November was designated as National American Indian Heritage Month in 1990 and amended to include Alaska Natives 18 years later. American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month invites us to recognize the contributions made by Indigenous people. It gives us the opportunity to create space through which we can hear Native voices and perspectives, centralizing an Indigenous worldview for the benefit of all.

The ELCA has 25 unique Indigenous ministries, yet they share a common thread. They listen to the needs of their community and partner to meet those needs regardless of their own circumstances as a congregation. Three Indigenous ministries are highlighted here.

Lutheran Church of the Great Spirit

In 1990, Brenda Doxtator, an elder in the Milwaukee Indigenous community, was part of a group who “wanted to combine the Lutheran church and Indigenous ceremonies.” From that vision, Lutheran Church of the Great Spirit was planted in Milwaukee. Its current pastor, Char Guiliani, who began serving in September 2023 as the congregation’s first full-time pastor in more than 10 years, describes Great Spirit as a community with real energy behind everything they do.

They host beading, crafting and a Full Moon Ceremony. Worship services open with smudging. Prayers are in the four directions of the earth. Sermons honor the Talking Circle, inviting inprealut, reflection and comment, and offering worshipers a chance to share what God is doing in their lives to invite communal joys and laments. At Great Spirit, all are equal and share a mutual responsibility to the community, so communion occurs in a circle around the altar.

Guiliani’s call is possible through partnerships between the congregation, the Greater Milwaukee Synod, and ELCA Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations, but it’s “only guaranteed for three years so I have work to do,” she said. “[The congregation has] work to do, and hopefully we will continue to get the support we need after the three years.”

As part of this work, they are making their building more visible and developing ways to incorporate more Indigenous traditions, such as the use of hand drums and Indigenous songs, into their worship services.

“Learn, read, come and worship with us. [You’ll] see the difference.”

When asked about their dreams for the future, members shared that they would love to buy a food truck to prepare meals for their community, and they hoped to regularly visit their sister congregation—Lutheran Church of the Wilderness in Bowler, Wis., another ELCA Indigenous ministry. Presently, Indigenous youth attend camps and cultural programs outside the city, so the congregation dreams of developing a program that youth can walk to.

Guiliani sees serving Great Spirit as a way to grow community. “If the Europeans who came over would have just learned from the Native peoples …instead of forcing things on them, this world would be different,” she said. “The whole idea that we need to look at people as created beings of God … giving thanks for everything, [there’s] gratefulness behind all of it. If we would just open our eyes and take a look at what the Native peoples’ theology is … [we’d see that] Indigenous Peoples were living the Christian way before Europeans came and showed them how not to live it.”

She offered an invitation to “learn, read, come and worship with us. [You’ll] see the difference.”

Peoples Church

Brandon Antell Sr., an Indigenous healer and pipe carrier, is a staff member of Peoples Church in Bemidji, Minn. “People are feeling welcome as soon as they walk through that door,” he said. “Even though it’s a shelter and [there’s staff], when it comes down to it, it’s the community that takes care of themselves.

“A sense of belonging … makes them feel part of that community. A lot of these people, you got to understand that even though they were born into families, they have never really had [a sense of] belonging into a family. …As soon as they come here, they feel [like they belong], so already we are winning. We have them feeling comfortable enough to utilize what the program has to offer.”

Approximately 45% of the Peoples Church community identify as Indigenous (25-30% identify as Black or African descent and 20-35% are white or other).

Despite being designated with the State of Minnesota as an ELCA congregation, Peoples Church is recognized by its community and local service providers as a shelter. When asked about this, Birgitte Simpson, who shares a pastoral call between Peoples Church and a non-Indigenous congregation less than 15 minutes away, shared that creating a community of belonging for those living unhoused, self-medicated or experiencing untreated mental illness is the work of the church.

Peoples Church is seen as the place where everyone can come, even those who have been kicked out of other shelters and programs. “Communal life leaves space for the complexity of the world,” Simpson explained. “One of the things that I’ve learned in my time [at Peoples Church] … is balance means that in the good there is bad and in the bad there is good, and [good and bad] are intricately intertwined ….

“The way that addiction has changed because of how dangerous the drugs are these days, one of the things that has become really important in talking about recovery life is just getting people alive to the next day. … We’re kind of living in the struggle of what does harm reduction look like?”

“We are able to be vulnerable enough with each other that we strip careaway the pretenses and are truly in community with each other.”

“Harm reduction is a set of principles and practices that put people first, specifically people who use drugs,” said Trish Jorgenson, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Longville, Minn., which partners with Rural Action AIDS Network to include distribution of harm reduction kits in their community. “In our church culture we talk about grace, God’s amazing love, and compassion. Harm reduction is the incarnation of these ideals, except with skin marred by needle tracks and trauma hidden by medicines acquired legally or not.

“If I could tell the church anything about harm reduction it would be to take an honest look at the pillars of piety we have allowed to surround the doors of our community, often proclaiming loudly and clearly that if you are a person who uses drugs, you are welcome—once you clean yourself up.”

At Peoples Church, being clean and sober isn’t a requirement, but members can’t actively use drugs on campus or have their self-medication prohibit engagement in the community. “Community is not also anything goes. … Community inherently has conflict embedded within it and you can’t have [community] without [conflict] because otherwise you’re not in relationship with each other,” Simpson explained.

