An Interview with Mark Charles

Mark Charles

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for awhile you know that I like to do book interviews with authors to expose people to a variety of different leaders, voices and perspectives. One of the things we all benefit from in the current world – where we tend to interact most with things we already believe or agree with – is exposure to different points of view. One of the things that helps us grow as people and in wisdom is getting outside of ourselves and deepening our understanding of other perspectives. The Native American, and certainly the Native American Christian perspective, is one that we often don’t hear or are rarely exposed to.

Mark Charles is a voice that many of us need to hear. He is a writer, blogger, speaker and thought leader. I asked him to do an interview about himself, his ministry and his mission of trying to help contextualize the Christian faith within native culture. If you want to connect more with Mark you can connect with him on Twitter (@wirelesshogan) and follow him on his blog.

KW: You partner with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College as a Resource Development Specialist on Indigenous Worship. What have been the blessings to you as you’ve engaged the topic of contextualized worship in a formal academic setting?

MC: Ya’at’eeh. My father is Navajo and my mother is American of Dutch heritage. Both sides of my family have been involved in the Christian Reformed Church for at least 3 generations. In fact, my Navajo grandparents were translators for some of the early Christian Reformed missionaries in the Southwest. I personally have been involved in several ways with the denomination, including as pastor of the Christian Indian Center, a CRC church in Denver CO, before I moved back to the Navajo reservation with my wife Rachel and our 3 children.

One of the main goals of the Worship Institute is to revitalize worship in the local church this is done primarily through a grants program geared towards congregations. After my family and I moved back to the reservation, I began to write about life, reconciliation, marginalization of native people, and the process of contextualizing worship among native cultures. While living there I was connected with one of the grantees and through that relationship I began developing a partnership with the Worship Institute.

As our partnership continued to grow, I began consulting for them: doing leadership development and teaching and writing about contextualized worship. Their partnership allowed me more time and resources to invest in local leaders on our reservation and to engage in conversations throughout the country about what it means to contextualize Christian worship for indigenous cultures.

When I lecture at the seminary I usually start by asking the students whether anyone has ever participated in a contextualized worship service. A few ethnic minority students usually raise their hand. I then look around the room and tell them I have to assume that the rest of the class must worship in a Jewish synagogue on Saturday in Hebrew. Of course, their answer is no.

I go on to inform them that actually, they do participate in a highly contextualized worship service. When you come from a dominant culture you assume that the way you do things are normal—but, in fact, most worship services in the US are highly contextualized to fit the Western culture and the American people. A core value of the United States that unfortunately had been adopted by the American church is the value of assimilation. But that is not a Biblical value. I use the topic of contextualizing worship as a way to encourage the students to instead embrace the discomfort that comes from our diversity.

But perhaps the best fruit that has come from my partnership with the Worship Institute had been the opportunity to invest in Native leaders with Cru (formally Campus Crusade) and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. 3 years ago we started a national Native American student conference called Would Jesus Eat Frybread (WJEF). This conference attracts about 100 native students from around country allows them to ask questions about it means to be both native and Christian.

KW: What is the one of the most important messages the American church needs to hear about indigenous peoples?

MC: There are many things that the American church is ignorant of in regard to indigenous peoples. One of the primary things is that for much of the history of our nation, the American church has worked in partnership with the US government to destroy, assimilate or marginalize Native Americans and our cultures. The main way this came about was through the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery stemmed from a series of papal bulls written in the 15th century. Essentially, it was the Church in Europe saying to the nations of Europe, whatever lands you encounter that are not ruled by Christian rulers, the people in those lands are less than human and the land is yours for the taking. It was this doctrine that allowed Columbus to claim to have discovered America—because his worldview, theology and doctrine told him this land was empty.

This doctrine has become a foundational doctrine, not just for the American church, but also for the nation. Most people don’t know the Doctrine of Discovery by name but they do recognize the fruit of it which is foundational in much of their attitudes and perspectives. Manifest Destiny is a perfect example. The Doctrine Discovery feeds a lie to the church and our country which is the belief that the United States is God’s chosen nation and this continent is their promised land. This belief is rarely preached explicitly. But it is implicit in the understanding of what it means to be an American.

