As I waited for Twin Hearts shuttle I wondered who the driver would be. As the dark blue van inched its way up the mountain, I was delighted it was Mike—the same driver who had carried me to Lama after switching drivers at the Ohkay gas station a couple hours out. It was really nice to see a familiar face. Mike waved and got out of the van to help me with my luggage.
“Hi Mike!” “Aren’t I the lucky one to have you for my driver today!” Mike smiled ear to ear with the few teeth he had left.
I was the first pick-up so I sat in the front and Mike asked me how my hermitage was.
As we wound through the mountains, making stop after stop for riders, we visited for quite a while. And as we got to know one another better the space between us felt more and more safe. After some general small talk, Mike inquired about my line of work and after hearing about my vocation as a spiritual director and retreat leader, he asked me what kind of spiritual teacher I am.
I couldn’t help but feel a little hesitant to mention my Christian heritage, for it was my religious ancestors who wreaked so much havoc on Mike’s people. But with a little fear and a lot of humility I responded, “Well, I’m a Christian. I grew up Protestant and later in life joined the Catholic Church.”
“Oh, I’m Catholic too,” Mike said. “I mean, my people really didn’t have a choice. My ancestors were tortured and forced to convert to Christianity, told that our way of prayer and relating to God for thousands of years was ‘pagan.’”
An ache grew in my belly. It was a familiar ache. In all my travels all over the world, I often feel compelled to apologize for my religion. “Mike, I’m really, really sorry for the destruction my religion caused your people and so many others,” I said.
“It’s okay. I don’t hold it against you,” Mike generously responded.
The conversation continued and Mike shared about how his people found a way to hold onto their identity and traditions by adopting Christian spirituality and integrating it with their own. By honoring Christian holidays, they found they could celebrate the holiday with some of their traditional dances and such. Being an oppressed people, they found shrewd and cunning ways of maintaining their dignity and authenticity. My heart revealed its inner turmoil and conflict trying to reconcile my Christian faith and love for Jesus with a religious heritage that betrays the God it presumes to represent.
“My religion has a lot to repent for. That’s why I do what I do. My people are in need of an awakening that helps us look more like the Christ we proclaim.”
Mike went on to explain the tension he experienced growing up on the reservation in a Catholic family who were also very Native and proud of their Native identity, culture and tradition. He relayed how he ended up struggling a lot with alcohol and drug abuse and it wasn’t until he witnessed his daughter’s birth that he determined to change.
He ended up joining Alcoholics Anonymous and his mentor admonished him that the only way for Mike to find lasting freedom was to get connected with God, his higher power. Thus began an intense search for God. Mike went to church after church and found nothing that helped him find God. Desperate, he turned to his people’s ancient spirituality and finally connected to the Divine.
As I listened to Mike’s story that old, familiar inner tension came to the surface for me. How can I affirm Mike’s experience of the Divine when I’ve grown up in a Christian religious subculture that assumes preeminence to all other religions? My heart resonated deeply with Mike’s very real experience of God–an experience of transformation, healing and wholeness. But my mind wanted to dismiss his experience because it didn’t fit into the worldview I’d been formed by. The dissonance between spirit and form was clear–much like that of the New Testament Christian’s conflict between the spirit and the law. It’s an age-old struggle for the human condition.
Christian religious supremacy has a long history of dominating other people, forcing conversions and raping people of their identity and unique perspective and worldview. Clearly, much of Christianity is more a product of Greek superiority and Roman imperialism than the heart of Christ’s life, witness and message. After all, I see nothing in the Gospels that suggests Jesus intended to start an organized religion. It seems to me his message was much bigger than that, transcending our forms of religion and society and pointing us to greater reality, the “Kingdom of God” as he called it.
The “Reign of God” Jesus illuminated for us was marked by unconditional love, radical forgiveness, and abiding peace. It would be the manifestation of a people who realized they were not only accepted by God but loved by God and at one with God (John 17:20-26).
I know Christianity isn’t the only religion with a shameful history. But it’s my religion and I’m guilty by association. The tension I feel is a part of me working out my salvation (Philippians 2:12).
“It seems to me, Mike, that no matter the religion, the danger is that the essence of the faith will be distorted from its truth over time. That the hard work of our journey with God is staying true to the message, wisdom and truth that we’ve received from God.”
Mike went on to share about how times have changed with his tribe and there’s a renewal to the ways of their ancestors. People are more committed than ever to their traditions and practices. Even a lot of young people are taking more interest.
“I wish you were going to be here for Christmas,” Mike said. “I’d invite you to our Deer Dance. It’s the dance we dance to honor the animals, God’s provision for us.”
I responded, “You know, my people have developed a society that is so divorced from the natural world. That disconnection is causing such destruction of one another and the planet. Native people have so much to teach us.”
“Yeah, but we haven’t done much better,” Mike replied.
As we shared with one another we quickly found our common ground—no high or low, just two people from very different life experiences with different world views, trying to do our best and find our way to God and one another.
My heart was so warmed by Mike. We are seemingly two very different people who were finding solace in one another’s company.
When the van approached the Ohkay gas station on the reservation to switch drivers, we got out of the van and the loving-kindness between us was almost palpable. We let that energy between us bring us into an embrace.
“It’s truly been an honor to get acquainted with you, Mike Thank you for sharing your story with me.”
“Yes, it’s been great to get to know you. Take care,” Mike replied.
And we hugged.
With my face to rising Sun
You reveal Yourself
The Radiant One who makes my face reflect Your Light
Your Light is all-consuming
I can barely tolerate its fire
Burn away all the layers and barriers in me that keep me from reflecting you.