On any given Sunday, the Hope Fellowship PCA church plant in the little town of White Swan is teeming with life. Altogether there are around 140 regular attendees, and it’s growing all the time. Young Life is booming, with more kids signing up for camps each year, and some 230 teens are active in the church plant’s weekly youth group. Of those, around 50 are plugged into discipleship groups and undergoing leadership training.
This is the work of Sacred Road Ministries, a missionary team led by Chris Granberry in the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington state. The team works with Hope Fellowship (where Granberry serves as the pastor), organizes after-school programs, disciples the community’s kids and teens, and hosts weeklong mercy ministry trips throughout the year.
“Listening to native people is a ministry in and of itself. When folks found out that we were willing to listen, even if we didn’t understand, that went a long way.”
It’s inspiring to see a church plant flourishing like this, but all the more so when you realize that only 15 years ago, there were no Christians here at all.
Engaging Our First Neighbors
Granberry first visited White Swan back in 2000. A youth director from Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, he brought a team of students for a weeklong mission trip, fixing up houses and hosting a kids’ club.
“I had been on a lot of mission trips. I’d seen Third World poverty. … But that was the first time I was ever exposed to what was happening on reservations,” said Granberry. “I had no idea that there was a place in America as desperate as that little town.”
Many American Indian reservations have been classified as “Fourth World”: Third World poverty surrounded by First World wealth. Granberry says it adds an extra dynamic of hopelessness — opportunity is within sight, but just out of reach. Alcoholism and drug abuse run rampant on “the rez,” virtually all the children the team meets have been sexually abused, and 75 percent of teens are technically homeless. Though the number has not been verified, Granberry has heard that the life expectancy in Yakama is 39 — one of the lowest among any population inthe world.
“It feels like people here are inventing new ways to die,” he said. “It just never ends.”
And amid all the trauma and suffering, there was no church, nobody to share the love of Christ. Flying home at the end of that week, Granberry remembers begging God to do something for the people of White Swan, to send somebody. He never figured that somebody would be him.
“I was haunted by the memories, the faces, the stories I had heard,” he said. “I couldn’t get it out of my head. It hit me hard thinking about how Jesus calls us to love our neighbors. And as I learned more of the history of Native America I realized that, in essence, we’ve had 500 years of opportunity to love these, our first neighbors, and we’ve failed.”
Listening Well: A Ministry in Itself
When Granberry talks about the history of the Yakama people, his voice brims with both respect and sadness. Before the white settlers came with their wagon trains and indecipherable treaties, “the Salmon People” would move with the seasons. In the spring, the salmon would run upriver from the Pacific, and the Columbia River was packed so full of fish that people reckoned you could walk across on their backs.
By 1855 the settlers had come, the cavalry had been called in, and Washington state’s first governor forced the Yakama to sign a treaty they couldn’t read. By some accounts, he told the chiefs that, should they refuse, they would be walking knee deep in the blood of their women and children. At the end of it all, the Yakama were left with a tiny fraction of the lands they once freely roamed. Most of what was left to them is desert, given because it was seen as unusable.
“It disrupted their entire way of life, and things have just gone downhill from there,” said Granberry. “And if you look at the treaty, the terms have never been kept by the federal government for a single day.”
Worse, it was the same people who dealt death, stole land, and broke promises who also preached Christianity. When everything else was a lie, why would this new god be any different? In light of that past, the anger and despair of many of the Yakama are unsurprising. So how does a white guy from Alabama hope to share the Gospel?
“We knew that any place we walked in, whether a feast at the longhouse or a family gathering, we needed native people to vouch for us,” said Granberry.
From time to time, locals would get in Granberry’s face and chew him out, railing on white people, Christians, and their history.
“We call it ‘taking our spankings,’” he said. “We recognize that the folks we’re working with have been force-fed lies and garbage for hundreds of years. So to think that we’re going to come in and not have to absorb some of the grief and anger and despair would be ridiculous. If we’re really going to try to do incarnational ministry, we’re going to have to take it on the chin from time to time. … Being a Calvinist actually helps a ton. I can say, ‘Hey, I actually think you’re right. The human heart is desperately wicked.’”
When confronted, Granberry and his family don’t push back, argue, or make excuses. They listen. They ask clarifying questions. They acknowledge sin, systemic injustice, and the weight of a horrific history.
“Listening to native people is a ministry in and of itself,” said Granberry. “When folks found out that we were willing to listen, even if we didn’t understand, that went a long way.
