Honoring those who speak truth to power
When Robert Shetterly taught himself to draw and paint, he became fascinated by the themes of nature, animals and religious forces. He began making a living by creating art from his home in Maine. But eventually, that wasn’t enough for Shetterly, who’d been an activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War during his high school and college years.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the United States’ subsequent invasion of Iraq to destroy “weapons of mass destruction,” Shetterly found himself in a rage over what some have since called flawed intelligence and others have called lies.
“All I could do was rant. And I was really making myself sick,” Shetterly said. He wondered whether he should leave the country or stay and use his talents to have a voice.
The desire to speak out won, and Shetterly started painting portraits of people from the 19th century who were courageous in standing up for what they believed in, such as Harriet Tubman, who had helped lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“I thought, OK well, ‘How can I use this enormous energy that I’ve got right now, because of how I feel, and do something positive? Something that’s about love rather than hate?’”
Since then, Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project has grown to more than 260 portraits of those living and dead.
“[T]he more I did it, I realized this was not just about my own personal relationship with the country or my own therapy. It was really about education,” Shetterly said.
Today, he continues to connect to communities through painting and through exhibitions and other events. His work travels to settings like museums, schools and faith communities. The documentary “Truth Tellers,” directed by Richard Kane, shares the story of the artist’s work and journey, and encourages people to connect and discuss themes of truth, justice and equality.
Values of faith and honesty
It’s no coincidence that many of Shetterly’s subjects are people of faith and that faith communities have exhibited his work.
“We are encouraged often to think about finding our ethics in our economy, in how many jobs have we got, are people being paid a fair wage, what kind of innovation can we do,” Shetterly said.
But in faith communities, he said, fundamental values like compassion, dignity, truth telling and courage are the ones that must first align.
Shetterly said his faith-focused subjects are people who believe in these values and understand that they can’t live with themselves if they don’t act on those values. When his work is exhibited in faith communities, it can spark conversation and introspection.
What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
In 2022, Shetterly was a guest speaker for chapel at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, focusing on themes of truth and justice. Speaking to an audience of 650, including 500 students at the residential school, Shetterly shared the story of one of his portrait subjects, Claudette Colvin, who as a Black teenager in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, refused to cede her seat to white passengers months before Rosa Parks would famously do the same.
St. Paul’s students attend chapel four days per week. There, they grapple with big spiritual questions like, “Who am I?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to be a good and ethical person?” said the Rev. Charles Wynder Jr., the school’s dean of chapel and spiritual life.
Shetterly’s visit, including his discussion with art students later in the day, brought to life the work, sacrifice, vision and life’s journey of people who have sacrificed for the common good, Wynder said.
For Bethany Dickerson Wynder, the school’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives, Shetterly’s artwork complemented the school’s efforts to lift up “unsung heroes” in the Black community and supported the school’s focus on education in the arts.
Shetterly’s portrait of the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus and an elder in the Church of God in Christ, features the subject wearing a dark-colored blazer and a matching hat that reads “Resist.”
“Often, the greatest leaders come out of that tradition — that prophetic tradition in the churches,” said Shetterly, who explained that he didn’t want to paint his subjects as icons or people on pedestals.
“This isn’t the work of a few heroes and giants — this is the work of people,” he said.
The Rev. Dan Smith, the senior minister of First Church in Cambridge (Massachusetts), Congregational, United Church of Christ, has helped share Shetterly’s art in a faith-based setting. Smith engages with the church’s collaborative staff on social justice tasks as well as deep spiritual formation work.
Before the pandemic began, Smith’s church had reached out to Shetterly’s team after seeing the artist’s work in Maine. The church had been doing a deep dive into its own legacy of slavery — finding that there had been more than 30 enslaved people in its historic membership and doing the spiritual work of repair by visiting sites like Selma, Alabama. But the timing wasn’t yet right to connect with Shetterly.
Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
In 2022, the church reached out again, looking ahead to the theme of “Truth that sets us free” for the season of Lent. First Church went on to offer an exhibit that ran from February to June 2023.
The staff chose portraits that connected with the church’s story, whether by geographic proximity or because their words inspired the community. For example, there was a special local connection with the unveiling of Shetterly’s portrait of Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist and author who had freed herself from slavery and run a boarding house near the church grounds after her escape, Smith said.
“The congregation loved having the portraits. They were immediately inspired when they walked into the building,” he said, noting that staff had scattered the art inside and created a ritual of standing before two images at a time and having a short prayer along with time to hear the subjects’ biographies.
He said the hope is that the exhibit will return, noting that there is a connection between the branches of social justice and the spiritual roots of worship.
How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
“When a congregation gets too focused on prayer life without looking out beyond itself to what’s going on with its neighbors, that’s problematic. I think when a congregation is all about social justice and doesn’t tend to its prayer or worship life, that’s also a problem,” Smith said. “I think the sweet spot is when there’s a real sense of balance and integration and alignment.”
One example from Shetterly’s work would be the portrait of the Rev. Jim Lewis, who has focused on issues like health care and criminal justice as an Episcopal clergyperson and author. It depicts Lewis looking out stoically from a blue-green background, with his quote reading, in part, “Turning the other cheek is a revolutionary idea.”
A documented legacy
If the unveiling and display of Shetterly’s portraits is an experience, so too is the act of painting them. The process is so inspiring, in fact, that it spurred director Richard Kane to document it.
“‘Truth Tellers’ is the most important and most difficult film I have made in my long journey of producing almost 100 films,” Kane wrote via email.
“I began following Rob around 2003 in his process of selecting his subjects, interviewing them about their beliefs in the ‘American experiment,’ selecting a quote from their writings, and painting their portraits,” Kane wrote.
“It soon became a series about his belief in returning to the founding ideals of our country — liberty, equality and justice for all. It became a series of discovering one’s moral courage. And it was courageous of Rob to select many lesser known but significant Americans who symbolized our fight for justice — racial, indigenous and moral justice.”
Kane noted Shetterly’s deep belief in democracy is what drove the desire to create the film.
“At a time when there is a pattern of states denying the right of students to study slavery, inequality, diversity, critical race theory, preventing students from learning about our true history, ‘Truth Tellers’ is here to tell the truth and give teachers a tool to have students understand our real history,” Kane wrote.
For his part, Shetterly remains committed to sharing his message and his craft.
“The first thing I do with each painting is I paint the eyes,” he said. “As soon as you paint the eyes on a wooden panel, [it] actually seems like there’s a life there.”
Instead of relying on brushes, Shetterly said, he paints a lot with his fingers, building up thin layers of paint using a technique called glazing. Eventually, the light comes through the paint, and the emotions of his subjects begin to surface, allowing Shetterly to then scratch their words onto each wooden panel, using a dental tool, to bring the elements together.
Early on, for historic subjects, Shetterly painted from existing images. But for subjects still living, he has also traveled to those who are willing to meet in order to understand their stories and capture their images in real time. Today, he has a list of hundreds of people he can paint, including names suggested by others.
Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
Shetterly’s meetings with the subjects might require less than an hour of guided conversation that he hopes will shape their facial expressions, and he then may take just 20 to 30 photographs that capture their emotions in the moment. These days, he can even carry out the initial meeting via FaceTime instead of an in-person visit.
When it comes to the actual painting, Shetterly can finish in about a week to 10 days, but he often spends more time traveling and researching each portrait.
Some of those he approached were wary to participate at first, he said. But after the publication of his first book and the launch of his website, subjects could see the company they were going to be in, he said, and would rarely refuse to sit.
And even though many of the people he’s painted were first unknown to him, many — like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and public health advocate who revealed the truth of the inhumane conditions in Flint, Michigan — have become friends and even guests for related events. Regardless of whether subjects follow up with program events, the experience can be meaningful.
