Submitted by Ken Gingerich
Every Monday evening, beginning with a shared meal around 5:00 p.m., a small group of people gathers in the lower level of University Heights United Methodist Church—just a block from the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque. Guests might include several unhoused people who are welcomed in through the open door, a couple of folks from the Navajo reservation west of the city, a non-native ally or two, and local leaders. During the hour leading up to the 6:00 p.m. starting time, monitors, mic stands, cameras and computers are set up to create a temporary virtual studio. This small gathering of local community members combined with 25 to 30 online Zoom and YouTube participants has become a much needed and “safe” gathering place for Indigenous followers of Jesus. Participants sign on from locations as diverse the Carolinas, the Canadian prairies, urban Los Angeles and the Navajo homelands.
This is “Good Medicine Way”—a contextual manifestation of what a community of Jesus followers might look like—that exists outside the parameters of traditional Western expressions of being church. This a community that works to discern the meaning of scripture and is as faithful to the leading of Jesus and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, as any traditional American protestant or evangelical church. But it also wholeheartedly embraces Indigenous cultural practices as authentic expressions of Christian faith including drumming, native singing and dancing, smudging (incense), ceremony, sweat lodge and other rituals.
Good Medicine Way (GMW) grows out of a vision given to Indigenous Missiologist and UMC church-planter Dr. Casey Church, a member of the Pokagon Band Potawatomi Indians from Michigan. As a lay minister Casey planted a contextual-styled ministry in his ancestral homeland near Grand Rapids, Michigan in the summer of 1996. Called “All Tribes Gathering”, this ministry was an unexpected success as his small team experimented with new methods and expression of Indigenous Christian faith. With this experience Casey and his young family felt drawn to New Mexico—returning in the summer of 2000 to the traditional home of Lora Morgan, Casey’s wife, who is Diné (Navajo).
For a number of years Casey supported his family as a construction worker and other pursuits. But the call to continue in ministry among Native American people tugged at his heart. Inspired by the legacy of the late Indigenous theologian Richard Twiss and encouraged by the work of other Indigenous Christian leaders and thinkers like Randy Woodley and Terry LeBlanc, Casey pursued and received a Doctoral degree in Missiology from Fuller Seminary in 2017. This reinforced his belief that a new and different model of church-planting needs to be used when creating ministry among Native American people.
“From the very onset, we have held the guiding belief that there needs to be a break from the structures of church planting and ministry currently practiced in most Indigenous ministry situations across North America,” says Casey. “The existing model is this: a ministry or planting a church in a native community generally resembles all aspects of the sending church and seldom takes into consideration the customs, values, and traditional religious practices of Indigenous people.”
“This comes from a mindset of ministry—that the best method of church planting has been set by the (European) West and is the only model to be used. What the Western church fails to consider is the adaptation throughout Christian history of the influence of cultural practices surrounding the spread of Christianity as it moved from Jerusalem to Asia Minor, then to Greece and on to the rest of Europe. The influence of “pagan” cultures on early Christianity is noted throughout history especially the influence of pagan Europe. The book Pagan Christianity by Frank Viloa and George Barna shares the story of the church’s movement through pre-Christian Europe.”
“My point is,” continues Casey, “the same cultural adaptation of Christianity as it moved through Indigenous Europe over 1500 years ago is the same model needed to reach the rest of the world. Each Indigenous culture around the world (and this includes Indigenous Europe) should have the same freedom to create a Christian expression that resemble their own cultures— just as Indigenous Europe took the freedom to create Christian expression from the influences of the pagan cultures around them. Therefore, every other Indigenous culture can create expressions from within their world view that best meets the spiritual needs of their own people. Here is where Good Medicine Way takes the lead.”
Following his graduation from Fuller Seminary, Casey began planning and gathering a team to embark on the creation of a new kind of gathering for Indigenous followers of Jesus in Albuquerque—one that could fully embrace Indigenous cultural and spiritual values without the imposition and constraints of Western church planting models. It was to be a place where the suffering and trauma brought by centuries of genocide, spiritual and religious oppression, and exploitation of Native People could be set aside so that the Spirit of the Creator could be present in ways that felt familiar, safe and encouraging.
