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Disciples Missional Tokenism to American Indians: Legacy of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery

August 21, 2014

Disciples Missional Tokenism to American Indians:

Legacy of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery


“Disciples’ ministry to Native Americans is accurately described as weak. Ironically, the lack of a strong missionary effort may have ended up being something of a positive. Protestant and Catholic mission work among Native Americans in many instances is believed to have bred destructive effects: a degeneration of Native cultures, societies, and institutions-in some cases warfare and even extinction.”

D. Duane Cummins, 2009

Alexander Campbell, like many Protestant missionaries, viewed North America as a gift from God to the new chosen people of God. Unlike many Christian missionaries, Campbell came to recognize the inherent social injustice contained within the theology and polity, and especially the political, representations of the Christian movement spreading across North America. Campbell openly opposed the forced relocation of the Cherokees and supported missionaries to the Indigenous nations.

James Trott, a former Methodist missionary to the Cherokees who joined with Campbell, was devoted to the Cherokee and was deeply concerned about Christian injustice. He married a Cherokee woman and suffered the brutal loss of a child on the Trail of Tears. Despite the efforts of these two men and others like them, however misguided their theology may have been, after the end of the Civil War and the death of Alexander Campbell missionary support to American Indians disappeared. Disciples joined the ranks of other denominations and reasserted their affirmation of the Conqueror Model of Christianity.

Decades later, in 1921, the US Government passed the Religious Crimes Act, making it illegal for American Indians to practice their traditional religions. Offenders were often held without being charged, imprisoned and even sent to Alcatraz without trial. During this same year Disciples opened the Yakama Christian Mission. The Yakama Mission subsequently became the one and only ongoing ministry of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ denomination, the token effort by the Disciples to include Indigenous nations, albeit by becoming assimilated into the Disciples way.

Tokenism is a term most commonly associated with educational, corporate and government institutions. Tokenism is described as a form of racism in which a sole member of a minority group is represented within a certain structure in order to give the appearance of support for minority groups. Whenever an educational institution, corporation or government agency faces accusations of racism in hiring practices they can then point to a token minority person to demonstrate that they are not racist, despite however much they truly are, or are at least complying with enrollment and hiring regulations.

The Yakama Mission has represented the token Native American Ministry within the Christian Church Disciples of Christ denomination. In my years of working with Disciples I have asked many elders, deacons and ministers why they do not support missional work to American Indians. Time and again they have pointed to Yakama as the proof that disciples support Native Americans. In my journey I have also encountered many Native Americans who have assimilated into Disciples’ culture and as a result admit to knowing nothing about their Native cultural heritage, like Trisha and her mother.

Trisha was a sixteen year old African-American/Cherokee girl living in South Chicago. Her mother, Lisa, was a devout member of a local Pentecostal Church. Trisha wanted to receive a Cedar Blessing for her coming of age but her mother was opposed. Lisa had told me that her minister believed that the reason God wiped out American Indians was because they were heathens and it was wrong to participate in any Indian Religious ceremonies.

Trisha on the other hand recognized that the church was not sharing God’s love but was instead using Jesus to bully people into joining the church. Trisha liked and embraced her Cherokee heritage and knew that God loves everyone. Lisa decided to support her daughter and allow her to make her own choice in beliefs. So Lisa watched as I performed the Cedar Blessing ceremony on her daughter.

Like other egocentric and ethnocentric Christian denominations, Disciples have expected American Indians to abandon cultural identity and assimilate into mainline Christian culture. This has been the historical Christian model of missional work to American Indians and the Yakama Mission has been no exception. Furthermore, anti-racism efforts within Disciples has been focused on reconciliation and rebuilding relations with African-Americans, while no anti-racism efforts have been made to help build a bridge between Disciples and American Indians. Instead, as D. Duane Cummins points out in the opening quote, Disciples have ignored the plight of the American Indian while patting themselves on the back for their apathy.

In his book “Blaming the Victim” author William Ryan opened the door to exploring the many facets of how perpetrators justify racism, oppression, exploitation and violence against vulnerable populations for personal gain. It appears in many ways that Disciples have created and maintained a culture which supports blaming American Indians for their ongoing predicament.

Recently, Sacred Hoop Native American Ministry (Disciples of Christ) was created as a culturally-based ministry open to all who come in a good way. In addition to sharing Christ, goals of the ministry include bringing the Native Voice to Disciples and to help build a bridge between the Christian Church Disciples of Christ and American Indians.

