On Sundays, I take my Citizen Potawatomi coffee mug to church. I wear my beaded jewelry, a reminder of who I am and the people I come from. As a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, my faith isn’t only rooted in the Christian tradition that I claim, but also in the traditions of my ancestors who came before me, a combination of the two coming alive in my everyday life, the constant work of decolonizing my spiritual identity.
But as I drink coffee out of my mug and listen to the worship team play song after song, I begin to question myself.
Should I have left my nativeness at the door?
As a mixed race person, who inhabits both whiteness and nativeness, both Christianity and other forms of spiritual identity, I am often in a state of questioning, on the margins wondering if I am really supposed to be in the church, or if I am truly allowed in with the history I carry with me.
What does it mean to carry both white privilege and ancestral, generational histories of oppression? What does it mean to seek to follow a Jesus who does not colonize within an institution that historically does?
Should I stop carrying my indigenous identity into a space that is not indigenous?
In more ways than one, the white church in America has asked others to assimilate again and again — indicating that if we put our cultural beliefs at the core of ourselves alongside our faith, we are disgracing the gospel.
We talk in our progressive circles about how we’ve moved past the race conversations, that we are woke and we know how to handle tough situations. We are proud to proclaim that we know how to dismantle sinful institutions.
But today, there are still people on the margins. Racism, sexism, ableism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, religious bigotry, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric still grace the halls and sanctuaries of our church buildings, and so continue the culture wars that we say we have moved past.
It was there in the beginning of this nation, as native peoples were enslaved, raped, and killed all for the sake of “the gospel.” In 2018 America, we see it still.
We see it in an administration that recently stated that Native Americans are not governmental bodies, but simply racial demographics and shouldn’t receive any Medicaid exemptions, that reservation poverty is no excuse. Our humanness has been stripped from us again and again, through boarding schools that took our language, to churches that said in order for us to be saved, we had to leave behind everything about our culture and identity.
While these things (and so many others) have happened throughout the history of the United States, against indigenous peoples and through atrocities committed toward African Americans, the white church has often been complicit, upholding its own culture and its own safety as supreme.
As the church, we must admit that white American Christianity is its own culture and often works to assimilate the cultures of others. We are perpetuating a lie that in order to really know God, to really be a Christian, everyone must fit into a white personal and corporate body, worship the way we tell them to worship, and, in some cases, follow a white Jesus.
I recently attended a Christian writing conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., to see what the future of the Christian publishing world might look like.
The first thing I noticed was the cultural and racial makeup of the conference. Those of us who didn’t fit the straight, white model of what it means to be a Christian author or speaker found ourselves on the outside looking in. It was painful and exhausting.
I wandered through the meeting rooms of the building wondering where exactly I belonged in my mixture of white and indigenous skin, where exactly I fit in a world that has been predominantly white for so long and leaves no room for others to speak up.
All of us gathered spent a lot of time on panels and in conversations asking what it means to be an ally — all of us, to one another. What does it mean to truly lift each other up because we are called to do so, because we know that the systems are flawed and so often fail people of color and indigenous peoples?
They were difficult and necessary conversations to have — I left feeling overwhelmed and tired — but I am grateful. We left with the realization that any circles claiming to be “Christian” must work harder to fight the temptation to assimilate everyone who registers for their conferences or walks through their doors on a Sunday morning.
If I, in my Potawatomi identity, feel uncomfortable in these spaces where I feel the generational trauma of assimilation, even with my white skin, how do my brothers and sisters feel in their skin as people of color?
We do not need more churches that are “colorblind” or “woke,” but churches that are honest about America’s past and our complicity as Christians in genocide, assimilation, and institutional racism.
And if those who are so often on the margins of society cannot come through those doors or step into someone’s home and feel like they are loved for who they were born to be, how can we possibly claim a gospel of all tribes and tongues that seeks the fulfillment of shalom?