Within our own InterAct Ministries family and among our Native friends we frequently talk about the Native Church. But sometimes I ask myself, “Do we really know what the Native Church is?” Defining it can be difficult because how Native people gather as a church varies from group to group and place to place.
We are part of the Fairbanks Native Bible Church (FNBC) in Fairbanks, Alaska. We see ourselves as a Native church that is both connected to the larger body of Christ and is a unique local gathering of believers. The church is Native-led. Native Pastor Harry Hafford brings and teaches the Word each week, and the church council (led by spiritual Native elders) leads and governs the church. But beyond having Native leadership, there are a number of things that make our church “Native” in its own way.
We gather for worship in a big log cabin beside the Chena River, a familiar setting for people who grew up in log cabins along the rivers of Alaska. Being right on the river is very convenient for when we have a baptism service. We simply walk right out of our front door and down to the bank. Of course, we prefer it when the river isn’t frozen over!
Our location is also very conducive to Native-style fellowship. Native people place a great emphasis on eating and laughing together, and it’s something we do every time we meet. Our location gives us the freedom to build a big warm fire outside and gather around it to cook food and to fellowship with one another for many hours.
Transparency and prayerfulness are other important characteristics of our church. If someone from outside the community were to visit one of our services, he or she might feel uncomfortable at first. People talk openly, with raw honesty about abuses of all kinds, their struggles with current addictions, and the everyday failures they experience. It is refreshing to see. To watch people opening up like this shows that they feel safe and believe that they belong to a group that they can trust with the deepest concerns of their hearts. As a result, our prayer times are very heartfelt and sometimes go on for a very long time. And everyone prays, not just the church leaders.
We love to sing, and sometimes I think we would be content with just singing if nothing else happened. One time I played thirty-three songs in a row with my guitar. When it was done my fingers were bloody because I didn’t have enough callouses on them. Four richly talented Native teenagers lead our singing. As part of our ensemble we have two fiddle players that give us a very nice bluegrass/country sound. While it may seem strange to an outsider to think of bluegrass and country as part of Native culture, it’s a style that has been fully adopted and embraced by many Native people as their own.
Identifying and ministering to the felt needs in Native communities is important for our church’s credibility. Because the church is debt-free and we don’t have a mortgage, we have more resources for ministry. Each year, for the last ten years we have adopted a different needy village to care for at Christmastime. Every person in the village receives a shoe box full of age-appropriate gifts. Food and clothing for every home is also shipped to the village. This huge undertaking is made even more challenging by the fact that all these things have to be flown to the village as well as a representative from the church that goes with the big shipment to share the love and message of Christ at Christmastime.
We also do outreach in Fairbanks. Our Native teens go to the homeless downtown and have a cookout to feed the hungry and share the gospel. People from the villages often fly in to the city for medical needs. Many of them stay at the Bertha Moses Hostel next to the hospital. We go on visits to pray with and encourage them, sing and have Bible study.