“I’m convinced that’s where the breakdown has been [historically] with Native America and the church,” he added. “There were efforts made to share the truth of Christ, but it was rarely done in the context of the love of Christ.”
Granberry aimed to do things differently.
A Bubbling Spring
Kickballs and jump ropes, bubbles and a “Jesus Storybook Bible” — Granberry and his family threw the essentials in their van and drove out to the White Swan housing projects, ready to start a kids’ club. It was 2003, and the Granberrys had arrived less than a week before, fresh from moving across the country. That first day 12 kids showed up. By the end of the summer their ranks swelled to more than 50.
“I had been on a lot of mission trips. I’d seen Third World poverty.…But that was the first time I was ever exposed to what was happening on reservations.”
“My mindset from day one has been to try to answer the question: ‘What does it mean to love this person like family?’” Granberry said. “Isaiah 58:6-12 is [our] cornerstone passage. There’s one part that says basically, ‘Look at your neighbor who is suffering, the orphan, the widows, the homeless, the hungry, and seek to satisfy the desires of the afflicted.’ … What I came to realize is … that’s our story. When we were spiritually dead and starving, Jesus didn’t turn His back on us, so He’s called us to reach out to folks who are suffering in the same way that we were.”
A week after the Granberrys arrived, a Yakama woman showed up at their door and asked, “When are you having church?” Granberry explained that they planned to wait, that they needed to earn the community’s trust first and build relationships. But she persisted, showing up week after week and asking the same question. Finally, they gave in, holding their first adult Bible study a month after arriving.
“We started working our way through the book of John and said, ‘Well, we’ll just keep doing this until people quit coming,’” said Granberry. “Amazingly, people kept coming.”
In the first two years, 200 adults and hundreds of children came regularly. Early on, a Yakama elder named Wendell Hannigan joined and gave Granberry the key to the traditional community longhouse. They held the Bible study there for the next nine years. Meanwhile, kids’ club continued. The kids’ grandmothers started hanging around, so the Granberrys befriended them too. They played with kids and gave rides to the store, and painted houses and fixed roofs and cooked meal after meal.
Experts in Native American ministry had told Granberry that they could live in the community for 30 years and they would never really be a part of it, never be welcome. Instead, they were being invited to birthday parties and family dinners within the first few months.
Now, 15 years later, the Bible study has become a growing church, the team has grown to 10 full-time staff and their families, and the body of Christ has become a beacon of hope in White Swan.
Hannigan, the elder who gave Granberry the key to the longhouse, also gave him an Indian name, “Mool Mool.”
It’s the name of an old Yakama desert oasis where a spring bubbled up from the ground. It was surrounded by towering cottonwoods that offered shade from the sun. Wild game and berries clustered near the water, and in the old days it was a gathering place for the Yakama.
“That’s what Wendell sees happening,” said Granberry. “He said, ‘I see the love of Jesus bubbling out of you and your people like the water at Mool Mool.’”
Loving People Well
There’s a story Granberry tells about his first summer in White Swan, on that mission trip where God took a town and plunged it deep into his heart. He and his team of students were fixing up a Yakama woman’s house. She was nervous, almost hostile to these strangers — didn’t say a word to Granberry the whole week. At the end of the trip, just as he was driving away in the van, Granberry heard a noise behind him. He stopped and turned around, and there was the lady from the house, running to catch him with tears streaming down her face.
“Why would you do this?” she asked. “My own family wouldn’t do this for me.”
And he told her the truth. He told her about the Creator-King who came to earth not to renovate houses, but to renovate lives.
“I wish I could say she fell on her knees and prayed to receive Christ,” said Granberry. “She didn’t. But a Native American lady listened to a white guy from Alabama explain the Gospel, and she started the conversation. That’s when I realized that’s what has got to happen in Native America. You have to love people well enough for them to start the conversation, to just ask, ‘Why?’”
People ask Granberry all the time, “How have you gotten mercy ministry to work?” He figures that’s the wrong question. You don’t love your neighbor because it “works.” You do it because it glorifies God. But often, when you come to grips with the past and own it, when you learn to listen well and love like family, the walls between us begin to crack, and Christ pours in to fill the gaps.
Andrew Shaughnessy is a freelance writer based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. A graduate of Covenant College, he has lived and worked in England, South Sudan, and India, honing his craft with a focus on non-profits, startups, and international affairs.
Photography by Ian Allen