Witnessing ArticlesWitnessing Articles from the Great Commission column
Reaching Native Americans with the Gospel
By Kay L. Meyer
Have you ever wondered who shares the Gospel with Native Americans? Some years ago I vacationed in Montana and saw the circumstances of these precious people the Lord loves. I wondered if there were any ministries focused on reaching Native Americans for Christ. I did research and learned of Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots, now known as Lutheran Indian Ministries. They are effectively reaching Native Americans for Christ! Over the years we have featured their ministry on the Family Shield radio program numerous. The following is just part of their story.
Let me begin with the story of how their current executive director, Dr. Don Johnson, came to know Christ. In July of 1962 Don Johnson was a young Native American interested in learning about God. He heard Billy Graham preach at the World’s Fair in Seattle. He heard that he was a sinner in need of forgiveness. He heard that Jesus, the Son of God, had come to suffer and die to forgive Don’s sins and the sins of all people. And that Christ offered forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift. That age-old message pierced Don’s heart like the harpoons of his Native American ancestors in pursuit of the whale. He committed his life to Christ. And then he wondered, “Where do I go from here?”
His journey had begun. After he placed his faith in Christ, God led him to several churches, helped him meet other Christians, and eventually led him to attend Concordia Seminary in Springfield, IL to become a pastor. In the summer of 1972 he was assigned to a vicarage, which is a full-year internship, for seminarians preparing to be pastors. The vicarage was near Lame Deer, Montana on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
While on vicarage Don met three Native American men that impacted his life and faith journey. As the vicar, one of his responsibilities was to visit Native Americans and build relationships so that he might eventually share the Gospel with them. He visited with the men in a small run-down house. They were alcoholics and more interested in where they could find the next drink, not a relationship with God. But they listened anyway.
After several hours, he was ready to leave. At that point they asked if he would drive them to their car. “How far away is it?” he asked. They said, “Oh, it’s not far, they said.” So, they piled into Don’s car and took off. “Now, it’s just over that hill, Vicar Don. Now down that dirt road. Now go a little further.” Many bumps, mud puddles, and miles later they finally saw the car in the distance. It had seen tough times. Badly scorched in a fire, the back tire was shredded. It looked ready for the junkyard. Don groaned, “Oh, no! You’re never going to get that car running.” And he thought; now I’m going to have to take them back to town. It’s the opposite direction from where I need to be. But, they told him, “Don’t worry, Medaris can fix anything. He’ll get the car running in no time.” And, amazingly, he did. Finally Don was able to leave the men and their old car far behind. He thought!
A few weeks later Johnson saw a newspaper article that told of a horrible accident that had killed a Native American man. It was Medaris, the man who could fix anything. “Why hadn’t I tried harder to tell them about God’s love? What else could I have said to them?” Don began to question whether God could change people so deeply caught up in alcohol addiction, especially Native Americans. Could he make changes when there was years of alcoholism, dysfunctional families, drug abuse, unemployment, low self-esteem, suicide, and loneliness? Ministry to native people seemed as hopeless as the burned out junk car the three men drove.
Johnson seriously considered abandoning his plan to complete his pastoral degree. But, in the midst of these doubts, God began to reveal an important truth to Don. God helped him realize that he (Don Johnson) had been changed much like that old car. Experienced things, done things he never should have. But God had intervened to bring forgiveness, hope, and salvation. God could fix anyone, even Don. And if God could change him, he could change other Native Americans. So, with renewed faith and hope he returned to school and graduated from the seminary in 1973.
He served Makah Lutheran Church in Neah Bay, Washington, his hometown. There he was an elected member of the tribal council and tribal chief. His congregation was small. He never had great crowds rushing to hear him preach or teach, but he ministered to the Native Americans effectively by meeting the needs of his people, caring about them, and building good relationships. He could relate to their circumstances because he had grown up with an alcoholic father. Many of the people he served struggled with alcoholism, depression, hopelessness, felt alone and abandoned by God. He shared the Gospel and was faithful.
