CHEROKEE, N.C. – While the Cherokee, like other North American native populations, first heard the Gospel nearly 200 years ago, an estimated 95 percent have not accepted Jesus as Christ. Pastor Merritt Youngdeer, a native Cherokee, describes the difficulties involved in reaching this often-suspicious community.
Merritt Youndeer since retiring in 1997 from the Civil Service Corps and Bureau of Indian Affairs returned to his role as pastor of Cherokee Baptist Church after 31 years. His congregation of about 60 to 70 people consists of about 80 percent Cherokee natives.
Often times, according to Merritt, the natives who heard of Christ mix the traditional native spiritism of their ancestors with the elements of Christianity. He prays each day for people like a man named Killing Bear, who views Jesus as no more than a ‘good man.’
"My view of Christ is of a being that descended in a cloud of smoke and taught us how to care for the land and live in peace," said a man named Killing Bear.
Dressed in traditional Cherokee buckskin regalia, Killing Bear says he learned the traditional dances and the dress of the Cherokee when he was a boy, and he performs dances for tourists and church groups.
According to Youndeer, reaching the native population is becoming both simpler and more complicated than ever. Many native communities, including his in North Carolina, are plagued with alcoholism, drugs and gambling. Many younger natives are moving off the reservations and exposing themselves to “western thinking” – including the truth of the Gospel. Meanwhile, other young natives remain on the reservations to “try to find themselves.”
"It's not popular for them to convert to Christianity," Youndeer, said. "There's a mystique about being called a Cherokee, and, to them, becoming a Christian is selling out."
Still others, he said, think they're already saved by the religion passed down through their families. However, God continues to change the hearts and minds of this nation sprawling around the Oconaluftee River.
Currently, 600 recognized tribes and bands of North America’s first inhabitants are represented in America. Of them, 95 percent have not accepted Christ as their savior and there are still some who could "live out their entire lives hearing only their tribal language," according to Mark Custalow, who serves with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board as Native American and emerging people groups coordinator.
"We need to remember that whatever happens on the reservations will affect the people who have lived there, even if they now live thousands of miles away," said Russell Begaye, a Navajo and NAMB's manager of church planter enlistment.
"We need to bring the Gospel to both the cities and the reservations."