Jesus, the Frybread of Life
Megan Murdock Krischke helped launch and grow Native InterVarsity for more than ten years, but, as a bi-cultural woman, it took her time to embrace her own identity as a Native American. Although she is a member of the Wyandotte Nation, with Cherokee, Irish, and Scottish heritage, she considers herself a cultural learner to Native American life. She sees her mixed background as beneficial to her work in Native ministry. “Being bi-cultural allows me to be a bridge in some ways. I have a really good understanding of how InterVarsity works and how majority church culture works,” Krischke said. “But then I’ve also invested time in cultural learning, and have the authority that comes with being a tribal member that allows me to enter those communities.”
Krischke, 40, began her work in Native InterVarsity with her husband, Will, when they planted a Native-specific chapter at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. She recently took over as InterVarsity's first National Native Ministries Coordinator, and, alongside a team of four coaches, ministers on 8 campuses out of a total of 15 programs nationwide. The work has paid off. “This year, Native InterVarsity reached more Native American and Alaskan Native students than ever before in our history,” says Krischke. “We've seen a 49 percent growth in the number of these students participating in our fellowships over the last year. I'm so excited that our Creator is making the goodness of his son Jesus known among the First People of our land.”
CT spoke with Krischke from her home in Durango.
Is there a conflict between Christianity and Native American traditions?
Every culture has things that are beautiful and reflect the image of God, and every culture has things that are broken and need redemption. Native Americans are not without those things as well. The majority of missionaries for the last 500 years have come into Native communities and emphasized the conflicts and the differences rather than looking for common ground. There’s certainly a conflict with Christianity in many communities. One of my Native colleagues, who grew up on the reservation, says that parents in his community would rather see their children grow up to be addicts than Christians.
For them, Christianity erases their traditions and pulls them away from family. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, but that’s been their experience—that Christianity creates this divide, this shaming. Actually, there are quite a few Native traditional values that are biblical. There are a lot of things non-Native Christians could learn from Native culture. There’s a communal perspective on sharing of resources like we see in Acts, and there’s generosity and hospitality. And they value family and relationship over accomplishments.
How has the landscape changed in Native American ministry during the past 10 or 20 years?
In the ’90s, InterVarsity leaders had a revelation that it wasn’t right that we weren’t intentionally reaching out to Native students. So, we invested a lot of time in learning and building a partnership with the North American Institute of Indigenous Theology. They did special trainings for InterVarsity, and we sent staff to their annual symposium. Much of those first 10 years were spent learning. In this second decade, we were figuring out how to apply that learning and get on the ground experience.
Five years ago, there was a significant shift and people began to be more aware, not only that there are Native students on campus, but also how important it is that we see and honor the First Peoples of the land. Now we’re in a place where we’re saying that Native InterVarsity isn’t just for Hawaii, or the Four Corners, or Alaska, but for Kansas, and California, Minnesota, Boston, and Florida. There are Native students in all these places, and we have the skills to reach them.
How did you become involved in Native InterVarsity?
At the time that I was being hired to work in Colorado, my region was bringing a Native college ministry in Albuquerque, New Mexico, under its umbrella, and my boss tasked me with helping them feel welcome at staff meetings. Without them, I might not have thought too much about Native-specific ministry. From early on, I admired the folks working in InterVarsity’s multiethnic department—they were truly my heroes and role models. But while we had ministries reaching black, Latino, and Asian students, there was no one focusing on reaching Native students—and that got to me. God gave me the vision that there would someday be a Native-specific ministry in InterVarsity.
What is your coaching strategy for how to reach Native students on campus?
A huge part of my job over the last five years—and I’m not done yet—is letting staff know there are Native students on campus. And I often find, as soon as that clicks in their minds, the staff’s hearts are ready to go. They respond, “Oh, I should be reaching out to them,” or “I should find them,” or “What would make them feel welcome in my fellowship?” And that’s where I start coaching—once that light is turned on.
I coach staff on how to enter the Native community on campus with respect. Posture is so much more important in Native culture than in dominant culture. One of the first steps is to establish relationships with the Native elders [such as those who lead Native centers], although some campuses may not have those people. We talk about what will draw Native students together. One of my favorite activities is having a night where they make frybread, share traditional flood stories, and read the story of the great flood in Genesis.
We also talk about the steps Native students often take on their journey toward following Jesus—from a trusting relationship with a Christian, then growing to trust a group with their questions. Eventually, they start participating in the worship life of the community. Often, before they commit their lives to Jesus, they have some big questions to answer—usually relating to what Jesus will mean for their relationships with their families. This often means a trip back home to talk with family members and ask for their blessing.
