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Native American Pastor Leads Southern Baptists to Decry Forced Conversions

“Burdened and broken” by the federal investigation into Indian boarding schools, Mike Keahbone drafted the denomination’s first resolution in support of native peoples.
Native American Pastor Leads Southern Baptists to Decry Forced Conversions
Image: Adam Covington / Baptist Press
Mike Keahbone, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lawton in Oklahoma

Southern Baptists took a historic stand last month to acknowledge the trauma suffered by Native Americans and to officially offer their support and prayers.

“When you look at the long history of Southern Baptists, there was not a resolution in our history that ever took a stand with Native American people,” said Mike Keahbone.

A Native American who leads a church located near the headquarters for the Comanche Nation in southwest Oklahoma, Keahbone knows firsthand the need for gospel witness and for healing among native peoples.

The First Baptist Church of Lawton pastor proposed that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) speak out on the issue following a federal report, released in May, that investigated the history of Indian boarding schools.

The SBC resolution—approved at its annual meeting in June—condemns forced assimilation and conversion as “contrary to our distinctive beliefs as Baptists in religious liberty and soul-freedom.” The statement also recognizes how this painful history continues to affect native peoples, particularly after new report.

“For Native American people, this is opening up a pretty significant wound and one that we’re having to process and work through,” said Keahbone, who served both on the committee that drafted the slate of 2022 resolutions and on the SBC Executive Committee.

“Just to be able to say to everyone who was affected by this, to every Native American, to every Alaska native, to every Hawaiian native, ‘We see you, we understand this is painful, and we want you to know that we’re standing with you.’”

The federal report found that half of over 400 federally funded Indian boarding schools were run with the help of churches; Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches are mentioned, but not Southern Baptist. The historic approaches of the church and Christian missionaries continue to shape how native communities see the faith—and represent a barrier to contemporary evangelism, Keahbone said.

He developed the resolution with fellow members of the resolutions committee, including pastors J. T. English and Jon Nelson, and recently spoke with CT to discuss its significance.

How did this resolution come about?

When this report came out on the boarding schools, as a Native American—I’m Comanche; I’m a member of the Comanche tribe, but I’m also Kiowa and Cherokee—and having heard lots and lots of stories of my own family being a part of these boarding schools, I was very anxious to see the outcome. … I read every bit of it. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t know the depth of how bad it would be.

After I read it, my heart was obviously very burdened and broken. It took me a few days just to even process and think through it. Once I did, part of that report discusses how missionaries from different denominations were a part of that process [of abuse]. You got to see reports on forced conversion, to go along with the forced assimilation, and it just broke my heart.

I immediately contacted Brent Leatherwood with the [Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission], and he was already working on it, which I was so proud of. I was really glad to hear that. One of the things that he was looking for was to see if Southern Baptists were a part of that report. That was a blessing to me, to see that he was already ahead of the game there.

It turns out that as far as denominations go, Southern Baptists were not named in the report, but I still had a burden on my heart to acknowledge it. I thought it would be really important for us as a convention, because of our history in dealing with racial reconciliation, especially Black and white reconciliation. I thought that this would be a great opportunity for us to stand as a convention with Native American people in a pretty dark moment in our history. …

This wasn’t just important to me, but it was important to our entire resolutions team and something that they believed would be important for our convention as well.

Is there any specific language or wording in the text of the resolution that you think is especially important to highlight?

I think the second “Resolved” is probably my favorite part: “Southern Baptists stand in support of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians—especially those who are a part of our own family of churches—as they process the findings of this report and discern next steps toward healing.” That’s just huge.

Probably equally as important is the “Resolved” where we stand against forced conversions and distorted missiological practices. Those two I think are equally important.

It’s historical for us to take a stand as a convention for these people, for my people. That was just huge. It was super meaningful for me, personally, and so that got in my feelings a bit. But also, I think it’s important for everyone to know that we were not a part of the forced conversion movement.

The reality is, forced conversions are a primary reason why it’s so difficult to share the gospel with Native American people. It is primarily why Native Americans call Christianity “white man’s religion,” and it’s not because they don’t understand that Jesus was Jewish, that he was a Galilean—it’s not about that at all. It’s because of Native Americans’ experience with white culture, forced conversion, and forced assimilation that has built a huge barrier between Native Americans and the gospel.

So, for us, as one of the largest Protestant denominations, to say something like this and to make it a part of our history now is significant. As a Native American, when I’m sharing the gospel with Native American people, to be able to say, “We were never a part of that movement; we were never a part of forced conversion,” that’s a big deal.

How does the legacy of abusive treatment by missionaries and other religious figures at these schools affect Native American views of Christianity and Christian evangelism today?

I think it’s important for people to understand the history of Native Americans. Even before slavery, Native Americans were dealing with these issues for 400 years. Even before we became a nation, white European settlers came in and decimated our people.

One of the issues that I’ve been pretty bold about in Baptist circles is when you look at our convention, we have a specialist for African American ministry, we have a specialist for Hispanic ministry, we have a specialist for Asian ministry, and what’s missing is a specialist for Native American ministry.

When you look at the convention in 2021, I think we did a great job of putting someone from every nation, tribe, and tongue on the platform at some point, either to pray or speak or preach, but there was one missing group from that entire convention in 2021, and it was Native Americans. So, to see that that’s going on, it begs the question “Why?” And it’s not intentional; it’s not a racial issue. It’s just that typically Native Americans aren’t seen, and it’s because people don’t understand the history behind it.

In some pretty candid and private conversations, when I bring this up, the feedback that I get sometimes is “The Native American population is so small. You know, you have a large African American population, a large Hispanic population, a large Asian population.” And my response always is “How do you think that population got so small?” This was our homeland; this is where we came from; this is the motherland for us. And for us to have one of the least populations in this country points to a huge problem that has never really been addressed.

I’m not asking for reparations; I’m not asking for special attention. I just want us to have equal opportunity and equal representation in ministries that we have.

What should Christians today know about the history of Native Americans and these boarding schools?

My encouragement for people is to look at Native American history and look at what has happened to the Native American over the centuries, and it’ll help give you some perspective on the kind of trauma that we deal with. I think it would help a lot if people would just learn, just do a little bit of work, and see what Native Americans have been through.

It was noted in the report why we were even dealing with forced assimilation, and the primary culprit was that the government wanted it to be easier to take Native American lands. The way that they could do that was to [first] drive them and force them off their lands, and [then] they targeted children. They wanted to limit their education and limit their capability.

If you take the future generations of a people and you give them a limited education, you force them more into a workforce environment. Then they don’t become leaders; they don’t get put into positions where they can make a difference or see what’s happening to them and understand it and do something about it. The ugliness and the heart behind it—and the strategic movements of it—is an awful ugly part of our history.

I’m not trying to throw around racial cards or trying to look for some sort of handout because of what we’ve been through. In my heart, I want to learn how to live in this system and in this way of doing things, and I want to be successful in that. And I want to help other native people be successful in it, to be in positions to have influence, and give a voice where we can give a voice. I think you’re seeing a little bit of a culmination in that even in the birth of this resolution.

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