Laughing children chase the swirling, iridescent orbs that bloom from a bubble machine. Tantalizing scents of cheese and bread waft from a pile of pizza boxes. The drum circle fills the air with a deep-throated melody. As dignified elders keep a watchful eye on the proceedings, young tribal citizens wait in line to receive a gift of new shoes.
One young boy takes his seat. A volunteer crouches down to his level and says “Hello.”
“Before we get your shoes, we are going to do a water blessing on your feet,” the volunteer explains. “Would you like to do that?” The boy agrees.
“We believe that water gives life, and we pray that your shoes will bring new life to you and your family,” the volunteer says, pouring water over the boy’s feet.
Soon a shoebox arrives. What color might the mysterious shoes inside be?
“Blue?” the boy ventures. The volunteer slowly opens the box, and a broad smile spreads across the boy’s face as he sees the blue shoes inside. Nearby, several tribal elders, grandchildren in arms, smile their approval.
The shoe giveaway was held on May 21, 2022, on the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, United States. The Madras, Pleasant Valley, and Redmond Seventh-day Adventist churches collaborated on the event in close cooperation with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and with funding from Samaritans’ Feet. Tribal leadership contributed food for families in need and provided a drum circle. Four hundred twenty-five children either received shoes at the event or will get them soon by delivery. The Adventist churches raised additional funds and staffed the event with volunteers.
“We had a blessing from the long house, and I stood up and offered a prayer,” Seth Cantu, pastor of the Madras church, said. Cantu is White Mountain Apache and acted as liaison with the tribal elders to plan the event. He had learned from tribal leadership that shoes were one of the tribes’ specific needs, around the same time that Doug McGinnis from the Pleasant Valley church approached him about the possibility of planning a shoe giveaway.
Cantu stresses that the shoe presentation should not be seen as an isolated outreach event. Rather, it is one step in building a lasting partnership. Many tribes are justifiably skeptical of Christian groups coming onto their reservations due to poor follow-up, or worse. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs actually requested that the name of Jesus not be mentioned at the event, due to the harm a previous group had caused.
As a result of their concerns, Cantu worked to create a script for those who were washing feet and presenting shoes, with guidance from Candace Jimenez, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Jimenez grew up on the reservation and now attends the Pleasant Valley church.
Together, Cantu and Jimenez decided that foot washing would not be compulsory and chose to call God “Creator” or “Great Father” to connect with local culture. They also called the foot washing a “water blessing” because of the significance water holds in Warm Springs.
“I was really thinking about what it meant to be a tribal person, volunteering in my own community with a church. It can be really heavy in a way,” Jimenez said. “I want to be thoughtful about having a church come into a tribal community and having it done right. We can see from history that there’s a lot of times it hasn’t been done right.”
In the end, both Jimenez and Cantu felt the start was a positive one and that the tribes appreciated the cultural sensitivity and respect their guests displayed. “We literally are shaving years off of the timeline for the relationship,” Cantu said.
Jimenez spoke with her uncle, tribal elder Dan Martinez, on the day of the event. “I could just tell that he held a lot of joy, having been a part of it, and having been a connector — connecting Pastor Seth with the right people,” Jimenez said.
For Jimenez, the three churches’ plan to send 40 young tribal members to Big Lake Youth Camp this summer was particularly positive. “If I lived in Warm Springs and I was raising my children there, I would just be so grateful,” she said.
Cantu, who regularly advises others who work in native ministries, admits that his experiences on other reservations did help the team avoid pitfalls. Ultimately, however, he credits the early success of the partnership between Warm Springs and the churches to God’s perfect timing.
“When things happen without you having to do anything, it just affirms that you are where you are supposed to be,” Cantu said. “And for Christians, I don’t know how it gets better than that — knowing that you are where God wants you to be.”
A Gift from the Creator
Back in the shoe line, blue sneakers slip neatly over the boy’s clean white socks.
“Creator, may these shoes be a blessing to this young one and their family,” the volunteer prays. “May they walk in beauty before you, as their Creator; their elders; and their family. I know that they are valued so much, and you want them to have this gift. Thank you, Creator. Amen.”
The prayer ends, the boy melts back into the crowd, and the shoe giveaway goes on. Soon the shadows grow longer, and the first hint of sunset color begins to creep across the sky. “Look at that — a rainbow!” someone shouts. And there it is. Above the crowd glows a beam of blazing colors. A gift to end the day, from the Creator.