How does Native ministry compare with other minority ministries in InterVarsity?
I think one of the key challenges that Native InterVarsity faces is that there’s not a thriving church in most Native communities. So, in our planting training we’re always told to find the missional Christians on campus. Because there is such a painful history, you’d actually be extraordinarily lucky to find one Native student coming to college excited about following Jesus and wanting to help other students follow Jesus. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t some people coming in as Christians, but often those students come from churches that have said you have to give up your Native culture to follow Jesus, and so that creates some tension for us and for them. Native ministries have to be thinking about those things and how to equip students for that context.
What theological framework or scriptural mandate fuels your mission for Native ministries?
I’m moved by the vision in the Book of Revelation (7:9–10), where people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worship the Lord together. God has given me a vision of North American tribal people in their full regalia dancing traditional dances before the throne of God. I’m certainly not the only person who’s had this vision. I actually hear people talk about this a lot. The beauty of it brings tears to my eyes.
I also care a lot about justice. There’s been so much historical and ongoing injustice with Native communities—that pulls on me to be part of righting those wrongs and healing those wounds. I really believe the work at InterVarsity has the potential to renew and transform Native communities. We have former students who are working in tribal government, in social services, and in ministry, and many of them are the spiritual rocks in their families. Native communities are looking to the youth they send to college as their future leaders.
If these students, while in college, come to a place where they can see that Jesus really is good news for their people—that he’s not a white man’s God, that he cares about them, that he created them uniquely and beautiful and in ways that distinctly represent who he is—then they can go back to their communities and live and talk about the goodness of Jesus with people in ways that outsiders never could.
Your vision is to both “follow Jesus and honor tradition.” What does that look like exactly? And how do you avoid the pitfalls of syncretism in the process?
There is a bit of an underlying assumption in this question that there is some pure form of following Jesus, free from culture and syncretism. I don’t think there is. Honestly, I don’t think any culture or church avoids these pitfalls. That’s why we need each other. Having been asked this question for over a decade of Native ministry has had the effect of me becoming more aware of the syncretism in majority culture Christianity—from Easter bunnies to American exceptionalism, to wealth and education being the sources of power and prestige, to overvaluing cleanliness and timeliness. No faith practice escapes the influence of the culture around it. When it comes to which traditional Native faith practices can honor Jesus, I think the people best suited to answer those questions are those who know those practices intimately. It isn’t for an outsider to say which ceremonies can be contextualized to following Jesus and which ones can’t.
What are some Native forms of contextualized worship?
We use a pow wow drum or a hand drum for some of the songs we sing. We might burn sage like incense as a way of sending prayers or for cleansing. But I think true contextualization goes a lot deeper. One interesting difference from the majority culture church is that our singing worship tends to be more oriented toward praise and adoration and our prayers are petitionary, but it’s the opposite in the Native community. There’s also more of an oral and storytelling approach to Scripture study rather than one of academic written analysis. I think as we have more culturally Native leaders, we’ll eventually be able to go deeper and deeper with contextualized worship.
What is the vision and mission of the Would Jesus Eat Frybread? Conference (WJEF)?
The conference is a national Native student conference created in partnership with Cru’s Nations ministry and the Calvin Institute of Worship. Native students from all over North America and Hawaii have a chance to gather as a Native community. We eat traditional foods and serve frybread in a contextualized Communion service; we study Scripture using the newly released First Nations Version of the Bible; we have a cultural sharing night where students can offer songs, dances, stories, poetry, or testimonies.
Native students lead worship using songs that they wrote or that were written by other Native Christian leaders. And we always make space to talk about some of the painful experiences that often go with being Native. Students have shared stories of sexual abuse and finding healing in Jesus. It is a sweet, sweet time. I’m so excited for the next WJEF, which will be in Anchorage, Alaska, from November 9–11. Our theme this year is, “Making all things new.”
As you look to the future of Native InterVarsity, what excites you most?
I am most excited about seeing Native communities become places of hope, innovation, and flourishing. But also about seeing InterVarsity blessed by Native people and Native ways of thinking and living out faith. I think there’s a real richness in that. We all have a piece of the truth or a piece of the picture of God, but when we’re together we get a more complete picture. I look forward to the day when no one will be under the impression that Christianity is the white man’s religion.
Deborah Pardo-Kaplan is a freelance journalist who writes about religion, culture, and health. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.