Kathy Kelly, who was co-founder of the grassroots campaign Voices in the Wilderness and now is president of the board of World BEYOND War, remembers sitting for Shetterly in the early 2000s. At the time, she’d returned from overseas travels where she’d seen children, who couldn’t get pain medication or antibiotics due to economic sanctions, withering away in hospitals.
“It was at a point in time where I felt a little fragile. I think in the painting maybe I look a little fragile,” she said, recalling that it seemed clear that the economic war would become a bombing war.
“Our group really wanted to raise the voices for people who had no voice in the United States,” Kelly said.
In contrast to the difficult scenes she’d witnessed overseas, Kelly’s portrait session was set in a welcoming space by the water, she said.
“Rob Shetterly exposed many, many truths through his amazing portrait artistry that would never have seen the light of day,” she said of his body of work. “And I love it that he does it with [paint] and a few words.”
Portrait subject Louis Clark had a similar positive experience, coming from his work representing and protecting government and corporate whistleblowers via the Government Accountability Project (GAP).
After helping Black voters register and get to the polls in 1960s Mississippi, he had earned his master of divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion before obtaining his law degree from American University in 1977 and becoming director of GAP in 1978, just after its launch. With Clark at the helm, the organization assisted whistleblowers.
Today, Clark calls out the role of faith in the work his portrait highlights.
“A pretty significant percent of the people that come forward are coming forward because they have ethical concerns and convictions, very often religiously based, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “Because, essentially, what we’re doing is helping people in the workplace to realize their ethics and their morality. And to me, that’s exactly what it’s all about in terms of religion. That is the narrow path — the narrow path of righteousness is truth itself.”
This kind of work — and the willingness to go beyond accepted norms — has historical significance in the church.
“What we know about the history of Jesus is that he was a radical,” added Clark, who is ordained in the United Methodist Church.
“For example, he ate with unclean people. His ministry included — in leadership roles — women, which was pretty unheard-of in the day,” Clark said. “[Jesus] recognized the humanity of all people.”
It’s this kind of action that Shetterly’s project continues to recognize and share for discussion and contemplation. The portraits, and the related documentary, can help inspire and encourage others to tell their own truths, explore their own stories and look out into their own communities.
“What Robert Shetterly does is he tells narratives of truth so that those who look at his images, his paintings, and hear his story … will live into a truth that is loving, life-giving and liberating,” said Charles Wynder, of St. Paul’s School, noting that the essence of truth allows us to liberate ourselves.
“Developing global leaders who pursue truth — seek to live it, strive to tell it, work to protect it — is foundational to not only our faith journey but the aims of religion and faith: to see the divine in others, to find ourselves together [in a way that] recognizes our connectivity and our particularity,” Wynder said.
What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?
Questions to consider
- What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
- Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
- How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
- Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
- What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?
After being expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives for engaging in protest for gun reform, Rep. Justin J. Pearson demonstrated that his work is not just on behalf of the people or even just with the people; his work is Black faith embodied.
The Sunday following his expulsion, Pearson preached an Easter sermon in which he made clear that he’d mastered the homiletical genius and the sociopolitical hermeneutic of hope often found in conscious or prophetic Black preaching. And he is in good company.
He is a descendant of liberating faith traditions that have marked their identity by the life of a revolutionary Jesus resurrected in these contemporary civil rights movements.
Across generations, Black preachers have often been the voice, face and front-line leaders of freedom struggles. That truth remains evident in Pearson’s work as grassroots organizer, nonprofit founder, state representative and invigorating preacher whose audience crosses socioeconomic and racial lines.
Pearson appears to recognize this truth, as he began his sermon by calling the names of his own ancestors — Annie Ruth, Flossie, Evaline, Lavenia, Gwen, Kimberly, Jason — and the great cloud of witnesses who have taught us what it means to believe that “the true measure of a [person] is not how [that person] behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how [that person] stands at times of controversy and challenges.”
