**Reaching First Nations People with the Hope of Christ is a continuation of my series “Christianity in Canada, A Complicated History.” I recommend reading the first installment beforehand.**
In my last post, I attempted to summarize – as best I could with limited words – the strained relationship between “the Church” and the First Nations of Canada.
I focused mostly on the tragic history and ongoing repercussions of residential schools.
I ended my blog with a sobering question: is there any hope of rebuilding trust and credibility in the message of Jesus Christ, after His name and reputation have been so horribly misrepresented?
In this complementary installment, I will do my best to answer that question as respectfully and humbly as possible…with the help of three special people.
Village Missionaries Matt & Shanay Deneault have served here since 2019. Roy Thiessen, their church chairman, and his family serve with Interact Ministries in Cardston as missionaries to the Blood Tribe.
Matt, Shanay, and Roy shared with me about their experience loving and reaching First Nations people in their community. I hope you will be encouraged by the wisdom, humility, and love they bring to their ministry.
Most important, I want to share how the gospel of Jesus Christ changes everything, including those who have suffered greatly.
Knowing Who You Serve
As already mentioned, Cardston is a unique community with its strong LDS presence and the largest reserve in Canada nearby.
“Matt, Shanay, and I live in a very dark corner of the world,” Roy shares.
But in this little town on the Alberta-US border, the Deneaults and their church work together to love and share the gospel with the people here.
“As Christians, we need to know the people we minister to,” Matt & Shanay explain.
First Steps for Reaching First Nations People
So that’s the first step in ministry and in life as a follower of Christ wherever you are.
- Who are the people around us? (Who is our neighbor?)
- What are their needs?
- How can I love and serve them in a way that is meaningful to them?
For the Deneaults and Roy, they spend time getting to know their native neighbors, showing interest in them, their language, and their culture.
Although the Reserve had been closed off-and-on because of the pandemic – which limited opportunities for reaching First Nations people – things have slowly started to reopen again. Here is an update from Matt:
“We’ve been able to connect/reconnect with different families.Some of that has even provided opportunities to do counseling/Bible studies. Even if those moments don’t last long, you never know how God might use that ONE ENCOUNTER. Roy is even helping out with a Native Church Service off the reserve at the “Senior Centre” where we meet on Sundays. These are just some of the ways God is working!”
Recognizing Past Hurts
A crucial part of knowing who you serve entails recognizing the wounds they carry.
For many First Nations people, the wounds of colonization, family separation, and near cultural extinction still bleed.
“There are definitely a lot of people that have been hurt by the Church and want nothing to do with it,” Matt shares.
Often, the trauma of the past is inherited. For example, perhaps a young First Nations person has not personally experienced oppression. But maybe their grandparents did, so anger and distrust is passed from generation to generation.
Roy summarizes the barrier well:
“The first introduction many First Nations had to the Bible was through residential schools. That means their first experience learning about Christ was probably horrific. Kids were ripped from their families, many abused in a variety of ways. There has been a lot of damage.”
This difficult history sometimes means that Christians feel timidity in reaching First Nations people and neighbors. Maybe a past attempt to minister didn’t go as they hoped, and now they are hesitant to try again.
That’s why building relationships requires time and patience, especially when the tragedies of the past are still felt and experienced today.
“Lack of trust is something we need to overcome,” Roy shares. “And that is built through relationships, showing interest in other’s lives, and ministering to one another.”
That’s why he also says that “native ministry is a lifelong, walking-along-side, ministry.”
That sounds like what Village Missionaries do, right? They preach the Word and love the people by putting down roots and committing to stay for the long haul – because the people there deserve to see the gospel lived out and proclaimed right where they are.
Credibility and trust are earned, not freely given.
The Human Problem for Reaching First Nations People
In each of their respective ministries, the Deneaults and Roy have labored tirelessly to share the love of Christ with the community of Cardston.
But as Roy said earlier, they live in a dark corner of the world where sorrow and dysfunction are common.
Many in the First Nations community have responded to the trauma of the past in unhealthy ways. “Alcoholism, depression, drug use, unemployment, and physical and sexual abuse are all disproportionately high in Canada’s indigenous population.” On the Kanai reserve, suicides and overdoses are often daily occurrences.
A deep brokenness resides in the hearts, minds, and souls of so many First Nations people. And the truth is – this brokenness exists in all people.
“Mankind shares a common problem – a worship disorder,” Roy explains.“This is found in all cultures around the world. It’s a matter of the heart.”
Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV) tells us that the human heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
The distortion of our heart’s affections, intentions, and desires – our worship disorder – has caused all of us to seek our purpose, value, and fulfillment in something other than God.
Isaiah 53:6 (ESV) says that “We all like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – everyone – to his own way…”
All people – from every tribe, nation, and tongue – share the same diagnosis: a worship disorder that separates us from our Creator.
Why The Gospel Changes Everything
But Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the solution to our worship disorder. Paul tells the church in Ephesus that:
“…You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to Him through the blood of Christ.”
– Ephesians 2:12-13, NLT
Because of Christ, we are no longer defined by our shame, addictions, past, or sufferings. Rather, we are conquerors and an entirely new creation!
Paul boldly proclaims in Romans 8:37 (ESV) and in 2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV):
“…in all things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
When we trust in Christ, everything changes. He takes our worship disorder and gives us a new heart as He promised in Jeremiah 31:33.
Roy shares this message of hope:
“The gospel transforms our hearts and minds. It changes how we see our lives and circumstances. When we turn our lives to Christ, our identity is in Him. And that’s how the gospel will transform a culture.”
To every victim of oppression, injustice, and atrocity…the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms you into a victor.
A Relatable Savior
While writing this blog, I remembered a truth about our Savior – He too knows what it’s like to suffer greatly. He isn’t a distant and out-of-touch God uninvolved in the activity of humans. Rather, He became one of us to save us from our worship disorder.
“He was despised and rejected by man; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3, ESV)
When Jesus of Nazareth finally arrived in the first century, His life was defined by hardship and suffering – just as Isaiah had predicted.
Rejected by his own people. Betrayed by his closest friends. Murdered by the very people He came to save.
Paul tells us in Philippians that “he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV).
We don’t serve a God who is unfamiliar with pain. Rather, we serve a God who understands our weaknesses because He experienced what it’s like to suffer and struggle too (Hebrews 4:15).
To everyone who has suffered – Jesus is a relatable Savior.
A Story of Hope
Roy shared one personal story with me that I would like to conclude with (names changed for privacy).
A native couple, *Sam* and *Tina*, were addicted to heroin, even selling their belongings to support their habit. But one day they encountered Jesus, and He delivered them from their addiction.
The last time that Roy saw him, *Sam* beamed and declared jubilantly:
“My identity is not in being Indian, it’s being a child of the King.”
“That is his greatest joy, his association with Jesus Christ,” says Roy.
The First Nations of Canada have experienced tremendous suffering at the hands of people who have grossly misrepresented Christ.
But today, many like *Sam* and *Tina* have come to know the real Christ“and the power of His resurrection…” (Philippians 3:10, ESV).
So, to return to my original question – is there any hope of rebuilding trust and credibility in the message of Jesus Christ, after His name and reputation have been so horribly misrepresented? Is there hope for reaching First Nations people in rural Canada?
As Jesus said in Matthew 19:26 (ESV):
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The Lord is building His Kingdom across Canada, and more Sams and Tinas are coming to know the Suffering Savior every day.
Let’s pray that the Lord will raise up more Sams and Tinas to share the hope and love of Christ with more First Nations of Canada!
Resource: The Gospel Coalition – “Why Jesus’s Humanity Matters as Much as His Divinity”