Casey Church

Native Expression

Every year, Casey Church’s mother, Mary Church, worked with her family as food vendors for the three local powwows held in their Michigan community in the spring, summer, and fall. Her family also regularly attended a Salem Indian United Methodist Church in Dorr, Michigan. One year, it was the new pastor’s first spring with the congregation, and Mrs. Church made him aware of her family’s upcoming absence from services while they provided food for the powwows. The pastor folded his arms across his chest and said, “Mary Church, if you go to that event next week, don’t bother coming back to this church again.”

It was not the first time Casey and his family felt they needed to shed their Native American identity in order to be welcome in the church. “We were very Native at home,” says Casey of his upbringing. “But it was like when you stepped through the doors of the church, you had to leave all that behind.” Even though the church had been established for Native people, Casey notes, “If you closed your eyes,” and noticed the smells, sounds, and general ambience, “there was nothing that would make you think it wasn’t a white church.” 

These early experiences flickered inside of Casey for more than a decade but didn’t fan into a flame until his late 20s, when he attended a meeting with the Indian Workers Conference, a gathering of nine Native United Methodist churches in Michigan. That night, Casey was gazing at the white-haired elders on stage, realizing he was one of the youngest in the room, when he heard God speak: “Who is going to take their place?” Out loud, he responded, “I am.” Every head in the room turned toward him. With that statement of faith, Casey set out on his vocational path, unaware of the many obstacles ahead of him.

He knew there was a great need for more ministry among the Native American population—only five percent of Native Americans are professing Christians, according to Casey. “Any mission society would call that an unreached people group,” he points out. He was determined to change those statistics, but he also knew why so few of his people had been touched by the gospel: the most common evangelistic approach for the past several hundred years had required Native Americans to give up their cultural identity, to become “white models of Christians.” In many cases even today, he says, churches meant to reach Native Americans do not allow “even a single cultural artifact into the services.” Casey had experienced this himself, and he wanted to do ministry for Native Americans in a way unlike anything he’d seen before. “As I read the Bible I didn’t see where it said I had to give up my Native identity to become a follower of Jesus,” he says. He references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and the Jewish leaders’ decision that Gentiles did not have to obey the laws of Moses, be circumcised, and become Jewish—“they could be believers in Jesus and remain culturally native,” Casey says. Drawing a connection to Western missionaries evangelizing Native Americans, he says, “I thought the issue had been settled.” Just as Gentiles did not need to conform to Jewish customs, Native Americans don’t need to “obey Western Christian practices and become a white Christian” in order to follow Jesus.

The failure of Christian mission to Native Americans, demanding they give up their cultural ways, Casey believes, is “a carry-over from imposed assimilation practices of the 19th century designed to civilize the Indian.” His call to ministry, then, contained “a passion to right a wrong done to Native Americans.” But not everyone supported Casey’s desire to do ministry in a Native context. He planned to enroll in a school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that described itself as an “Indian Bible College,” the same school from which his uncle had graduated some 40 years earlier. However, during a chat with the admissions team in which he shared his vision for ministry within Native American cultural contexts, Casey was met with resistance. “They said, ‘We don’t do ministry that way, and we will never do ministry that way.’”

Fuller Seminary alum Joy Netanya Thompson

Joy Netanya Thompson (MAT ’12) is communications senior editor at Fuller. She is a writer focusing on the intersections of theology, motherhood, and pop culture, and has published her work in Sojourners, RELEVANT, Motherwell, and Outreach magazine, among others. Find her at joynetanyathompson.com.

Nate Harrison of FULLER studio and magazine

Nate Harrison is a video storyteller for FULLER Studio and Senior Photographer for FULLER Magazine. His award-winning photography and filmmaking include showcased work for indiewireThe New York Times, UCDA Design Competition, and include clients such as Time Warner, Sundance Institute, and Nettwerk Music Group. His personal work can be found at NateCHarrison.com.

Every year, Casey Church’s mother, Mary Church, worked with her family as food vendors for the three local powwows held in their Michigan community in the spring, summer, and fall. Her family also regularly attended a Salem Indian United Methodist Church in Dorr, Michigan. One year, it was the new pastor’s first spring with the congregation, and Mrs. Church made him aware of her family’s upcoming absence from services while they provided food for the powwows. The pastor folded his arms across his chest and said, “Mary Church, if you go to that event next week, don’t bother coming back to this church again.”