Though the myth of inevitable progress coupled with our violent realities may make the future appear bleak, I am encouraged by the voices of my peers across the nation, including the public faces such as Pearson and his fellow state representative Justin Jones, as well as by the quieter workers who are also making major contributions to freedom struggles.
I’ve personally worked with leaders such as the Rev. Kazimir Brown of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Rev. Kendal McBroom, the director of civil and human rights at the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC. They are the evidence that the spirit of Black liberation theology is still moving among us.
I’m inspired by what I am witnessing.
I watched the events in Tennessee unfold, and it seemed as if half the world stopped. I was reminded of the power and purpose of our proclamations, the possibility of realized liberation as a result of liberating theologies.
Many people are moved by the sounds of Black preaching, the oratorical passions and homiletical theater of it all. But in these traditions, the words must be embodied. The Black preaching tradition is a matter of prophetic proclamation that begins in individual study and does not conclude unless or until the sermonic moment has been embodied. Both speaker and hearer become the word daily lived into the world as co-laborers with God in efforts to usher in a more just world.
No matter where we find ourselves after the Sunday morning gathering, what we believe about who God is and how God is at work in the world as a result of that moment will dictate how we engage the world around us. Engaging that experience responsibly is especially weighted for Black faith leaders who have positional authority in particular occupations.
Though the House floor is not an inherently spiritual space (or prophetic in its intended work), there is a spirit that is inextricably linked to the faith in public witness that Black leaders carry with them into diverse occupational spaces, because our proximity to power never saves us from death-dealing politics and policies. Therefore, to be a politician and descendant of Black preaching is also to be the personification of prophetic witness in the face of injustice.
The March 27 shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville is not only one of 163 mass shootings in the U.S. as of this writing in 2023, but it is couched within a history and culture of gun violence across generations. Be it by the bullets of police, of neighbors, of racist vigilantes, of white supremacists with Nazi manifestos, of hooded evangelicals or of “friends” on camping trips, Black people are familiar with the violence being inflicted upon the nation right now.
Furthermore, we are familiar with the apathy and inaction of legislators who serve as co-conspirators with the lobbyists, corporations and millionaire classes that benefit from the crosses we’re all being forced to carry.
While it is imperative that we recognize the unique struggle of children being gunned down in schools, it is also important for us to recognize the interconnectedness of our suffering and the shared source of that suffering.
In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. … This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Our hope, therefore, may be found in our collective will not to stand down. What took place in the Tennessee House is evidence of what could and should take place across the U.S.
The expulsion of Pearson and Jones from the legislative body coincided with Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday and signifies the hope we embody when we choose to reject the cross in all its death-dealing variations.
We are surrounded by crosses, and those crosses must be dismantled. Second Amendment crosses upon which our nation’s children are sacrificed. Crosses of capitalism upon which the poor and dispossessed are hung. Crosses of white supremacy upon which those who voice dissent are nailed.
Black and brown people who are being sacrificed on the altar of power for the sake of the crosses of dominion must be saved. We are living in existential hells from which we can be redeemed only when we choose to resurrect the spirit and ideology of a crucified but resurrected Jesus.
Pearson and his colleagues are standing within a lineage and legacy of Black faith leaders who have done just that. They are doing the work of moving the pulpit into the public sphere.
This begs the question: Who are we when the hour of “worship” has ended and we are surrounded by the spirits of Golgotha’s hill? When we find ourselves drunk with congregational praise, visions of Calvary should sober us into righteous indignation — until freedom.
For Luke Powery, it’s significant that different people heard their own native tongues from strangers’ mouths at Pentecost.
The impact of being able not only to understand another’s speech but to hear a familiar language from a stranger could provide a road map to navigating division.
Turning to the Holy Spirit and Pentecost as a means for re-imagining human relationships and pushing past divisions created by racialization is the subject of Powery’s recent book, “Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race.”
