Ministers in Montana
Farther to the east, in the forested hills of the Chippewa Cree reservation in Rocky Boy, Montana, Vicar Dan Smail and Pastor Joe Bailey minister to a small Lutheran congregation. We are to meet them at a 4 o'clock barbecue, but when we arrive there a little after 5, there is no sign of them. Eventually people start trickling in, and we help some of the locals pile large rocks for a sweat. When Pastor Bailey finally arrives, a few hours later, he has no apologies. "Haven't you ever heard of Indian time?" he says with a shrug as he pulls his t-shirt over his thick chest and heavily bearded face to prepare to climb into the sweat lodge. Both men climb in before I can ask another question. So I interview one of the local men, a Chippewa Cree named Allen Gardipee.
Gardipee, a tall man with long dark hair, believes that the God the Lutherans pray to and his Creator are one and the same. He tells me how similar the Chippewa Cree creation story is to that of the Bible. In both stories, the man appears first and the woman is created later as a companion. The woman then eats from a tree she's not supposed to touch and gains knowledge. According to him, Native Americans are open to other faiths like Christianity. "I think Native Americans as a whole are very accepting, more so than your people," he told me, fixing me with a challenging stare. "It's proselytzing I don't agree with. When people first came across the water, they thought we didn't know God. Sad to say, some people still think that." Gardipee doesn't like fundamental missionaries who ask him if he's found Jesus. "I never lost Jesus," he said. "Jesus has always been a very important part of my life...Jesus was always with me and he found me when I strayed. I was ready to go into a bar in Norfolk, VA when I saw a sign that said 'Jesus Saves' and some young people having good clean fun and laughing and those people accepted me." He thinks the two can coexist. "I read the Bible and there are so many parallels between that and what my grandparents and the other elders have taught me," he said. "Someone asked how can you do the sweat and still be a Christian but does God know those barriers? I think they're manmade."
Later, I am able to track down Bailey and Smail back at the Lutheran church. "Rocky Boy's a good place," said Smail, 24, a tall blond man from Pennsylvania spending 3 months as a chaplain on the reservation. "It's totally cut off from tourism so the white influence has been deficient here. The culture is still totally alive." Both men sweat several times a week. What started out as a nod to cultural traditions has become a part of their own spiritual practice. Smail recites the Lord's Prayer, Apostle's Creed and sings Lutheran hymns during the sweats. "It's a spiritual discipline-- a time of serious prayer and communion with other people," he said. "Also, it's a form of respect. My faith is the same, but I feel more comfortable. In the sweat lodge, we pray more effortlessly." Theologically, Smail sees no conflict. He points out that the books of Psalms mentions the spirit of the wind, so the much-aligned concept of animism actually presents little conflict. Just as the two Lutheran ministers have received the Native traditions, they say the Cree people are open to stories of Jesus, a point which Gardipee seems to illustrate. "Some of their leaders say they've had visions from Jesus, so the people are generally comfortable with melding their beliefs," said Smail.
Pastor Joe has spent three years on the reservation, building up the church's congregation from six to 200 people. The liberal pastor, who describes his politics are somewhere to the left of Lenin, was assigned to Rocky Boy when he told the church conference to assign him wherever he was needed the most. When he arrived at Rocky Boy, he spent many of his first hours attempting to repair damage done before him. "Traditionally, white people have done a lousy job with Indian people in regards to Christianity-- told them to bury their medicine bags, stop their Sun Dances, that in order to be Christian you have to stop being Indian," said Bailey. "We don't tell people they have to stop doing anything- they can go to peyote church, whatever." Bailey made his own share of mistakes when he first arrived, however. One of his first duties was a funeral. Afterwards, there is a native tradition of holding a feast to celebrate the passing of a loved one to the next place. Not sure he was invited or welcome, Bailey disappeared into his office right after the service. When he finally emerged several hours later, he realized they were still waiting for him to bless the food so they could eat. "If you're not invited, they'll let you know," he said. "The people are very gracious and welcoming and invite me to sweats and Sun Dances. I probably sweat sometimes two, three, four times a week." Bailey, a short man with wild brown hair, speaks glowingly of Native American beliefs as he drinks a lager and waves around his cigarette. "Historically, the problem was that people believed Indians worshipped creation and not the Creator," he said. "They don't worship rocks or trees. They worship the God who created them. Bread and water of communion are means of grace and so are the trees and eagles and water."
The opposite of Bailey's pastoring techniques are Pentecostal and Mormon missionaries who seek to convert Indians by telling them to give up pow-wows, sweats, Sun Dances, Squaw Dances and the other ceremonies. There used to be a New Life Mission and an Assembly of God Church just up the road but neither lasted long on the reservation. Bailey and Smail believe this is because the two told their adherents not to sweat or burn sweet grass or even attend pow-wows if they wanted to be Christian. "I think it's this whole attitude of 'I'm coming in with the right way and let me teach you, and to be honest, that makes me sick," said Smail. "In John it says, 'In the beginning ...' so Jesus was always here. I don't believe anyone has a corner on the market-- the only way to worship." This is one of Pastor Joe's theories. "If you start with the supposition that indeed Christ, the eternal Logos, was already here, then you realize that it's just different ways of experiencing Him," said Bailey. And for this reason, he doesn't practice conversion. "Like Barth said, 'God in God's freedom can manifest itself to God's people however God wants," said Bailey. "Jesus speaks the living word by the breath of God's spirit. It quickly becomes apparent to me that my job is not to convert anybody. My job is to accept." But even for the accepting Bailey, pastoring on the reservation is not easy. Just as Armajo was unwilling to identify himself as a Christian, many of the Chippewa Cree reject the label. "To be Christian on the reservation today is a tough row to hoe because there's a movement to recover the traditional ways," he said. "They call you an apple Indian, white on the inside, Indian on the outside."