Southern Baptists took a historic stance last month to acknowledge the trauma suffered by Native Americans and to officially offer their support and prayers.
“When you look at the long history of Southern Baptists, there hasn’t been a resolution in our history that has ever taken a stand with Native Americans,” Mike Keahbone said.
A Native American who leads a church near the headquarters of the Comanche Nation in southwestern Oklahoma, Keahbone knows firsthand the need for witnessing to the gospel and healing among Native people.
The pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lawton proposed that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) speak out on the issue following a federal report, released in May, which investigated the history of Indian boarding schools.
The SBC resolution – approved at its annual meeting in June – condemns forced assimilation and conversion as “contrary to our distinctive beliefs as Baptists in matters of religious liberty and freedom of soul”. The statement also acknowledges how this painful history continues to affect Indigenous peoples, especially after a new report.
“For Native Americans, this opens up a pretty big wound and one that we have to deal with and get over,” said Keahbone, who served on both the committee that drafted the list of 2022 resolutions and the SBC’s executive committee. .
“Just so we can say to everyone who’s been affected by this, to every Native American, to every Alaskan native, to every Hawaiian native, ‘We see you, we understand this is painful, and we want let you know that we’ I’m standing with you.
The federal report found that half of the more than 400 federally funded Indian boarding schools were run with the help of churches; Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches are mentioned, but not Southern Baptists. Historical approaches of the church and Christian missionaries continue to shape how Indigenous communities view faith and present a barrier to contemporary evangelism, Keahbone said.
He developed the resolution with other members of the resolutions committee, including pastors JT English and Jon Nelson, and recently spoke with CT to discuss its meaning.
How did this resolution come about?
When this report came out on boarding schools, as a Native American—I’m Comanche; I am a member of the Comanche tribe, but I am also Kiowa and Cherokee – and having heard many stories about my own family being part of these boarding schools, I was very excited to see the outcome. …I read it all. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t know how bad it would be.
After reading it, my heart was obviously very charged and broken. It took me a few days just to process it and think about it. Once I did, part of this report explains how missionaries of different denominations participated in this process. [of abuse]. You must see reports of forced conversion, to accompany forced assimilation, and it broke my heart.
I immediately contacted Brent Leatherwood with the [Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission], and he was already working on it, which I was so proud of. I was really happy to hear that. One of the things he was looking for was to see if the Southern Baptists were part of that report. It was a blessing for me to see that he was already ahead of the game there.
It turns out that as far as denominations go, Southern Baptists weren’t named in the report, but I still had a burden on my heart to recognize it. I thought that would be really important to us as a convention, because of our history with racial reconciliation, especially black and white reconciliation. I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves as a convention with Native Americans at a pretty dark time in our history. …
This was not only important to me, but it was important to our entire resolutions team and something that they felt would be important to our convention as well.
Is there specific language or wording in the text of the resolution that you think is particularly important to highlight?
I think the second “Resolved” is probably my favorite part: “Southern Baptists support Native Americans, Native Americans in Alaska, and Native Americans in Hawaii – especially those who are part of our own family of churches – as they process the findings of this report and discern the next steps towards healing. It’s just huge.
Probably just as important is “Resolved” where we oppose forced conversions and distorted missiological practices. I think those two are just as important.
It is historic for us to take a stand as a convention for these people, for my people. It was just huge. It was super meaningful to me, personally, and so it influenced my feelings a bit. But also, I think it’s important for everyone to know that we weren’t part of the forced conversion movement.
The reality is that forced conversions are one of the main reasons it is so difficult to share the gospel with Native Americans. That’s mainly why Native Americans call Christianity “the white man’s religion,” and it’s not because they don’t understand that Jesus was a Jew, that he was a Galilean – he wasn’t. it’s not about that at all. It is because of the Native American experience with white culture, forced conversion and forced assimilation that has built a huge barrier between Native Americans and the gospel.
So for us, as one of the largest Protestant denominations, to say something like that and make it part of our history now is meaningful. As a Native American, when I share the gospel with Native Americans, to be able to say, “We were never part of this movement; we were never part of the forced conversion,” that’s a big deal.
How does the legacy of abusive treatment by missionaries and other religious figures in these schools affect the Native American view of Christianity and Christian evangelism today?
I think it’s important for people to understand Native American history. Even before slavery, Native Americans had been dealing with these issues for 400 years. Even before we became a nation, white European settlers arrived and decimated our people.
One of the issues that I’ve been pretty bold on in Baptist circles is that when you look at our convention, we have an African American ministry specialist, we have a Hispanic ministry specialist, we have a ministry specialist Asian, and what is missing is a Native American ministry specialist.
When you look at the convention in 2021, I think we’ve done a great job of putting someone from every nation, tribe, and tongue on the platform at some point, either to pray, or to speak, or to preach. , but there was one group missing from that entire convention in 2021, and that was Native Americans. So to see what’s going on begs the question “Why?” And it’s not intentional; it is not a racial question. It’s just that Native Americans aren’t usually seen, and that’s because people don’t understand the story behind it.
In some fairly frank and private conversations when I bring this up, the comments I sometimes get are, “The Native American population is so small. You know, you have a large African American population, a large Hispanic population, a large Asian population. And my answer is always “How do you think the population got so small?” It was our homeland; that’s where we come from; it is our homeland. And for us to have one of the smallest populations in this country indicates a huge problem that has never really been solved.
I am not asking for reparations; I do not ask for special attention. I just want us to have equal opportunity and equal representation in the ministries that we have.
What should today’s Christians know about the history of Native Americans and these boarding schools?
My encouragement for people is to look at Native American history and look at what has happened to Native Americans over the centuries, and that will give you some perspective on the kind of trauma that we face. I think it would help a lot if people would learn, work a little and see what Native Americans went through.
It was noted in the report why we were even dealing with forced assimilation, and the main culprit was that the government wanted to make it easier to take Native American land. The way they could do it was to [first] drive them out and drive them out of their land, and [then] they targeted children. They wanted to limit their education and limit their abilities.
If you take future generations of a people and give them a limited education, you force them more to work. So they don’t become leaders; they are not placed in positions where they can make a difference or see what is happening to them and understand it and do something about it. The ugliness and heart behind it – and the strategic moves of it – is a horribly ugly part of our story.
I’m not trying to throw out race maps or try to search for some kind of document because of what we’ve been through. Deep down, I want to learn to live in this system and in this way of doing things, and I want to succeed in it. And I want to help other aboriginal people to be successful, to be able to have influence and give a voice where we can give a voice. I think you see a little climax in there, even in the birth of this resolution.