“A turn to the Spirit is a turn to the human,” Powery writes.
Rather than a call to uniformity and dropping conflict, the Holy Spirit’s work at Pentecost is a testament to how unity and diversity coincide for Christians.
Powery is the dean of Duke University Chapel and an associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and how the Holy Spirit can inspire us to become more human. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: How did the pandemic influence your writing of this book?
Luke Powery: I gave three lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary around “Searching for Common Ground,” playing off Howard Thurman’s book “The Search for Common Ground,” and that was right before COVID, actually, in February.
Through everything in the pandemic, I think what was striking to me was our mortality as human beings and thinking about our shared humanity or lack thereof — the tensions that there were over mask wearing or not, the tensions between human beings across racial divides because of the murder of George Floyd.
The book is focused on those dividers, adjectives, whatever you want to call them, that have functioned in a way to separate people and not embrace our mutual humanity.
The pandemic brought everything to a head in many ways — our striking mortality as human beings. The pandemic should have been a time to help us get things in order, at least get our lives straight, our minds right, and it just, I think, became more tense and polarized. And so it was this call, which I have at the end of the book — a call to togetherness.
Ultimately, that’s what’s behind the book, this call to reconciliation. I try not to use that word, because it’s overused, but I think fundamentally, the book is a call to come together as children of God regardless of who we are, and trying to ground that in a kind of pneumatology.
As Thurman says at King’s funeral when he eulogizes, “We’re not quite human yet. We’re becoming human.” I think those words are so true for where we are today in this nation and really in the world. We’re not quite human yet.
F&L: How does the Holy Spirit change or work against the racialization of our world?
LP: For me, Pentecost is a metaphor for the gift of multiplicity that we see in languages, cultures, ethnicities. There is the embrace of, or the affirmation of, difference, and there’s not a hierarchy created.
It’s really this diversity unified. So racialization is a de-affirmation or a mode of dehumanization of the other, whoever that might be, in a kind of racialized hierarchy.
At Pentecost, there isn’t a hierarchy, and what’s central — or who is central — ultimately at Pentecost is God, and it’s not even our own particularity. Our particularity is not erased; it’s affirmed.
God is central, and God is the one who can bring us together. And so for me, what we have is this affirmation of the beauty of humanity.
At Pentecost, it’s not just the gift of speech but the gift of hearing and understanding in your own native language. What’s interesting is people are hearing their own native tongue in the mouths of the other who’s someone who’s different, not even somebody from their own ethnic background.
I think the Spirit drives us, leads us to a coming together, to unity, to mutual understanding, to the bodies that are again affirmation of the bodies of people, of all people, and as gifts of God. And so diversity, or difference, however you want to say it, is the gift of God.
It’s not something to be avoided or sort of ignored even. It’s the gift of the heterogeneous expression of the Spirit; that’s the gift.
Homogeneity and uniform communities are not the gift of the Spirit. It’s unity and heterogeneity; that’s the gift. And so the Spirit, I think, helps in opening that up in a way to help us embrace the humanity, no matter how different, of someone else. It actually affirms the humanity of others.
F&L: What do you think that unifying power of the Holy Spirit looks like in preaching?
LP: From the pulpit, it’s what our telos is as preachers. Is our telos to divide, or is our ultimate goal the move toward unity? Again, unity implies diversity, so it’s different from uniformity.
It doesn’t mean every single sermon is on a specific topic, but what is your thrust? Is it to see a community really be a community, which means it being diverse and not functioning with this racialization, which is dehumanization, but really seeing people as people?
There’s an overall thrust as preachers and in the community. How do we at the church find a new tongue, playing off Pentecost? How do we find a new language? How do we find a new way of talking about human relations?
I say “racialize” or “racialization” quite a bit in the book; I do that intentionally, because it’s something that’s done to us. It’s not something that is ontological. It is something that’s social.
