Al-Jazeera piece on Native church in Vancouver has the right mix of information and analysis


Here’s another story that proves that Al-Jazeera gets religion.

Most stories one reads about Native Americans in either Canada or the U.S. concentrate on how they’re into peyote, dumping all traces of their colonizers’ faith or were on the short end of abuse from some religious order.

A year I spent living close to the immense Navajo reservation that straddles New Mexico and Arizona showed a more complex story. Many Natives belonged to established denominations that set up mission churches on the reservation. Every summer, revival tents would pop up everywhere. The same is true for Alaska. When I asked a professor in the Native studies department at the university in Fairbanks to get me a speaker who’s into Native religions, she said most Natives attend church.

Which is why this piece about Canadian Native converts to Christianity rings true. It only took a little bit of effort to add some complexity to the reporting.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Inside a cramped, run-down loft in one of this city's poorest neighborhoods, Cheryl Bear Barnetson sits at a communal drum, leading a group of people in song.
The sharp beating of the drum grows louder and faster. She and the other aboriginal singers surrounding it begin to chant.
“Jeeee-sus, Jeeee-sus, Jeeee-sus …”
Although it doesn’t look like a typical house of worship, this place is a church. Bare brick walls surround small coffee tables and chairs. A large wooden cross is all that distinguishes the space from a 1920s speakeasy.

The gist of this piece is how Street Church, a savvy congregation in Vancouver, B.C., is using aboriginal practices, such as hand drums, smudging (a cleansing ceremony), eagle feathers, talking sticks and other ways to bring Natives into church. It starts with anecdotes from one of the female pastors, then a short history of nearly 100 years abusive practices against Native children who were forced to attend church-run schools across Canada.

The report then quotes a college professor who believes that Street Church’s tactics are deceptive. Most reporters would have left it at that, but this writer adds that several other institutions -- such as substance abuse and trauma treatment centers -- also mix in aboriginal practices but the professor apparently didn’t criticize them.

A story on how First Nations people in Canada are accepting the religion whose followers weren’t always so kind to them in the past might not make it into some media because it doesn’t follow a more typical Natives-as-victims story line. What makes Street Church news is that people are lining up to get in.

Thus, one thing missing was the number of people attending. I would have liked to have seen a quote from an official at the Foursquare Church of Canada, the parent denomination of Street Church, about this success story. The Foursquare folks are Pentecostals, so I’m curious if the indigenous worship at Street Church is Pentecostal as well.

One thing readers may not realize is how tough it is to get interviews in congregations like this. The aforementioned professor in Fairbanks wrote me that “non-Natives tend to have some very skewed and inaccurate ideas about what Native people do or do not believe in and their interest, if they have any, is often voyeuristic and they are looking for shamanism and "magic" of some kind.”

Some Native groups, she added, limit what practitioners can share with the outside world. Thus, it’s harder than it looks for a reporter to get an entrée into this society. Fortunately, Al-Jazeera dug a bit deeper and gave us this glimpse.  

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