It was not the first time Casey and his family felt they needed to shed their Native American identity in order to be welcome in the church. “We were very Native at home,” says Casey of his upbringing. “But it was like when you stepped through the doors of the church, you had to leave all that behind.” Even though the church had been established for Native people, Casey notes, “If you closed your eyes,” and noticed the smells, sounds, and general ambience, “there was nothing that would make you think it wasn’t a white church.” 

These early experiences flickered inside of Casey for more than a decade but didn’t fan into a flame until his late 20s, when he attended a meeting with the Indian Workers Conference, a gathering of nine Native United Methodist churches in Michigan. That night, Casey was gazing at the white-haired elders on stage, realizing he was one of the youngest in the room, when he heard God speak: “Who is going to take their place?” Out loud, he responded, “I am.” Every head in the room turned toward him. With that statement of faith, Casey set out on his vocational path, unaware of the many obstacles ahead of him.

He knew there was a great need for more ministry among the Native American population—only five percent of Native Americans are professing Christians, according to Casey. “Any mission society would call that an unreached people group,” he points out. He was determined to change those statistics, but he also knew why so few of his people had been touched by the gospel: the most common evangelistic approach for the past several hundred years had required Native Americans to give up their cultural identity, to become “white models of Christians.” In many cases even today, he says, churches meant to reach Native Americans do not allow “even a single cultural artifact into the services.” Casey had experienced this himself, and he wanted to do ministry for Native Americans in a way unlike anything he’d seen before. “As I read the Bible I didn’t see where it said I had to give up my Native identity to become a follower of Jesus,” he says. He references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and the Jewish leaders’ decision that Gentiles did not have to obey the laws of Moses, be circumcised, and become Jewish—“they could be believers in Jesus and remain culturally native,” Casey says. Drawing a connection to Western missionaries evangelizing Native Americans, he says, “I thought the issue had been settled.” Just as Gentiles did not need to conform to Jewish customs, Native Americans don’t need to “obey Western Christian practices and become a white Christian” in order to follow Jesus.

The failure of Christian mission to Native Americans, demanding they give up their cultural ways, Casey believes, is “a carry-over from imposed assimilation practices of the 19th century designed to civilize the Indian.” His call to ministry, then, contained “a passion to right a wrong done to Native Americans.” But not everyone supported Casey’s desire to do ministry in a Native context. He planned to enroll in a school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that described itself as an “Indian Bible College,” the same school from which his uncle had graduated some 40 years earlier. However, during a chat with the admissions team in which he shared his vision for ministry within Native American cultural contexts, Casey was met with resistance. “They said, ‘We don’t do ministry that way, and we will never do ministry that way.’”

Written By

Joy Netanya Thompson (MAT ’12) is communications senior editor at Fuller. She is a writer focusing on the intersections of theology, motherhood, and pop culture, and has published her work in Sojourners, RELEVANT, Motherwell, and Outreach magazine, among others. Find her at joynetanyathompson.com.

Nate Harrison is a video storyteller for FULLER Studio and Senior Photographer for FULLER Magazine. His award-winning photography and filmmaking include showcased work for indiewireThe New York Times, UCDA Design Competition, and include clients such as Time Warner, Sundance Institute, and Nettwerk Music Group. His personal work can be found at NateCHarrison.com.

Casey Church
Casey Church

After such a disappointing encounter, instead of enrolling at the Bible college, Casey decided to study anthropology at a secular university. While working on his bachelor’s degree, he took courses in behavioral science, comparative religions, and the sociology, philosophy, and psychology of religion. From there, he enrolled in Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary and simultaneously started a church plant called All Tribes Gathering, using his contextual approach to ministry. “We opened our doors in June 1996 and 80 people came. A month later we leveled off to 60. We had a megachurch as far as Native churches go.” Casey was willing to try whatever he could to make the ministry’s expression of faith look, sound, smell, taste, and feel true to his Native American culture. “I experimented with every type of cultural expression from within my traditions that honored Christ,” he says. “Sometimes things worked and sometimes things didn’t work so well.”