Casey’s vision attracted the attention of Brian and Leah Grover, who are members of Christ United Methodist in Albuquerque and gifted with musical and technological experience. The team began to organize prayer gatherings, drumming circles and other cultural expressions that attracted local Indigenous seekers. But the arrival of the COVID 19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 necessitated a need for a new approach to gathering for Good Medicine Way.
With encouragement and support from the New Church Development Committee of the New Mexico Annual Conference of the UMC, Good Medicine Way now had the capacity to become a mostly on-line gathering. The newly available funds were used to purchase equipment and technology needed to become virtual. This change has created an unexpected opportunity as Indigenous participants and some non-native allies began to attend from all around the North American continent—and sometimes beyond, as word spread about GMW’s unique ministry.
With a pastor’s heart, Casey quietly encourages the gifts and contributions of GMW participants who are given opportunities to lead in worship, music, prayer and other input. A typical gathering include some new terminology for an order of worship: a Greeting, a Four Directions Prayer and Land Acknowledgement; a Creation Insight; Indigenous music; “This week on Turtle Island” (current or historical Native-related events); reading from the First Nations Version of the New Testament; Smoke Signals (announcements) and Giveaway (offering); a speaker might be a community member leading a Bible study, a member of NAITTS* (An Indigenous Learning Community) presenting a project, a professor, an author or theologian, etc.—a highlight is time given for questions and responses, and then a closing ceremony/song.
The First Nations Version—an Indigenous Translation of the New Testament—published in 2021 by InterVarsity Press is an important component of the contextual movement. Within its pages the teachings and story of Creator Sets Free (Jesus) along with other New Testament characters and stories assume culturally relevant portrayals and wording.
Despite being a mostly virtual community, participants often share deeply and with compassion. “It is refreshing to see the way of Creator sets Free (Jesus) being expressed in a non-Western oriented context,” writes Nick (Eše-Hemeo’o) who participates from North Carolina. “Good Medicine Way is a space that is noted as safe, inclusive, welcoming and most importantly loving. I look forward with excitement to each weekly meeting. Come and see.”
Indigenous songwriter and performer Jonathon Maracle recently spent a weekend with Good Medicine Way sharing his music in a variety of New Mexico venues. Referring to the drumming circle Jonathon said “our drumming requires a unified community rhythm that for us reflects the heartbeat of God. It’s an indigenous way of sensing Creator’s presence. It is a connection to Creator that existed here long before the Western church imposed its ideas about what is “Christian” and what isn’t.” Maracle suggests that deep connections to Indigenous culture actually become a bridge to faith in Creator sets Free (Jesus) for Native people.
As the pandemic eases and communities begin to resume some of the previous patterns of gathering, GMW faces some unprecedented challenges. Ironically, a new contextual approach to ministry that uses traditional Indigenous spiritual practices has been significantly impacted by technology as it has become both an in-person and a virtual community. What does the future hold?
Good Medicine Way also creates challenges and opportunities for United Methodists. As a mostly virtual community, GMW doesn’t function at all in the same way a traditional church plant might—but it is filling a vital gap within the Indigenous world of Jesus followers. There is also opposition from traditional Indigenous people who oppose the idea that anything good can come from the Christian church—and from traditional Christian mission organizations who don’t support a contextual approach to ministry.
Finding their way through this somewhat narrow paradigm provides unique learning and growth both for participants and supporters of Good Medicine Way’s ministry. “Our prayer is that the New Mexico Conference will continue to find ways to support this opening during the critical early years of our formation,” says Casey. “The pandemic threw us all into a tailspin, but we are also thankful it has created this wonderful new way of experiencing community in our journey with Creator Sets Free (Jesus). One of our dreams is that our contextual model will take root and expand in the lives of our participants. Who knows what kind of movement might develop as we continue to nurture and feed this vision.”
Dr. Casey Church