Indian mission churches face financial pressures

Sep 8, 2014

Credit Linda Stephan

More than a hundred years ago, Methodist missionaries set up Indian Mission churches in northern Michigan. The goal was to bring Christianity and to do-away with traditional American Indian belief.

Today the missions blend those traditions. But they serve small congregations that can’t afford to pay their pastors.

The United Methodist missions have survived with lots of financial help from the denomination, but now leaders say they have to scale back.

For one mission pastor, it feels like a broken promise.

Blending traditions

Singing in an outdoor Friday night worship service, the traveling musical duo Rain Song led revival-type meetings this summer in Northport. Worshipping with a crowd of about 20 – they sang to Jesus and to the “Great Chief,” the “Warrior” and “Creator.” At one point, they asked the crowd to stand and sing to the four compass directions – north, south, east, west.

The music duo lead "camp meetings" in both Kewadin and Northport over the summer.

Long before European missionaries introduced Christianity, praying to the four directions was a tradition among American Indians.

The type of blending of cultures found in this service was not encouraged by early Christian missionaries, and not even as Pastor Tom John grew up in Kewadin. He says he was taught in Sunday School that he could not be “both Indian and Christian.”

As an adult, and a man of God, he sees the culture of his ancestors from a different view.

Even though it's kind of informal, in a way, people still keep coming back. It's like they leave home and they come back to home. -- Steven Antoine, Kewadin Indian Mission

“We had never had the Bible, but we always believed that there was a God,” he says of a time before European settlers. “Everything that we did in our traditions that they said was paganism was how we related to God."

Pastor Tom John in the pulpit at Kewadin Indian Mission. John meant to retire from ministry years ago but the denomination has not found a replacement for him. He commutes more than an hour every Sunday morning, serving churches in both Kewadin and Northport.
Credit Linda Stephan

“We called him by different names, but what we were doing… (was) exactly what the church is doing. Only it was more meaningful to us in our relationship with the Creator.”

John runs two Indian Mission churches, one in Northport and the other across Grand Traverse Bay in the Antrim County town of Kewadin. At a regular Sunday service in Kewadin, some common Christian songs are sung in both English and the native tongue of the local tribes. Usually the crowd, which can be less than 10 people, sings without instruments.

Twin churches

Right next door sits another active, and larger, United Methodist Church. Both are painted white. They look like twin buildings. It’s an odd sight from the road.

Twin churches in Kewadin, the Indian Mission and another methodist church that has a largely Caucasian membership. The head pastor for this region in the United Methodist Church is asking the congregations whether they can become one church eventually.
Credit Linda Stephan
What's really hard right now is, overall, the United Methodist Church is decreasing. That means all of our monies are decreasing. -- UMC District Superintendent Anita Hahn

Next door, a mostly Caucasian crowd gathers.

“This church here, next door, will come and participate in what we do, and we go participate in what they do,” says Tom John, of their relationship with Kewadin United Methodist Church. “But because of those differences we just like to remain two separate churches.”

The problem is money. The pastor who oversees all United Methodist churches in the Grand Traverse District, Anita Hahn, says the district chips in tens-of-thousands of dollars a year for the Kewadin Indian Mission. It has also long done so for the missions in Northport and Charlevoix.

“They have been our mission churches and we have sought to sustain them as the United Methodist Church. And what’s really hard right now is, overall, the United Methodist Church is decreasing. That means all of our monies are decreasing.”

“As we try to support our native churches, we don’t want to decrease funding. But is it the wisest fiscal choice to continue to support them at the same rate that we’ve always supported them?”

Two churches, two pastors serving a town of about 2,000 people -- that’s expensive. Hahn says her hope is that, at some point, the two churches can become one, a church immersed, she says, in the native culture and “immersed in who Christ is calling us to be."

“And if we break down some of that division, are there healthier ways that we can really reach all of us?”

Hahn says she doesn’t know that will happen but she “dream(s) about what’s next.”

Hahn says, in her mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean giving up either the Indian Mission’s building or its separate services. But it would mean sharing pastors and becoming one entity.

Pastor Tom John is against pulling back financial support. He says that breaks a promise made to his community by Methodist leaders more than a century ago, as the Indian missions were established.

But he’s also not opposed to a merger with his neighbor. He wanted to retire long ago, but there’s no one to replace him. Key to a merger, he says, would be a pastor who understands the native traditions in Christian worship and who would continue to hold services even if attendance on Sunday is small.

For those who remain

“We hold our services more informal,” says Indian Mission member Steven Antoine. “At the church next door it’s very formal. I went over there a few times and it’s rather different.”

Antoine tends graves behind the Indian Mission that date back at least to 1860. He helps care for the building and the grounds – a lot of work for such a small congregation.

Antoine grew up in Kewadin and he's has always been in the minority. But he’s heard stories of a time when the tables were flipped, when this place was known as Indian Town. He says the mission remains an important connecting point for those who remain.

“For me, the Kewadin Indian Mission, United Methodist Conference – well mainly the Kewadin Indian Mission – is part of my family. We pray together. Even though it’s kind of informal, in a way, people still keep coming back. It’s like they leave home and they come back to home.”

Antoine says he knows churches are folding and merging everywhere and that, over time, many do give up their buildings. Whatever happens, he hopes to see this small mission’s services and its traditions live on.