Does Christianity end at the church door? Is it a religion in which people of different backgrounds come together to pray, but separate as they leave?
That has long been what Native Americans have found it to be, said the Rev. Calvin Hill.
He should know. A full-blooded Navajo and Methodist minister, he and countless other Native Americans were taught to be good Christians while in church, but were left at the curb by society and the church once the religious services ended.
“What has not happened,” Hill said Wednesday prior to addressing an audience at Hosanna Christian Fellowship in Lititz, “is that none of the missionaries, none of the churches, have done an effective discipleship. No one has equipped us Native Americans to live outside the church.
“How do I become a believer in Christ, a believer in God … and prosper?” he asked.
Hill pastors in Browning, Montana, in one of three churches that make up the Blackfeet United Methodist Parish. He is the first Native American to assume that role. The 3,000-square-mile reservation sits at the foot of Glacier National Park — a national landmark that once was owned by the Blackfeet Nation. Like many tribal reservations, it is impoverished.
When Hill met with tribal leaders before taking over as pastor, he presented his personal mission statement, which was to develop a Christ-centered community that would create disciples to serve all people.
That involves more than just preaching. He needed a hook to bring reservation residents back to the church. A parish leader suggested leasing part of the 340 acres of church land to nearby cattle ranchers as a way to generate revenue for the church. Hill saw that as a way to establish a relationship with ranchers and reservation residents who would be involved.
He took that plan and built upon it, suggesting that the church plant alfalfa to sell. That would provide employment and teach community members farming and marketing skills. All of which leads to his most ambitious plan — building an indoor arena for equine training. The program, he said would offer certificate courses for those who train horses to become veterinary assistants, and for those involved in the construction of the building to learn a trade.
Though the project sounds modest, it represents a huge obstacle for the church. That is why Hill came to Lancaster. He is looking for help — not just monetarily, but through prayer and messages of hope via social media. (“Facebook,” he joked, “is our new smoke signal.”)
Hill’s visit to Lancaster County was arranged by Mike Shifflet, a member of Oregon United Methodist Church. Shifflet was part of a mission team that went to Blackfeet United Methodist Parish in Montana where Hill preaches.
Their work consisted of helping renovate the Heart Butte United Methodist Church and inviting community members to come to church.
Sharon Wilson, an English and creative writing teacher at Warwick High School, has led two previous mission trips to the Blackfeet Nation. She went there the first time out of curiosity. She returned because of their nature.
“I like their gentleness. I like their grace and their story telling. I like that part of their culture,” she said.
At Wednesday evening’s service, Hill asked Wilson to light sage in a bowl. In the Native American culture, he said, sage is burned in a vessel to create relationships and to reconcile differences.
Native Americans, he said, know about Jesus Christ. Their problem is not with Christianity, he said, it’s with a Christian culture that has tried to convert them while committing genocide against native peoples.
That is why the sage was lit and passed among the audience members Wednesday evening. The time, he said, has come for churches to build a meaningful relationship with Native Americans.