Leonard “Casey” Church (DIS ’15, MAICS ’04) is a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians of Southwest Michigan; he is of the Bear (Makwa) clan of Potawatomi on his mother’s side (the late Mary Church) and of the Crane (Jijak) clan on his father’s side (the late Leonard Church), of the Huron Band of Potawatomi. Casey’s Indian name is Ankawawango, which means “Hole in the Clouds.” He is called an Ogitchida, meaning “warrior,” for his service in the United States Marine Corps. Religiously, he is a Banai, meaning “spiritual leader,” a Pipe Carrier, and Pastor of Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Culturally, he is a Northern Traditional Dancer–Eagle Whistle Carrier. Casey has been married to Lora Church, a Navajo Native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for 30 years and is the proud father of four daughters, named Shandiin, Alilee Bah, Nizhoni Moon, and Deezbah, and one son, Bahozhoni. He is from Dorr, Michigan, and currently resides in Albuquerque.
Every year, Casey Church’s mother, Mary Church, worked with her family as food vendors for the three local powwows held in their Michigan community in the spring, summer, and fall. Her family also regularly attended a Salem Indian United Methodist Church in Dorr, Michigan. One year, it was the new pastor’s first spring with the congregation, and Mrs. Church made him aware of her family’s upcoming absence from services while they provided food for the powwows. The pastor folded his arms across his chest and said, “Mary Church, if you go to that event next week, don’t bother coming back to this church again.”
It was not the first time Casey and his family felt they needed to shed their Native American identity in order to be welcome in the church. “We were very Native at home,” says Casey of his upbringing. “But it was like when you stepped through the doors of the church, you had to leave all that behind.” Even though the church had been established for Native people, Casey notes, “If you closed your eyes,” and noticed the smells, sounds, and general ambience, “there was nothing that would make you think it wasn’t a White church.”
These early experiences flickered inside of Casey for more than a decade but didn’t fan into a flame until his late 20s, when he attended a meeting with the Indian Workers Conference, a gathering of nine Native United Methodist churches in Michigan. That night, Casey was gazing at the white-haired elders on stage, realizing he was one of the youngest in the room, when he heard God speak: “Who is going to take their place?” Out loud, he responded, “I am.” Every head in the room turned toward him. With that statement of faith, Casey set out on his vocational path, unaware of the many obstacles ahead of him.
He knew there was a great need for more Native pastors and ministries among the Native American population––only 5 percent of Native Americans are professing Christians, according to Casey. “Any mission society would call that an unreached people group,” he points out. He was determined to change those statistics, but he also knew why the majority of his people had not been touched by the gospel: the most common evangelistic approach for the past several hundred years had required Native Americans to give up their cultural identity, to become “White models of Christians.” In many cases even today, he says, churches meant to reach Native Americans do not allow “even a single cultural artifact into the services.” Casey had experienced this himself, and he wanted to do ministry for Native Americans in a way unlike anything he’d seen before. “As I read the Bible I didn’t see where it said I had to give up my Native identity to become a follower of Jesus,” he says. He references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and the Jewish leaders’ decision that Gentiles did not have to obey the laws of Moses, be circumcised, and become Jewish––“they could be believers in Jesus and remain culturally native,” Casey says. Drawing a connection to Western missionaries evangelizing Native Americans, he says, “I thought the issue had been settled.” Just as Gentiles did not need to conform to Jewish customs, Native Americans don’t need to “obey Western Christian practices and become a White Christian” in order to follow Jesus. In fact, Casey notes, “it was this freedom given to the Gentile world that allowed the gospel to explode among them.”
The failure of Christian mission to Native Americans, demanding they give up their cultural ways, Casey believes, is “a carry-over from imposed assimilation practices of the 19th century designed to civilize the Indian.” His call to ministry, then, contained “a passion to right a wrong done to Native Americans.” His vision for a Native ministry might seem radical, being marked by what he saw as a “need to abort old practices and regroup, then start over with a whole new model with a more culturally sensitive approach.”
But not everyone supported Casey’s desire to do ministry in a Native context. Early in his calling Casey planned to enroll in a school in Albuquerque that described itself as an “Indian Bible College,” the same school from which his uncle had graduated some 40 years earlier. However, during a chat with the admissions team in which he shared his vision for ministry within Native American cultural contexts, Casey was met with resistance. “They said, ‘We don’t do ministry that way, and we will never do ministry that way.’”
After such a disappointing encounter, instead of enrolling at the bible college, Casey decided to study anthropology at a secular university in Michigan. While working on his bachelor’s degree, he studied behavioral science, comparative religions, and the sociology, philosophy, and psychology of religion. During that time he also attended many traditional ceremonies of the Natives of the Great Lakes. When Casey later enrolled in Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, he simultaneously started his first church plant––called All Tribes Gathering––using his contextual approach to ministry. “We opened our doors in June 1996 and 80 people came. A month later we leveled off to 60––we had a megachurch as far as Native churches go.” Casey was willing to try whatever he could to make the ministry’s expression of faith look, sound, smell, taste, and feel true to his Native American culture. “I experimented with every type of cultural expression from within my traditions that honored Christ,” he says. “Sometimes things worked and sometimes things didn’t work so well.” He credits this experimental phase as the time when his ministry philosophy and approach to theology in an indigenous context began to take shape.
