Brenton Diaz is a Toronto youth pastor who has led several missions trips to a Native North American community in Northern Canada. Below he shares his heart and a bit of his experience as he gears up for yet another foray into the land to share the Gospel with young Native people this summer.
Natives in North America face incredible pressures that are foreign to the lives of many Americans and Canadians. While many people in these countries continue to eek out a normalized existence in postmodern Western society, Natives (otherwise known as First Nations, Indians, Aboriginals, etc.) often find themselves in the social and geographic margins of society. For Canadians, places like Kashechewan (where last fall a whole community was evacuated after years of consuming dangerous and tainted water), Ipperwash (where Ontario police shot and killed a Native man during a peaceful yet tense demonstration), Davis Inlet (where a decade ago images of glue-sniffing young people crying out suicidal phrases stunned Canada) and most recently Caledonia (where a prolonged barricade by Natives claiming land is causing intense conflict not far from Toronto) have become embarrassingly commonplace.
In the present era, Native communities, unfortunately, have become synonymous with drugs, violence, alcoholism, unemployment, teen pregnancy and high school drop-outs. While the reasons given for such a disparity between those living in mainstream North American society and Native areas have ranged from the highly theoretical and esoteric (e.g. the colonization of Natives continues through the policies of governments) to the outright racist (the horrendously putrid idea that Natives are simply not able to be “civilized”), the fact remains for teenagers growing up on reservation, or with an Indian identity, life is fiercely difficult beyond what most can imagine.
Coupled with working through the social (and, Christians would correctly point out, spiritual) problems that plague their communities, Native teens find themselves straddling the Western world, with all its glamour, glitz and technology, and the more traditional way of life their elders espouse. It is into this milieu that those who endeavor to work with Native teens in a Christian context wade. Not to mention residue from the sometimes dreadful history that the Church (particularly in Canada: Google “residential schools” for one example) has had in committing racist acts against Native peoples.
Entering such communities is never easy, and sensitivity on the part of non-Native Christians is essential if they are to minister among Natives. The complexities that many Native youth have faced, watching their parents and other trusted adults in their community battle with depression and alcoholism, all the while dreaming of a better life for themselves, are indeed overwhelming. Yet, in the midst of these complex social problems, the Church must understand that hope for these people is found in the Gospel, its promises of victory over sin and love for oppressors.
The stance of the broader North American Church has been eerily distant as Native communities continue to suffer. As individual Christians, especially Christians who live in areas where there are high concentrations of Native North Americans, we have a responsibility to extend God’s love and hope through relationships and interactions with these people. By becoming a strong listening and supportive presence in Native North American communities, we can begin to right the wrongs caused in the past by the Church.
Sure, the problems facing Native communities might be too vast for an individual church or Christian to address. But by coming alongside Natives, befriending and sincerely loving them, we can give hope to the Natives in the West who are willing to count the cost to understand their issues. As my church endeavors to do its part this summer in reaching out to Native North American teens, we hope we can be but a small part of God’s restorative healing plan for these young people who find themselves so torn, conflicted, and in search of real hope and identity.