Sacred Hoop recently engaged in three fund raising efforts, all of which encountered the Disciples enculturation of racism, apathy and rejection of unassimilated American Indians. The first was in the form of a request for new ministry funding support from the Northeast Area of the Oklahoma Region. In the past the NE Area had provided a standard amount of $5,000 to new minority ministries, all of which had failed. Sacred Hoop, knowing that a minimal amount of $20,000 was needed to get started and that funds were available, requested the full amount.

Several members of the NE Area executive committee supported full funding and pointed out the above facts, including the Disciples history towards American Indians. However the majority members of the executive committee chose to maintain status quo despite the fact that no policies or procedures existed to prevent providing full support. Instead, they informed Sacred Hoop that they could re-apply for additional funds after new policies and procedures for monitoring the use of funds were created, and without providing any potential time-line.

The second fundraising effort was in the form of a raffle. Oklahoma is beef country and many non-profits have held highly successful beef raffles. Sacred Hoop offered as prizes two halves of a processed steer and two new freezers with free delivery anywhere in Oklahoma. Flyers were sent on three separate occasions to the more than 160 Disciples churches within the Oklahoma region. Response was unbelievably dismal. Only a few churches responded and total Disciples donations was less than $1600. If it weren’t for Four Winds Native American Ministry, a non-Disciples Native American community, and their supporters, Sacred Hoop would have lost money on the raffle.

The third was at the Quadrennial. Sacred Hoop, with the help of the Christian Church Foundation, created the Sacred Hoop Permanent Fund. Sacred Hoop then reserved a booth and created a fundraising brochure that outlined the need for a Native American ministry within the denomination. Then, with the help and support of the staff at East Side Christian Church in Tulsa, Bill and Marty McCutchen took about 2,000 copies of the brochure to the Quadrennial for distribution to churches across North America.

Then Ron Degges, President of Disciples Home Mission (DHM), stepped in requesting editorial changes to the brochure, which from his viewpoint better represented Disciples and DHM’s historical involvement with American Indians, and offered support to Sacred Hoop. The Rev. Dr. Bill Blue Eagle McCutchen, who was raised in Disciples culture long before he learned of his Chickasaw heritage, took Ron at his word and decided to trash the brochures. When Bill Blue Eagle later spoke about his actions to the board for Sacred Hoop, he was distressed over what Ron Degges had actually committed to in writing versus Ron’s apparent verbal statements to him during their conversation at Quadrennial.

According to Bill Blue Eagle, Ron Degges had stated to him that DHM would a) pay for printing updated brochures, b) help with distribution to all Disciples churches, and c) would participate in efforts to educate himself and others on the influences of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Ron Degges put in writing that DHM would pay for 1500 new brochures, far less than what was started with, and that is it. Bill Blue Eagle has made repeated attempts to have Ron reaffirm his supposed verbal commitments but as yet has been unable to.

My own communications with Ron Degges have been around seeking to be provided evidence to support the assertions he has made as part of the rewriting of the original brochure. My many years as an Indian Religious Leader and clinician has taught me to be cautious of taking statements as authentic without evidence to back it up. I requested a written financial accounting of DHM support for Native American missional work and am still waiting to receive it. After two months it is supposedly still being created.

What is true is that Ron Degges effectively managed to shut down Sacred Hoop’s attempt to garner support for the Permanent Fund and a generational self-sustaining Native American Ministry within the Disciples denomination. It is also disturbing to find how information regarding DHM’s activities with the Yakama Mission is so challenging to gain access to.

Over the past year I have discovered that DHM terminated regular missional support for Yakama Mission in 2007 and that this was followed not long thereafter with the closing of Yakama Mission. A few months ago the Yakama Mission property was sold. I have also found that very few people are actually aware that these events have transpired. Now, any funds that go to support any form of ministry at Yakama must be applied for from DHM in the form of a grant application, like applying for a government social services grant. Since grants are competitive in nature, there is also no guarantee the applications will be approved.

In response to my recent blog in which I revealed some of the issues relating to the closure of the Yakama Mission, the Rev. Dr. Loy Hoskins made the following comment:

“The closure of the Yakima Mission was a difficult and long decision that saddens most of us in the DOC, but like the closing of many other NBS facilities years ago, had to be done.”

