practices. Anything Native was described with words such as “savage,” “heathen,” or “pagan.” To be Native was too often presented as being less than human with the abandonment of anything pertaining to one’s heritage the only hope of being considered worthy of salvation.
The Native Ministries Department has rejected this approach to ministry. Sharing the blessed hope with indigenous peoples throughout Canada and the United States in large measure teaches people how they can be Native and Christian rather than choosing one to the exclusion of the other. As much as possible, conference and union Native Ministries leaders in the North American Division (NAD) are tribal members.
Elders Robert Burnette, Monte Church, Ed Dunn, and Fred Rogers are among the pioneers of the Native Work in the United States and Canada. Their leadership through the years has been enhanced by the familial ties they have with the communities they have served. In addition, their ministry has served as a template for those who are serving after them today.
Native New Day is a first-of-a-kind Bible study series produced especially for Native people and narrated by Native storyteller, Church, of the Mohican Nation. Filmed outdoors, the viewer hears and sees inspiring stories and testimonies of Native people from across North America and Canada. The beautiful truths of Scripture are put in a context that many Native individuals can relate to.
Having served as assistant to the president of the NAD and director of Native Ministries for several unions and conferences, Burnette has used health ministry as an “opening wedge” for sharing the gospel. Following Jesus’ example of healing more than speaking, Burnette has poured his life into improving the everyday health of both Native and non-Native people across the United States. Partnering with both AdventHealth (CREATION Life) and Life and Health (Diabetes Undone), he has supported programs that lead peoples of all nationalities to a healthier life. This, combined with free dental and vision clinics, has helped relieve suffering that hinders the ability to hear and understand Jesus’ love for all.
Native New Health is an innovative series of health programs designed for Native people by Native people. This series addresses several health topics of special concern to Native people. Each episode has been designed to generate discussion and assist the viewer in making positive lifestyle choices. Co-hosted by Dunn, a Canadian with Ojibway Nation ancestry from Northern Ontario, these programs address health topics, such as diabetes, which affect Native Americans at a disproportionately higher rate, as well as other general topics.
Building on the legacy
After many years of service, Burnette, Church, Dunn and Rogers’ legacies are seen in those who have followed in their footsteps. Campbell Paige, director of Native Ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada; Nancy Crosby, Native Ministries director for the Pacific Union, and other union and conference Native Ministries directors meet each year, typically in the fall. They share what is happening in their field and relate their successes and challenges to win more souls for the kingdom of heaven. The NAD Native Ministries Department has come a long way, but there is still much to be done. Until the three angels’ messages have gone to “. . . every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,” Native Ministries will continue the work of sharing the Gospel in the culture and language of the people they minister to.