“If we’re constantly striving for nothing but good and are unable to experience the underside of the world, we’re doing it wrong. … I look at the amount of resiliency that our folks have and the amount of joy and laughter that we share in our community despite the fact that we are surrounded by violence and addiction and a lot of untreated mental illness. … We are able to be vulnerable enough with each other that we strip away the pretenses and are truly in community with each other. That’s the vision that I see for Christ’s church. [It’s] a place in people’s life, set apart in some ways, for people to be fed and seen and known. … My hope, my deep longing for Christ’s church, is that we are so authentic that we can span the whole gamut of life, which is full of hardship and joy.”

Rock Point mission

“We’re always addressing something that’s lacking in our community,” said Patterson Yazzie, executive director of Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission (NELM) in Rock Point, Ariz.

To meet community needs, Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission operates a nonpotable water well for those living within a 20-mile radius. Today about 40% of homes don’t have running water.

NELM operates a nonpotable water well for those living within a 20-mile radius, a food bank that serves 2,000 families who come from as far as 70 miles, a school, a free-to-use potable water source (separate from the well) and a soup kitchen. During the pandemic, they partnered with the local tribal health program to provide Rock Point’s COVID-19 clinic.

NELM dreams of developing an emergency response system since current response times in Rock Point are over an hour. Located on a busy highway, they’d also like to open a tire shop to provide roadside assistance. For their school’s students, staff long to establish a scholarship fund so every graduate can attend the college, university, trade school or journey program of their choice.

Much of NELM’s funding comes from other congregations because, as a church, it doesn’t qualify for federal or tribal funding. Leadership is developing a separate nonprofit entity to give them access to community service funding and grants not accessible to churches.

Founded in response to community prayer and with the blessing of tribal leaders, NELM was built on five donated acres. As the community hub, if there is something that needs to be done to help Rock Point, NELM is known for making it happen.

“This is how we take care of our relatives. We don’t ask them if they’re Christians or not. … You take care of whoever’s in need. … That generosity has always been in our culture as Indigenous people,” Yazzie explained. “We’ve always been generous. … Whether it meant that’s the last piece of bread that you were going to give to somebody or the last piece of meat to the family. We don’t have a large budget, but we do what we can to take care of our neighbors.”

Yazzie, who also serves as the Rock Point chapter president for the Navajo Nation, finds it easier to address community issues through the mission. “A lot of the things that [NELM takes] initiative for [are in response to] the inequality or the injustice or whatever is out there in our community,” he said. “Take the well. There would not have been a well if our community had access to water because even in 2023, we still have about 40% of our community who do not have running water [in their homes].”

Common within Rock Point are shallow wind-pump wells for irrigation. However, these wells are often polluted by runoff from uranium mines that were abandoned after World War II, impacting the community’s food sovereignty. This has contributed to the need for NELM to partner with St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix to operate the food pantry.

During its 70-year history, NELM has had one pastor serve 25 years, but since that pastor retired, many have served the congregation. In response, the congregation has partnered with the Grand Canyon Synod, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., and ELCA Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations to cultivate their own spiritual leaders as pastors prepared through the Theological Education for Indigenous Leaders (TEIL) program and Synod Authorized Ministers (SAMs).

Currently, NELM has one called pastor, Kate Adelman, who serves as coach to their SAM and TEIL candidate as well as the mission’s full-time fundraiser.

“I have big dreams. I just don’t have time.”

Yazzie, NELM’s TEIL candidate, shared that he’s often asked “how long Indian people will depend on the federal government.” To which he responds, “As long as we’re suppressed.”

This writer believes NELM is a testament to the notion that self-sufficiency is dependent on circumstance as much, if not more than, it is dependent on effort. People can’t have food sovereignty when their water source has been polluted, the land is not farmable or their usufructuary rights are terminated. People can’t have health care sovereignty if they don’t have easy access to health care or an infrastructure that complies with public health guidelines. People can’t have housing sovereignty without a stable economy, and they can’t obtain livable wages in areas experiencing extreme poverty.

“I have big dreams,” Yazzie said. “I just don’t have time.” He was referencing the urgency he feels in response to the needs of the community.

We are all relatives

As part of the community of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, I know firsthand that Native people are just doing what we know to do—live generously in a community of belonging. The language of the Epistles points to a unified Christian community filled with people who are members of the body of Christ. This suggests what Indigenous peoples have always known—we are all relatives.

Amid administrative demands, budget shortfalls, infrastructure needs, leadership challenges and a sense of not being able to do all that needs to be done, ELCA Indigenous ministries alleviate the struggles experienced by others. They create community through which each person is dignified. They remind us that community is home, and home is where you feel you belong.

From these examples, we can each be inspired to learn and relearn how to be the embodiment of the gospel in the world.

Colleen Bernu
Colleen Bernu is an ELCA deacon who serves as director for evangelical mission with the Northeastern Minnesota Synod; as synod minister for diversity, equity and inclusion; and as synod staff liaison for Together Here Ministries. She is a part of the community of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and lives on the Fond Du Lac Indian Reservation with her family.

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