We have this social inheritance and historical inheritance of race as a social construct, and obviously it’s shaped how things are in the world. It’s not as if we can erase that and say, “Oh, we’re going to change how we talk, and things we can do better.” But I think there is a way that we can talk about relations with each other across these divides that might be more helpful, more Christian, more Spirit filled.
Identities can become idols, and so before we even see someone else as a human being and talk to them like a human being, we’re already thinking whatever categories they are, whether it’s political affiliation or what we see them to be racially.
We don’t see them as a human being, a brother and sister. In the church, how can we find a new way, a new language? What is the more human way and more humane way for talking about these things in the church?
When the seeds of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (now NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community) were taking root in the 1990s in Canada, becoming an accredited graduate school seemed like a far-off goal. The group of Indigenous scholars began having conversations, which blossomed into an annual symposium, an academic journal and graduate curricula.
“But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point,” co-founder Terry LeBlanc said.
It wasn’t the main objective for NAIITS to receive formal ATS (Association of Theological Schools) accreditation, but when it did arrive in spring 2021, LeBlanc says it felt “vindicating.”
NAIITS is the only accredited Indigenous-led graduate theological school in North America. It offers four master’s degrees, together with an experimental accredited Ph.D. program.
LeBlanc is CEO and director of Indigenous Pathways, a corporate entity comprising NAIITS and its sister organization, iEmergence, which focuses on leadership development in Indigenous and tribal communities. He completed his Ph.D. at Asbury Theological Seminary.
LeBlanc spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about NAIITS’ accomplishments so far and what the future might look like for the school. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Can you tell me the story of NAIITS?
Terry LeBlanc: The idea of it began back in the late ’80s for some of us, mid-’90s for others, and came about as a result of the continuing challenges raised by varieties of individuals in the Christian church, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, who criticized the idea that Indigenous culture and faith could be brought together in some fashion — or put another way, that one could be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian in the same way that one could be authentically Euro-American or Euro-Canadian Christian.
So it began with conversations about how to address that, which led to hosting annual symposia on Indigenous theology and mission, which in turn led to the publication of a journal and the creation of a faculty and curriculum to teach our own programs in the broad compass of divinity.
F&L: Recently, you were accredited by ATS. How did that feel?
TL: Vindicating. I’m not sure that we had it in mind when we launched our formal programs, first in Canada in the late 1990s and then in the U.S. in 2001. But when we held our first symposium, I don’t think any of us imagined that we might want to, never mind get to that point.
F&L: What kinds of degrees do you offer?
TL: We offer four master’s degrees in North America: an M.A. in intercultural studies, an M.T.S., an M.A. in Indigenous community development and a newly framed M.Div. program. We also offer an experimental Ph.D. program accredited by ATS.
And in Australia, we offer an M.T.S. program, along with a grad certificate and a grad diploma, as well as the Ph.D.
F&L: How does the teaching work, with so many different people from so many different places?
TL: We had determined that we needed to do something to address the issue of many Indigenous students being reluctant to leave their home communities or territories to go for lengthy periods of time to study. So we had already determined that we needed to offer some of our programming in a virtual format, online within learning management software, as well as with Zoom and virtual videoconferencing.
But we also wanted to be sure that we created an in-person community experience, so we went to a trimester system, with two semesters, the September and January semesters, being offered in a virtual format, synchronous and asynchronous, and then the summer semester, which wrapped around our annual symposium on Indigenous theology and mission, being offered as an in-person intensive set of courses.
We’ve been doing that from the beginning, so going virtual with COVID wasn’t an issue for us.
F&L: What have you seen your students be able to do with their training in their communities?
TL: Varieties of things. Some have gone into spiritual care work as chaplains, some, in urban environments, doing street work or urban-based advocacy and ministry. Some have gone into pastoral ministry.
Others have become or are becoming community scholars in their communities or have gone on to do further study to advance their academic skills.
All of the graduates thus far have gone into vocations that connect to the disciplines within which they received their degrees.