The All Tribes Gathering was casual, with congregants wearing their usual clothing rather than “Sunday best” attire. Moccasins were common in the summer, or Native regalia for special occasions, such as when they held their meetings outdoors. Instead of sitting in rows “staring at the back of someone’s head while one person talked for 45 minutes,” the church gathered in a semicircle and always shared food as part of their meeting, having potlucks with dishes like wild rice, corn soup, Indian fried bread, and dishes made with venison. They employed the spiritual practice of smudging, burning bundles of dried sage and sweetgrass and using the smoke to symbolically purify a person or consecrate a space, and used Native flute music and powwow drum songs in worship. In some services like weddings and funerals, Casey prepared his sacred pipe and conducted a pipe ceremony, “with prayers ascending up to the Creator Jesus,” he says. “So much of our culture was taken away; I try to give it back.” Casey felt this style of ministry was especially needed to reach the unreached Native person. “It is due to decades of using the White Western approach that we have failed in making followers of Christ among the Native people of this continent they call Turtle Island,” laments Casey.
After four years leading the All Tribes Gathering church plant and cultivating its leadership, Casey was ready to move on. He’d learned that around 75 percent of Native American people live in urban areas (contrary to popular belief that the majority live on reservations where, Casey notes, almost all Christian mission efforts are directed). In 2000 the Church family moved to Albuquerque, the hometown of his wife, Lora, and where tens of thousands of Native Americans live. Such numbers are not uncommon in large US cities, Casey notes, “due to the relocation effort of the government in the 1940s and 1950s to move Native people off the reservations.”
Around the time of his move, Casey also started attending Fuller. He’d met some Fuller representatives at a recruiting event while in seminary in Michigan, which led him to enroll in the School of Intercultural Studies (then the School of World Mission). “We had a great conversation––they knew exactly the type of ministry I was trying to create,” he says. He began taking distance learning courses by listening to lectures on tape, and also traveled to the Colorado Springs and Pasadena campuses for intensives.
A groundbreaking moment in Casey’s vocational journey happened while attending a class in Colorado Springs taught by Shelley Trebesch, then an assistant professor of leadership and organizational development. “I don’t remember what she was teaching about,” he says, “but I’d been struggling internally with my call to be a pastor or missionary, thinking, ‘how can I undo hundreds of years of mistakes in evangelism to Native Americans by the White Christian church?’” He explains, “There exists a mistrust of ‘the White man’ and especially of their missionaries. Hundreds of years of abuse and atrocities, lies, and stealing have built so many barriers to sharing the true Christ with them.” As he wrestled with this during the lecture, something welled up within him to the point that he was visibly disturbed. Dr. Trebesch noticed his changed countenance and called for a break, asking Casey and her TA to stay behind. “What happened next changed my whole ministry mindset,” he says.
Casey vulnerably shared his fears and conflicting feelings about becoming a missionary and aligning himself with organizations that had caused so much pain to his people. Their conversation started off quietly, but then something inside him snapped. “I just exploded,” he says. “I exploded in righteous anger, shouting and crying out about how the Christian church has hurt me and my people.” His anger turned into “a sobbing spell, which was cathartic,” and eventually he regained his composure. His professor and TA comforted him, and “in those moments, I released years of sadness and anger and gave them to Christ,” he says. “I felt the love of Jesus pouring out over me like warm water from my head to my feet.” His perspective shifted in that moment. “I could now continue my education knowing that when my people were hurting, so was Christ. He, too, wants to be known by my people through different methods and approaches to ministry.”
Over the past many years Casey has explored those different methods and approaches through his work with several organizations, including teaching courses like Indigenous Spirituality and Formation with NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community. Through his teaching, as well as his book entitled Holy Smoke: The Contextual Use of Native American Ritual and Ceremony, Casey reeducates people and ministries on how to implement new models of reaching Native North Americans with the gospel. Further, Holy Smoke has been translated into Spanish at the request of Central and South American leaders with their own indigenous ministries, and a French translation is in the works for the large population of French-speaking First Nations people in eastern Canada.
“Casey continues to be a reliable bridge-builder between Native American communities and the North American churches,” says Amos Yong, Chief Academic Officer and the Dean of the Schools of Theology and Intercultural Studies at Fuller. “His ministry is such a key connector given the challenges dotting the half-millennium history of the encounter between Christians and indigenous peoples across this continent.”
“There is a spiritual hunger among Native people,” Casey says, “and many are returning to their traditional religions because it has provided spiritual connection to their understanding of the Creator for centuries.” His work takes many aspects from the traditional Native religious practices and creates a new approach that they can better relate to and understand. “Just as the Europeans created Christian expressions of faith from within their pre-Christian world that gave glory to Christ, Native people of North and South America can also create expressions of faith in Jesus,” he points out. “We need to let faith grow from the seed of Jesus planted within their own Native soil, not a transplanted model from the outside like we have done for hundreds of years.”
Today, one way Casey works to cultivate that seed of the gospel is by helping to lead family camps in Oregon, Virginia, and Canada, which include Native ceremonies and teachings, as well as traditional powwows and Christ-centered sweat lodges for attendees. The camps provide a place “where Native people can experience an expression of their faith in Christ in a welcoming and safe environment,” he says.
After struggling with a small team for years to start a ministry to the Native people in Albuquerque, Casey is seeing his persistence pay off: the New Church Development Committee of the United Methodist Church recently approved Casey’s vision and is offering support for the church, of which Casey will be pastor. It’s called Good Medicine Way, signifying the healing that comes when Jesus is presented––and followed––in a culturally sensitive way. And his distinctive style of contextualized ministry is seeing fruit. After having the chance to worship and experience their faith in their own Native context, many people have told Casey, “This is the first time I felt like God really loves me––that God loves me as a Native person.”