By Joshua Dueck
“We can go here because somebody has gone here before.” These were the words from my Cree friend and mentor as we made our way into the woods of northern Saskatchewan in search of moose. On both sides of the narrow “road” was a treacherous snowbank, one that easily would have consumed the front end of our truck and left us stranded many hours from any actual road.
As we pushed further and further into the forest toward our base for hunting, I would occasionally feel the truck pull out of the tire grooves packed from the previous hunters. Again I would hear him say, “Stay on the path that others have made, we can go here because somebody has gone here before.”
‘A Great Cloud of Witnesses’
While we never ended up harvesting any moose that trip, I left with one of the most profound illustrations of Hebrews 12:1–2a I ever heard. The text says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
The previous chapter lists what is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith.” These men and women of the Old Testament, despite their shortcomings and sinful nature, placed their faith exclusively in God, who revealed himself to them. The faithful saints of old are not witnesses of the audience to Hebrews, rather they bear witness to what happens when we place our faith in God. The saints of old had to rely on the law and on human prophets to know God. In contrast, the audience of Hebrews had the ultimate example of faith—God-in-flesh in the person of Jesus. He is the one perfect sinless prophet, the pioneer, author, and perfecter of faith. They could fix their eyes on him who was able to keep them on the straight and narrow. They now had access to the Father in a new and powerful way, empowered by the Holy Spirit and redeemed by the Son who went before and made a way.
Relationship, Relationship and Relationship
Following that hunting trip I had the privilege of traveling just shy of 2,500 km in three days around Saskatchewan delivering radio towers. The Native Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is hoping to install towers in Indigenous communities to broadcast the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
All the while I got to hear the heart of Indigenous Christian leaders as we tag-teamed driving. Relationship, relationship and relationship was the theme of nearly all our conversations. This theme and emphasis on relationship is echoed by many of my other Indigenous Christian mentors and friends. Sadly, they also affirm this is the piece often missing when good meaning Jesus-following people have gone as “missionaries” to their people.
Relationships take time, require sacrifice and in cross cultural contexts often require being able to surrender control; all things that do not come naturally—at least for me. When asked what the biggest challenge is for developing meaningful cross-cultural relationships, my Indigenous friends have said: “It is difficult to form meaningful relationships with people who only view us as projects and mission fields.”
I was recently listening to a well-respected Oji-Cree Christian elder from Ontario say, “There are more Christians per capita amongst Indigenous people of Canada than there are Christians amongst the non-Indigenous people of Canada.”
The census from ten years ago paints a similar picture, there they noted that there is only a four percent difference (67 percent non-Indigenous and 63 percent Indigenous) between people who identify as Christian (all denominations). He went on to challenge listeners with this question: “Do you currently have a relationship with your neighbours and are you currently serving and being a blessing to them as a follower of Jesus? If not, then what makes you think you will be able to form meaningful relationships, serve and be a blessing to our people?”
Who Is the Saviour?
Adopted as an Indigenous infant during the final years of the Sixties Scoop and growing up in non-Indigenous homes, schools and churches I understand the “saviour complex” mentality. Basically, this is a need to solve other people’s problems, usually by having those needing to be “saved” become more like their “saviour.”
Virtually my whole life I heard and experienced this one “truth”: I was better now that I could be a white Mennonite; I should be thankful that I was rescued from my people. I wish I was the only one with this story. However, in connecting with many Indigenous people who lived in similar contexts, I hear the same story. I continue to hear sentiments like this from well-meaning Jesus-following folks: “Well, are you not glad that you were chosen?” The implications are that because I was raised in a non-Indigenous context my life is better; because I can be like you, I can be saved.
We are not the standard for what it means to be righteous, sinless, or holy; that role is reserved for Jesus. Our role is not to save people by making them become like us. Our role is to point people to the One who can save, the One whose image they bear.
As many of my Christian Indigenous mentors testify, their acknowledgement of and submission to the Lord Jesus Christ came via faithful Jesus followers who lived in relationship with them. Not as better, not as saviours, not as rescuers, but as friends, as neighbours and as family.
Understanding the Value of Relationships
To be in relationship with my people means to do life together. The good times and the hard times, the fun times and the painful times. You will notice that all of this requires time. Lots of time. Meaningful relationships require time. There is a popular idiom that says, “Time is money,” however for those interested in being a blessing to my people, I would encourage you remember this phrase, “Time is relationship.”
It would be inaccurate to imply that all those who have gone before us have failed in this regard, there are some from the EMC and other denominations who understood the value of relationships and invested their time and lives in meaningful relationships with my people. They modelled Jesus, pointing to him and away from themselves. Let us learn from their witness.
Brothers and sisters, let us drop the temptation to think that we are the saviours, that others need to be like us in order to be saved. Let us throw off the saviour complex that prevents us from entering into meaningful relationships with Indigenous people. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith, the one who has gone on before us and made a way for us.
As we live in the imitation of Christ perhaps the fragrance of our faithfulness will be attractive to those with whom we have relationships. And may God continue to expand his kingdom to include every nation and tribe and people and tongue.
Joshua Dueck (BA Christian Ministries, Steinbach Bible College) lives in Kleefeld, Man., with his wife Helyn, their three elementary-age sons and preschool-age daughter. Their home church is Steinbach EMC. He studies at Providence Theological Seminary and works in student services at Steinbach Bible College. His home community is Fisher River Cree Nation, but due to the Sixties Scoop he was raised in non-Indigenous care.