In 1993 he was called from his parish and asked to work for Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots U.S. Today it is known as Lutheran Indian Ministries. In 1995 he became the executive director. Today The Rev. Dr. Don Johnson has been instrumental in leading the organization into new and more effective ways to reach and serve Native Americans. One change has been to rise up indigenous people to be leaders of this organization. So now Native Americans are sharing Christ with Native Americans.
Another way they are expanding is by merging their work with other smaller Native American ministries throughout the United States. They now have many other ministries throughout the U.S. and Canada. You can learn about these ministries on their website at www.lutheranmissionariesandpilots.org.
Recently I featured Don Johnson, Will and Patricia Main of Haskell LIGHT (Lutheran Indians Gathering and Helping Together), a Lutheran Student Ministry housed near the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas on the Family Shield radio program. The university began in 1884 as a residential facility. Today it is a four-year university. Haskell LIGHT began in 1972 through the work of Wiley and Caryn Scott who recognized the need to share the Gospel through fellowship and Bible study with students. Wiley is a Native American and attended the university.
Haskell LIGHT Campus Ministry recently merged with The Association of Missionaries and Pilots U.S. Will and Patricia told radio listeners about the campus ministry that shares the Gospel and serves the needs of students and staff. Haskell has an enrollment of approximately 1000 students and represents over 130 tribes from over 40 states.
Will, a Lakota Sioux, shared how he came to know Christ. When he met his wife, whose parents had been in Christian ministry in Canada for 35 years, he was not a Christian. “Far from it,” he said! He was intrigued at how Patricia’s parents and siblings interacted with each other. “It was weird to me. They obviously loved one another. And they talked to each other. After a while it wasn’t weird anymore. I wanted what they had! What they had was Christ in their heart!”
Talking of his faith journey he continued, “Patricia’s mother and father spent years on their knees praying for me! If you would have told me a few years ago that I would be a Christian studying to become a pastor through the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology program through Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and ministering to youth on a college campus in Lawrence, Kansas I’d still be laughing!”
Will’s dedication to the Gospel of Christ is born out of childhood struggles and pain. He explained, “I was raised in a home with two alcoholic parents and all of the dysfunction that accompanies that life style.” Since experiencing the salvation of Jesus Christ, Will has a passion to be used by God for his Glory. He wants to serve First Nations people.
He told of a recent conversation with a young student. “The God you’re telling me about is the God of the white man, not mine,” stated the young man. Will countered, “No, the message of Christ is for all people and nations, not just the white man. Christ came to bring all people forgiveness. But, I know how you feel, because a few years ago I felt the same way. Let me tell you why I know this message is for all nations.”
He went on to talk about how he and their family moved from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada to Kansas. “The first time we were invited to move from Canada to be the Co-Directors of Haskell University Campus ministry in Kansas we said ‘no.’ Then God began working on us. We felt no peace after saying no. Some time passed. I asked someone at Lutheran Association of Missionaries “Is that ministry opportunity still open in Lawrence, Kansas?” Don Johnson heard that I’d asked that question and called to talk to Patricia and me again about this ministry opportunity. He felt we were the right couple for the job. This time we said ‘yes.’ That we would uproot ourselves from our home in Canada and move to the middle of the United States still amazes me! It has definitely been a God thing.”
Patricia shared, “That God has led us to Kansas in the United States just shows that God’s heart is beating to reach the Native People! Just like my native ancestors beat drums, God’s heart beats to reach my people! The time to reach Native Americans with the Gospel is now.”
She shared numerous stories of the impact of the work. “I was visiting with students in the cafeteria. One young student said, “I’m not interested in what you have to say because I’m an atheist.” “I didn’t try to argue with her, but just went on talking to the other students. A few days later I was in the dormitory and that same girl saw me and said, “I’m going through some real difficult times and I wondered…would you pray for me? I did.” God opens doors of opportunity every day!”
Patricia continued, “Will and I understand the struggles of the Native Americans, what it’s like to live on a reservation, dysfunctional families, alcoholism, the loneliness, and suicide. We know there is only one way to find true healing. Healing comes through faith in Jesus Christ. God heals the brokenhearted! He did it for me and my husband—and he can do it for you too.”
Christ came to save all people of every nation, including every Native American Nation “And the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10)