The Doctrine of Discovery has also been codified into US law. There are a number of cases in the Supreme Court that reference the Doctrine of Discovery. One example is Johnson vs. M’Intosh (1823). In that case, two white men were arguing over the ownership of a piece of land. One man had purchased the land from indigenous people and the other man had purchased it from the government. The court stated that based on the Doctrine of Discovery, the indigenous people only had the right of occupancy and that the Europeans had the right of discovery. And the right of European discovery trumped the right of indigenous occupancy.

Most people are not aware that at its core our nation is this systemically racist and fundamentally unjust. We often point to the Declaration of Independence as evidence that our nation is “good” and believes that “all men are created equal.” But even that declaration was based on the Doctrine of Discovery. The colonies claimed that the British crown was limiting their ability to expand and “discover” the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains so therefore they had to declare their independence. So the great statement that “all men are created equal” has in its foundation an assumption that the indigenous peoples living in the land were not fully human.

This is a difficult truth to swallow and this information causes quite a paradigm shift for most people. But it’s important to understand this history and the way it has influenced our life and our thinking.

KW: What do you think is the greatest misunderstanding about indigenous people?

MC: I think the biggest misunderstanding people have is that we, Native Americans, aren’t here. Most people don’t realize or think about the fact that we still exist and that there are close to 6 million Native Americans living in this country, representing over 600 tribes and residing on more than 300 reservations.

Four and a half years ago, then Senator Brownback (now governor of Kansas), amended House Resolution 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, with a 7 bullet-point apology to Native Peoples of the United States. The apology mentions no specific tribe, treaty or injustice and ends with a disclaimer stating that nothing contained in it is legally binding. The senator tried for years to get a meatier apology passed as a stand-alone bill, but couldn’t even get it out of committee. So he kept watering it down and still was unable to move it. It was finally recommended that he bury it in an Appropriations Act in order to pass it. He did so, and it was signed by President Obama on December 19, 2009, but it was never announced, publicized or read by the White House or Congress.

I hosted a public reading of this apology in December 2012 in front of the Capitol building in Washington DC. I invited Governor Brownback, President Obama, and other government, political and denominational leaders from around the nation to come in hopes of creating a dialogue to begin the process of reconciliation. We had about 200 people show up—almost entirely from the grassroots level. Virtually no one with leadership in the church, academia or the government attended.

At this reading I shared a metaphor that I have used for nearly a decade to invite our nation into a conversation for reconciliation with indigenous peoples.

Being Native American and living in the United States feels like our indigenous peoples are an old grandmother who lives in a very large house. It is a beautiful house with plenty of rooms and comfortable furniture. But, years ago, some people came into our house and locked us upstairs in the bedroom. Today, our house is full of people. They are sitting on our furniture. They are eating our food. They are having a party in our house. They have since unlocked the door to our bedroom but it is much later and we are tired, old, weak and sick; so we can’t or don’t come out. But the part that is the most hurtful and that causes us the most pain, is that virtually no one from this party ever comes upstairs and finds us in the bedroom, sits down next to us on the bed, takes our hand, and simply says, “Thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house.”

It is my prayer that our nation can begin to acknowledge and respect the indigenous peoples this land.

KW: What is the goal of your new organization 5 Small Loaves?

MC: Through honest education, intentional conversation, and meaningful action, 5 Small Loaves is pursuing restored relationships and seeking healing for Native Americans, the Church, and the United States of America.

For the past 5-7 years, I have mostly participated only in dialogues where I was invited to engage. This included joining the boards of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). I also accepted invitations to speak and lead (in partnership with other organizations) on issues of diversity, racial reconciliation, and other faith issues.

But in the past 3-5 years, there have been 3 specific issues that I have been compelled to speak out on and lead into primarily on my own. These issues were so important to me, but yet incredibly controversial throughout the broader country, that I found if I did not speak, then very little would be said or done. These issues are:

  • Creating a space for native voices in national political elections.
  • Advocating for the inclusion of the indigenous peoples of this land in the process to comprehensively and justly reform our nation’s immigration laws.
  • To publicly and respectfully read the U.S. apology to Native peoples that was buried in the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act.

Pursuing reconciliation is going to require engaging in dialogue on these types of more difficult issues. Very few organizations are willing to take on the risk, so we needed to start our own in order to engage them. My wife, Rachel, and I understand that we cannot do it alone. We need to have partners, encouragers and other leaders to help. We’re looking forward to seeing how God will use this organization to raise up people to help move the dialogue forward in these areas.



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