When you walk into the Muskwachees radio station on the Samson Cree Indian Reserve in Alberta, Canada, you enter a hub for Cree culture. The sights, sounds, and people are extensively Cree, from the Native American art on the wall, to the traditional Cree music, to deejays like Nyte-Hawk, a Cree “pipe carrier” with two long black braids and an air of authority. But what you might not expect is that on Saturday and Sunday nights, the deejay seat is occupied by “Cool Man Toole,” a self-professed “white boy from Georgia” playing Christian hip-hop and sharing the gospel.
Mission to the World (MTW) missionary and pastor Marcus Toole—to his own surprise—has found an inroad of influence among the Cree First Nations (Cree Indians) that could only be by God’s design. When he moved to Alberta eight years ago to work with the Cree, Toole never envisioned that God would one day use his love of hip-hop as a ministry to break down walls and influence a culture. But God is doing just that.
An Unexpected Opportunity
Toole first came to Alberta in 2002 from south Georgia to start a ministry among the Cree and other First Nations in Edmonton. In 2004, Toole launched Jesus Church, a PCA mission church located in Louis Bull, the north-western-most of the Hobbema First Nations reserves, which he still pastors.
Six years ago, after Toole advertised a tent revival meeting on Muskwachees Radio, some of the Cree from the station invited him to do a Sunday radio show alongside other church programs. Excited for the opportunity to teach the Bible on a secular Cree radio station, he eagerly accepted. His show, called JUnit, became a combination of Bible study and Christian hip-hop music.
“Young people here listen almost exclusively to hip-hop,” Toole said. “And the median age of the population is 18.” With the youth being such a significant portion of the Cree people, Toole believes it’s vital to reach them with the gospel, in whatever way he can.
Intrigued by the music’s positive message, station manager Robert Ward (aka Bobby Jack), and deejay Warren Ermineskin (aka Nyte-Hawk)—both respected members in the tribe—encouraged Toole to do a second Christian hip-hop show, JBeats, on Saturday night, during the time of greatest risk for gang violence. “Nyte-Hawk in particular thought the positive lyrics might actually help the situation and have a calming effect on the community,” Toole said.
Toole agreed with Nyte-Hawk’s perspective. “Because the secular form of hip-hop is so connected to gangs and violence,” Toole said, “the Christian version directly targets that with an anti-violence, anti-gang message.” What’s more, Toole goes on to say—the lyrics are, in many cases, decidedly Reformed.
“Right now, hip-hop is the most Reformed of all the Christian music out there,” Toole told byFaith. “The theology is heavier than Isaac Watts. It’s free-style poetry, much more like the poetry of the psalter than like most Western music. It’s more about the lyrics than the music.”
Toole cites Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne’s music as an example of the deep theology presented in Christian hip-hop. Linne’s song, “The Atonement Q+A,” is actually a modern-day version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
What is sin? Sin is the breaking of God’s law
Plus our condition, which means from birth we all got flaws
What’s the result? The result is by nature we’re God’s enemies
And must pay the penalty unless God provides the remedy
What’s the remedy? The remedy is the cross of Christ
Where He suffered all the strikes for the lawless type
Toole plays other popular Christian hip-hop artists like Flame, Lecrae, and Humble Tip, all of which are steeped in Reformed theology.
A Pastor of Hip-Hop
When he walks through the door of the radio station to spin hip-hop, Toole assumes his hip-hop persona, “Cool Man Toole.” While he may temporarily set aside the title of pastor, Toole doesn’t shy away from talking about Jesus, whether on the air or off. Increasingly, Toole finds himself in conversations about faith as a result of the show.
In fact, the relationships Toole has formed with respected members of the Cree community and with traditional healers has been the most surprising aspect of his hip-hop radio ministry. “My original intent in doing the show was to reach youth,” Toole said, “and yet almost all of the doors that have opened on account of the show have been with very traditional people in their late 40s and early 50s. I have received more positive responses to the radio shows from the real traditionalists than I have had from any other ministry I’ve ever tried to do in Hobbema.”
These men seem to find in him a man of faith who they can trust. Toole has a deep respect for the beliefs and traditions of the Cree people and is able to maintain that respect while talking openly about Jesus. Though many of the Cree do not consider themselves Christian, they are often open to Toole’s prayers to Jesus. On more than one occasion, Toole has been invited to pray for the physical healing of people in the community. Many still seek out traditional healers, but are increasingly open to the idea that Jesus is able to do what their practices cannot.
Targeting a Unique Worldview
The Cree people are traditionally animistic and monotheistic. “Cree and many other Native North Americans believe that the physical world that we see is a shadow of a more real spirit world that we can’t see,” Toole said. “Everything we see in the physical world has its spiritual counterpart in the spirit world.” These long-held beliefs are imbedded throughout every aspect of Cree life.
Some of the Cree people’s resistance to Christianity, Toole believes, may have something to do with how Native Americans and First Nations people have been betrayed by those claiming to represent Jesus. Toole is quick to point out that “those traders betrayed Jesus more than they betrayed the Cree.”
Toole keeps the Cree worldview in mind on Sunday nights when he puts on his pastoral hat and teaches the Bible over the airwaves on JUnit. He gears his teaching to interact with and challenge the spiritual beliefs of the Cree in a winsome way. Toole sees the Saturday night hip-hop show as a bridge to direct people to the Sunday night Bible study show, and in doing so draws in a crowd that might not as easily walk in the doors of a church.
Now, thanks to the Internet, Toole’s audience isn’t limited to those in the immediate vicinity. JBeats, the Saturday night hip-hop show, is finding an audience on the Web. The large number of hits the radio station’s website receives during Toole’s show gives evidence to its growing popularity.
The show is also leading to an increasing number of public appearances. Recently, Toole was invited to deejay for an awards night at Louis Bull School and a community health fair. At each event, Cool Man Toole plays Christian hip-hop and promotes his show. With each new opportunity, Toole is more and more in awe of the creativity of a God who deeply loves the Cree. Toole’s anticipation for the future is palpable.
One thing is clear; our creative Creator is at work on the Hobbema First Nations Reserves. Pastor Marcus “Cool Man Toole” may not know what God has in store for him and the future of the Hobbema Cree. But if it involves hip-hop and the Word of God, you can bet he’ll be on board. It seems like the white boy from Georgia has found his element.
For more information on this ministry, email Marcus Toole at email@example.com.
To listen to Muskwachees Radio, visit www.Samsoncree.com/mradio.htm. Marcus Toole’s hip-hop show JBeats, airs on Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 12 p.m. MST, and his combination music show/Bible study airs on Sunday nights from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. MST. (If firewalls prevent listening, click on the yellow bar at the top to allow.)
Note: This is a secular station with a wide range of formats and a focus on the values of the Cree. The station covers a range of formats including: traditional First Nations music, classic country, heavy metal, and secular hip-hop.