Reaching the least-reached North American First Peoples with God’s love
Pastor & writer
Drugs and gangs steered James into a Minnesota prison, but the friend of sinners found him on the inside, and the native man became a devoted follower of Christ.
James returned to his northern Minnesota reservation after prison, motivated to make a difference for Jesus. The Red Lake band member worshiped, read his Bible and prayed. He and a Christian woman from the reservation got engaged. People who'd known James for years marveled at what a difference Christ made.
"They said things like, 'James, what's gotten into you? You're different. What's changed?'" said Ryan O'Leary, James' pastor after he left prison.
Christ fueled new life for James, just like he wants to do for the millions of First Peoples in America and Canada. James' challenges are common among native people, making their average life span 5.5 years shorter than all other U.S. races. Native youth aged 10-24 are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than other North Americans in the same age range.
Canada considers the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women a national genocide. In America, the murder of Indigenous women happens at a rate 10 times higher than the national average. Many women and children are also forced into sex trafficking.
The move from mission field to mission force
The First Peoples Initiative, confident that Christ creates hope in this world’s troubles, includes a center for youth and families as one of six ministries. The other five centers prioritize church planting and revitalization, business as mission, sports, missing and murdered Indigenous relatives and healing, justice and reconciliation.
Ultimately, the team asks God to make 70,000 disciples among First Peoples who participate in God's global mission. O'Leary, from the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota, now leads the initiative.
"For many years, First Peoples in North America were seen as a mission field," O'Leary said. "Now there's some transformation in which First Peoples are seen as a mission force. There's much more focus on raising tribal people up to go into all the world as ambassadors for Christ."
O'Leary said more churches have started loving their Indigenous neighbors. Unity is also increasing among evangelical churches that serve First Peoples because believers realize they can do more together.
Spiritual significance and a great opportunity
O'Leary said the ministry gains momentum because of the power of prayer. God supplied a prayer coordinator who leads intercession for First Peoples every other Tuesday night on Zoom.
"Nothing of spiritual significance happens apart from prayer," O'Leary said.
Frequent, focused prayer is essential to heal heart wounds caused by historical injustices. For over 100 years, Indian Residential Schools took children from their families, forcing them into an Anglo educational and religious culture. The children weren't allowed to speak their Indigenous languages and suffered various abuses.
As a result, many First Peoples see Jesus as the god of white people. Such unnecessary unbelief only multiplies the destruction of drugs, heavy drinking, gangs and crime.
James, though, had left all that behind, moving to Minneapolis for a good-paying job so he could soon marry his fiancé. That’s when O’Leary baptized James, a sight he still remembers.
"James came up out of the water full of joy," O'Leary said. "His baptism reflected the inner change that God had already brought in James’ life."
Several months later, a rival gang member from James' past found him sleeping on a couch. The man attacked James in his sleep, severely injuring him.
Neighbors quickly helped a staggering James into a car that could take him to the city’s trauma hospital. From the backseat, struggling to survive, James cried out to Jesus.
James died in the operating room. But he entered heaven thanks to his Lord, the lion of the tribe of Judah. The initiative exists so First Peoples face their traumas and hardships with hope in God, just as James did.
"What a great opportunity we have as a church,” O’Leary said.
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.