Sometimes the right thing to do is ask for help, not give it.

“What can we do to help the Native American Church?”

That’s a question a lot of Cascadian Christians ask. Cascadia is home to many indigenous cultures, after all—and surely we should want to serve them, right?

At a recent Christ & Cascadia conference my friend Corey Greaves, of the Yakama Nation, laid out his concerns about missionary efforts directed by mainstream churches toward his community. Well-intentioned Christians from outside the community, he explained, were focused on serving Native peoples at the expense of taking time to listen, learn, and receive. In other words, for them service was a one-way street.

All Churches Need All Churches

Stories like this (and there are plenty of them in the Native community) make one thing pretty clear. When mainstream churches ask, “How can we help?” it’s usually the wrong question. Many mainstream churches adopt a “one-way street” missionary mentality that relegates churches that are culturally distinct from the mainstream—so-called “ethnic” churches—to the category of “mission field.” Obviously, this is problematic. A better question might be, “How can churches from different cultural backgrounds help one and other?”

Even that question isn’t perfect. It makes the assumption that both sides have just as much to give to the other at all times—and that’s not always the case. Sometimes the mainstream church simply needs to acknowledge its own need for the input of the other without insistence on a reciprocal dynamic. Corey, who helps me to see the limitations of my culturally-conditioned perspective, suggested:

Sometimes, a good question for the mainstream church to ask indigenous folks is simply, “Will you help us?” But that assumes that they recognize their desperate and woeful incompleteness from not listening to the host people of this land. If they don’t realize that then the question makes no sense to them. And until it does make sense, Native churches will continue to be the perpetual mission field, the needy recipients, the unreached, the marginal—all that church missions language we throw around so flippantly.

This mission mentality reflects historically-rooted assumptions about culture, power, and worth. It fails because it doesn’t realize that all churches are equally worthy in their cultural distinctiveness. No church, regardless of its culture, is complete in itself—all churches need all churches in order to be whole. We need one another’s differences.

If the mainstream church in Cascadia wants to speak to this region, it needs the Native perspective. But that perspective is tragically missing from the conversation.

If the mainstream church in Cascadia wants to speak to this region, it needs the Native perspective. But that perspective is tragically missing from the conversation—ironic, since Cascadia is home to so many vibrant Native communities.

Ancient Wisdom, New Pespectives

Yet I remain hopeful. I’m hopeful that non-native Christians will open their ears and seek out the wisdom of their Native brothers and sisters. There is so much we could learn from them.

Take for example the tradition of Potlatch. Potlach is a celebration of community in which participants sacrificially give endless, abundant gifts. Potlatch events are usually held in honor of someone or to mark a special event, such as coming of age or vocational transitions. Many Native communities practice Potlatch as a radically countercultural stance against  materialism. Cheryl Bear Barnetson, of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation in British Columbia, explained to me:

Materialism is the modern idol of the age. The Potlatch system goes against that. It reflects Jesus’ words when he says, “It is better to give than to receive.” When a Potlatch is given, the person who gives the most away. . . they’ve earned the respect of the people. That is a beautiful value that Native people can contribute to the larger body of Christ.

The honor that accrues to the gift-giving family in a Potlatch is not the point. As Randy Woodley points out in his book Shalom and the Community of Creation, the one being honored thinks it a privilege to give so greatly, and the “honored person shows generosity by sharing his or her honor with others.” Consider the possibilities if we were to draw lessons from this Potlatch ethos. What might mainstream churches learn about developing a new relationship with material possessions? Or about promoting deep community in our churches based on mutual generosity? How might the abundant spirit of Potlatch impact our tithing? Our service to the poor? Or the way we honor social standing?

Let me offer another example. Cascadians, whether Christians or not, tend to seek encounters with the spiritual in nature. Nature speaks of the transcendent. Many who are drawn to the beauty of the mountains, the forests, and the sea are in truth drawn to God. Yet the Western church has not been very good at promoting or guiding these sorts of encounters. 

Nature speaks of the transcendent. Many who are drawn to the beauty of the mountains, the forests, and the sea are in truth drawn to God.

For Native communities, the sense of spirit dwelling in nature is rooted in centuries of belief and practice. All of nature is infused with spirit. Or, as Richard Twiss of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate once told me, creation is “the place of intersection between this world and the transcendent.”

Much of the church in the west is only now rediscovering the biblical basis for creation as God’s revelation—an understanding that requires a stance of reverence, stewardship, and responsibility. We desperately need the guidance of those who already live a tradition of creation care. We need help seeking the presence of God in all things. The stories and teachings of Native peoples in Cascadia can help all Christians understand that they don’t stand apart from creation, acting upon it from an objective stance. Rather, as Corey put it:

From an indigenous perspective, we are that creation. We are not separate from it, as if Creation is there and we are over here. We are part of and connected to all nature around us. We have a saying, “thlakwi inmi naynuma”—all my relatives—a foundational truth that conveys this deep sense that we are connected to the world around us.

According to Twiss, this is the sort of “corrective voice from the margins” that can help mainstream Christians heal from the excesses of empirical thinking—excesses that have alienated the Western church from the realm of nature.

These are just two examples of values and practices that the mainstream church would do well to learn from our Native brothers and sisters. And really, the Native Christian perspective is but one of many. Local communities of believers, whose faith practices are grounded in unique cultural contexts, have much to teach us if we would humble ourselves and learn from them.

The beautiful array of cultures represented in Cascadia reminds me of that scene described in Revelation 7, when believers of “all nations and tribes, all races and languages” sing together before God. The Christian community in our region is rich in potential perspectives and collective wisdom. We would do well to share with one another. Mutual interdependence can only make our individual church communities more complete. Perhaps more importantly, when diverse churches serve and learn from one another, we not only create a unity-in-diversity that pleases God. We also act as an example of how seemingly disparate groups can live together as a true community. And that’s a message our world desperately needs.