Cherokee congregation blends Christian traditions with native culture

The 2018 NC Synod Assembly with the theme, “We are church for the sake of the world,” featured three keynote conversations which provided illuminating glimpses into the ways God is working through the NC Synod, ELCA, to demonstrate, “We are church together. And together, we are church for the sake of the world.”

The third keynote conversation focused on Living Waters, a small but dynamic mission congregation located on the Cherokee reservation in western N.C. This ongoing ministry is led by the Rev. Jack Russell, who is the only full-blooded Cherokee pastor in the ELCA. Its vital work includes not only multicultural worship and other services that blend together both native and Lutheran (liturgy) language and culture but also a variety of community outreach programs to both natives and non-natives, including a crucial food pantry that supplies a four-county area, as well as varied counseling programs. Interviewing Pastor Russell is the Rev. Phil Tonnesen, assistant to the bishop.

Phil: Share with us again your name and where you’re from.
Jack: I’m Jack Russell, pastor of Living Waters mission church in Cherokee.

Phil: What are some misconceptions you encounter about your ministry?
Jack: As I look out at my gathered church today (synod assembly), I think I know how Custer felt. (laughter) At Cherokee we face many challenges in misconceptions. A lot of people are still uneducated about American Indian history … such as those who think we still live in teepees. (laughter) Lots of people have some Cherokee blood (and in asking those in the audience to raise their hands, he said … ‘You can admit it, it’s not the 1800’s’ … laughter). There are also misconceptions on the other side: Lots of local folks aren’t very knowledgeable about Lutheranism … which is not as common in western N.C. as other parts of the state.

Phil: What do you hope we hear and learn from your community?
Jack: One of my pet peeves is that people come in who already know about ministries … so they tell us what they know and how we should do it. But you can’t learn anything by talking … you’ve got to listen. When we have groups coming in, especially servanthood groups during the summer, we take that opportunity to educate them about the Cherokee culture but also about the people themselves who come to Living Waters. We try to clear up their misconceptions and stereotypes.

Phil: I understand that in Cherokee the guiding statement is “Christ and Culture.” Share with us ways you’re honoring your native culture and your Christian journey.
Jack: We are unique in how our Sunday service is held. We honor our ancestors before the liturgy. We open up with what we call ‘smudging’ (and that’s an old Lutheran tradition, too, right?: burning incense), which to the Indian people is like stating a creed … it’s lifting up all evil thoughts and cleansing your mind, getting ready for worship to begin. Then we sing a welcoming song in Cherokee, and we use a lot of Cherokee references and songs as part of our overall service. I’m thankful for the praise band here (at assembly) to show you that church can be done from many cultural viewpoints in their own language.

Phil: Share with us one story of hope from your ministry.
Jack: As you know we have a food pantry for those in need. About five years ago we had a young single woman come to us, recently divorced, who had been kicked out of her husband’s community. She had no home, no job, no food. My wife Lisa, who runs the food pantry, steps right in to help people. And like a mother hen, she gathered this young woman under her wings. And the woman kept coming back to the pantry to get food for herself and her son, and Lisa invited her to come to a woman’s group. Well, she wasn’t ready to come to the Lutheran church … she still had a strong Baptist background. But she kept coming to the pantry and finally she came to church. And from that point on, her self esteem and situation improved, and she got a job with the tribe. Now she’s up in management, she has become a past Council president, she has become our treasurer now … so she’s one of our success stories that we’re very proud of. Lisa ends up offering more counseling than I do because the greatest part of our pantry clients are women and women like to talk with women. I think it’s very helpful, and it’s a job resource place. So one of my friends calls Living Waters an “oasis” in the middle of conflict in the reservation. People come there to be accepted without reservation … no pun intended. (laughter) We have an open-door policy.

Phil: Related to that story, how many folks are served by the pantry?
Jack: For the past six months (since the first of the year), we’ve been averaging about 1500 clients a month … and that’s open only on two days a month. But this past month in May, we surpassed that number and served 2400 people. (applause) Without our mission partners’ contributions (and also contributions from what we call partners-in-mission or individuals), we couldn’t sustain that ministry. So a big thank you to all the partners out there!

Phil: How can we be advocates or best walk alongside our native sisters and brothers?
Jack: I like that ‘walk alongside.’ In Cherokee tradition when we go on a spiritual walk, we walk in silence, but we also walk as slow as the slowest person in the group. We don’t get ahead, and in fact most of the stronger people in a spiritual walk will walk behind everybody to make sure no one is left behind. How you can help us? Keep us in your prayers. Many years ago when I first started advocating for our native brothers and sisters relative to the ELCA, it seemed as they knew more than we did about how to minister to Indians. So they’d come in with their concepts and strategies … and one of my friends said: ‘When you come in here for an afternoon and tell us how we should be doing things, we want you to remember that you can go back home.’ (laughter) That’s kept with me all these years, and all I can say is: Come and see. Come and see what we do at Living Waters. I’m inviting each and every one of you to come, and I think you’ll come away with a fresh perspective of what Living Waters and the Cherokee people are all about. God bless you and thank you very much for your support. (After the audience stood up and applauded, he added, ‘I wish everybody in my congregation could see that … especially after a sermon!’)

Story: Cindi L. Clemmer of Clemmer Communications is also the wife of the Rev. Palmer D. Clemmer, Hickory.
Photos: Pastor Thomas Nelson is a retired pastor living in Raleigh.

Watch this interview on our YouTube channel.