The gathering was casual, with congregants wearing their usual clothing rather than suits, dresses, or patent leather shoes. Moccasins were common in the summer, or Native regalia for special occasions, such as when they held their meetings outdoors. Instead of sitting in rows “staring at the back of someone’s head while one person talked for 45 minutes,” the church gathered in a semicircle and always shared food as part of their meeting, having potlucks with fare such as wild rice, corn soup, and dishes made with venison. They employed the spiritual practice of smudging, burning bundles of dried sage and sweetgrass and using the smoke to symbolically purify a person or consecrate a space, and used Native flute music and powwow drum songs in worship. “So much of our culture was taken away,” says Casey. “I try to give it back.”

After four years heading up the church plant and cultivating its leadership, Casey was ready to move on. He’d learned that around 75 percent of Native American people live in urban areas (contrary to popular belief that the majority live on reservations where, Casey notes, most Christian mission efforts are directed). The Church family moved to Albuquerque, the hometown of his wife, Lora, and the center of a region where tens of thousands of Native Americans live.

Around that time, Casey also started attending Fuller. He’d met some Fuller representatives at a recruiting event while in seminary in Michigan, which led him to enroll in the School of Intercultural Studies (then the School of World Mission). “We had a great conversation—they knew exactly the type of ministry I was trying to create,” he says. He began taking distance learning courses by listening to lectures on tape and also traveled to the Colorado Springs and Pasadena campuses for intensives.

A groundbreaking moment in Casey’s vocational journey happened while attending a class in Colorado Springs taught by Shelley Trebesch, then an assistant professor of leadership and organizational development. “I don’t remember what she was teaching about,” he says, “but I’d been struggling internally with my call to be a pastor or missionary, thinking, ‘How can I undo hundreds of years of mistakes in evangelism to Native Americans by the white Christian church?’” He explains, “There exists a mistrust of ‘the white man’ and especially of their missionaries. Hundreds of years of abuse and atrocities, lies, and stealing have built so many barriers to sharing the true Christ with them.” As he wrestled with this during the lecture, something welled up within him to the point that he was visibly disturbed. Dr. Trebesch noticed his changed countenance and called for a break, asking Casey and her TA to stay behind. “What happened next changed my whole ministry mindset,” he says.

casey church
casey church

Casey vulnerably shared his fears and conflicting feelings about becoming a missionary and aligning himself with organizations that had caused so much pain to his people. Their conversation started off quietly, but then something inside him snapped. “I just exploded,” he says. “I exploded in righteous anger, shouting and crying out about how the Christian church has hurt me and my people.” His anger turned into “a sobbing spell, which was cathartic,” and eventually he regained his composure.

His professor and TA comforted him, and “in those moments, I released years of sadness and anger and gave them to Christ,” he says. “I felt the love of Jesus pouring out over me like warm water from my head to my feet.” His perspective shifted in that moment. “I could now continue my education knowing that when my people were hurting, so was Christ. He, too, wants to be known by my people through different methods and approaches to ministry.”

Over the past many years Casey has explored those different methods and approaches through his work with several organizations. Through his book Holy Smoke: The Contextual Use of Native American Ritual and Ceremony, and by teaching classes with NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community, Casey reeducates people and ministries on how to implement new models of reaching Native North Americans with the gospel. Further, Holy Smoke has been translated into Spanish at the request of Central and South American leaders with their own indigenous ministries, and it’s currently being translated into French for the large population of French-speaking First Nations people in eastern Canada. “There is a spiritual hunger among Native people,” Casey says, “and many are returning to their traditional religions because they have long provided spiritual connection to their understanding of the Creator.” His work takes many aspects from the traditional Native religious practices and creates a new approach that they can better understand. “Just as the Europeans created Christian expressions of faith from within their pre-Christian world that gave glory to Christ, Native people of North and South America can also create expressions of faith in Jesus,” he points out. “We need to let faith grow from the seed of Jesus planted within their own Native soil, not a transplanted model from the outside like we have done for hundreds of years.”

Today, one way Casey works to cultivate that seed of the gospel is by helping to lead family camps in Oregon, Virginia, and Canada, which include Native ceremonies and teachings as well as traditional powwows. The camps provide a place “where Native people can experience an expression of their faith in Christ in a welcoming and safe environment,” he says. He has also started a new Native congregation in Albuquerque called Good Medicine Way, signifying the healing that comes when Jesus is presented—and followed—in a culturally sensitive way. His efforts are seeing fruit. After having the chance to worship and experience their faith in their own Native context, many people have told Casey, “This is the first time I felt like God really loves me—that God loves me as a Native person.”

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