Now, I happen to know and like Loy and consider him to be one of the most caring Disciples ministers I have met. Yet I do also recognize that he is enculturated into Disciples theology, polity and culture. So I do not believe that he is aware of how American Indians interpret this statement.

To many American Indians, including myself, a statement like Loy’s appears to be seeking sympathy from Native Americans for Disciples failure of commitment to good missional service to American Indians. It sends the message that Native Americans are not deserving of God’s love and grace or the effort it would take for Disciples to invest in an ongoing culturally competent ministry. For two hundred years Disciples have participated, like other Christian denominations, in the exclusion and oppression of American Indians. The results of which are evidenced by the high levels of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, teen suicide and substance abuse on reservations across North America.

In the Gospel of Matthew we find that John the Baptist rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism. John the Baptist challenged them to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (MT 3:1-11) if they hoped to avoid the “unquenchable fire” of the Messiah. John the Baptist recognized the double standards and incongruities that the Pharisees and Sadducees represented and called them on their stuff.

Like the Pharisees and Sadducees who sought to be baptized by John the Baptist to avoid God’s wrath, so also Disciples have sought to avoid the “unquenchable fire” of the Messiah (MT 3:1-12). The Pharisees and Sadducees were challenged by John the Baptist to do good deeds that would prove their sincerity to God. In likeness to this, the Disciples denomination continues to promote themselves as true believers while turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the pangs of grief and cries of suffering of American Indians. Instead of doing good deeds towards American Indians to prove their sincerity to God and the people, Disciples have engaged in the practice of “Tokenism” while now gradually even phasing that out of existence.

How then shall Disciples hope to convince God of their righteousness? What good works towards American Indians shall they proclaim they have done? How shall they demonstrate to Christ that they have received and shared God’s loving grace to the Indigenous Peoples of this land in an honoring and respectful way?

Repudiation of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is not enough. For Disciples to achieve wholeness and be viewed by history as inspirational representatives of Christ, walking with genuine integrity, it will take a fundamental shift in Disciples cultural context. The younger generations of today are adept at seeing through those who do not walk their talk and are opposed to racism in all its forms. For Disciples to inspire generations to come they will need to learn the art of taking people with them.

To accomplish this it might be a good idea to turn to David Novak and his book “Taking People with You: The Only way to make BIG things happen.” David points out how significant the culture of the organization is to long-term success. Having a culture which inspires others and helps them feel they are a part of a good missional movement is essential to the spiritual wellbeing of the community. As Co-Minister of Sacred Hoop I also suggest that Disciples can start by supporting the Scared Hoop Permanent Fund through the Christian Church Foundation, just as Disciples have supported so many other endowments both at the regional and national levels.

Walk in Beauty.


Grandfather Bill Running Wolf, M.Div., MSW


Campbell, Alexander. “THE CHEROKEE INDIANS”, in The Millennial Harbinger vol. 1-1, 1830 by Faith and Facts, Inc. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.

Chavers, Dean. Racism in Indian Country. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2009.

Cummins, D. Duane. Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2009.

Garrison, Winfred Ernest and Degroot, Alfred T. The Disciples of Christ: A History. St. Louis, MO: Christian Board of Publication, 1948.

Lane, Jr., Phil, Bopp, Judie, Bopp, Michael and Brown, Lee. The Sacred Tree. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2012.

Moseley, J. Edward. Disciples of Christ in Georgia. St. Louis, MO: Bethany Press, 1954.

Newcomb, Steven T. Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008.

Novak, David. Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make BIG Things Happen. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012.

Ryan, William. Blaming the Victim. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1976.

Trott, James J. “Letter to Brother Campbell”, in The Millennial Harbinger vol. III, 1832 by Faith and Facts, Inc. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.

Trott, James J. “Query”, in The Millennial Harbinger vol. VII, 1836 by Faith and Facts, Inc. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.

Trott, James J. “The Indian Mission”, in The Millennial Harbinger series V vol. III, 1860 by Faith and Facts, Inc. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.

Watkins, Keith. A Visible Sign of God’s Presence: A History of the Yakama Christian Mission. Nashville, TN: Polar Star Press, 2009.

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One Comment
  1. Thank you for posting this and providing some very helpful critiques and possibilities for relationship to begin to be mended. May God bless the work of Sacred Hoop ministry.

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