F&L: Why is NAIITS so important?
TL: At this juncture, it’s important because it’s the only Indigenous-designed, developed, delivered, and wholly governed Indigenous graduate and postgraduate theological educational institution that is ATS-accredited in North America.
While there are other institutions teaching at the undergraduate level, and some at the graduate level, they are either teaching under the auspices of non-Indigenous governance or teaching under the auspices of other denomination-institutional environments.
NAIITS is unique, and that in itself makes it essential, since to be able to govern our own theological education, albeit within the parameters that ATS and the new standards of accreditation require, is critically important for us to advance our notion that one can be authentically Indigenous and authentically Christian.
F&L: In terms of the governance being Indigenous, how does that make the education qualitatively different for your students?
TL: Well, you could have the same course title, say New Testament Introduction. Offered from a Euro-Canadian or Euro-American seminary or divinity college, it will use mostly standard approaches to New Testament study, even though some will be more contemporary than others. They’ll use materials that are largely written by or taken from a Western philosophical and hermeneutical approach.
Whereas a New Testament introduction course that we offer will come from an Indigenous epistemology and Indigenous ontology and worldview and will use Indigenous frame materials, in addition to individuals from the Indigenous community who come in to provide community perspectives.
When we do a course, irrespective of what the course may be, it’s offered from an Indigenous perspective as the first order of business, not as a supplement.
F&L: How does theological education that is done by and driven by Indigenous people avoid some of the blind spots for the traditional Euro-American-centric theological education?
TL: Well, whether intended or not, by default, given the trajectory of the Western church, Euro-American as well as Euro-Canadian and Australian (or wherever it may be) approaches to theology have largely assumed that a singular worldview is the appropriate worldview through which to approach the Scriptures, through which to approach the ideas, the principal ideas of Christian faith and life.
As a consequence, this theology is not only blind in certain areas but oblivious to the fact that Christianity, or Christian faith — or, if you will, the following of Jesus — doesn’t originate in the Western environment.
There’s an imposed notion that Jesus was an American or Jesus was a Canadian, and the images, of course, tend to bear out the Eurocentric nature of Christianity down through the centuries.
There’s also certainly the idea that a theology rooted in the Western Enlightenment is an engagement with faith that provides a context for science and faith to coexist. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t provide a place or a context where that coexistence can have a mutuality about it; it’s more that there are boundaries between the two, and on occasion, there are semipermeable membranes — but on other occasions, they’re completely separate.
Whereas with an Indigenous context, there is not an either/or epistemology at play but rather a both/and, so that impacts how we view not only the text of the Christian Scriptures but also other stories of experience and tradition of the pursuit of God.
F&L: What do you think the future looks like for NAIITS?
TL: Oh, goodness, I wish I were good at prognostication. Given that we’ll celebrate 25 years next year, and seeing what we’re able to accomplish with our partnerships and support, I foresee greater numbers of partnerships of differing sorts.
I can certainly see us creating perhaps a chair of Indigenous studies, which will have a Christian framework available for study but won’t be specifically a theological chair. It will be a chair of Indigenous studies that neither excludes nor centers Christian faith but rather sees Christian faith as one aspect of Indigenous life throughout our history.
F&L: Speaking of the partnerships, how can people who aren’t Indigenous support or partner with Indigenous theological development?
TL: Our partnerships with existing non-Indigenous institutions have been extremely supportive and beneficial.
We do provide up to 25% of our seats in any given degree program or course for non-Indigenous students — first, for non-Indigenous students who are engaged with Indigenous community, and then second, for non-Indigenous students who are wanting a non-Western approach to theological education.
Certainly financially, where we’re a not-for-profit, we are essentially people-funded. We’re tuition- and fundraising-driven — not that that isn’t the case for many other institutions — but we have a constituency that, as you might imagine, given the history of Christianity in treating Indigenous peoples, aren’t necessarily at the top of the list for Indigenous peoples support, and through no fault of our own.