I had the pleasure of worshipping with the Bear-Barnetson family at the annual Wiconi International Family Camp and Pow Wow in Turner, Oregon, in 2008 and 2009, and found myself amazed at the beauty and freedom Cheryl and others expressed as women and as followers of the Jesus Way. Cheryl is Bear Clan, from Nadleh Whut’en First Nation within the Carrier Nation of British Columbia. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Pacific Life Bible College, Surrey, B.C.; an M.Div. from Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.; and a Doctor of Ministry from The King’s College and Seminary in Van Nuys, California. Cheryl and her husband, Randy, travel full time with their three teenage sons, Paul (17), Randall (15), and Justice (14), who also have their own band. I interviewed Cheryl in 2009.
Hilary Davis: What is your current ministry?
Cheryl Bear-Barnetson: We [my husband, three sons, and I] are traveling to every First Nations community in Canada retelling the Great Story of Jesus.
HD: What vision has God given you regarding the advancement of his kingdom among First Nations peoples?
CBB: Native people have heard the gospel for four hundred years. We need to retell this story in an indigenous way, in a good way. But Native people cannot be considered the mission field forever. In fact, First Nations people make the best missionaries. All over the world, people admire First Nations and will listen to anything we have to say. They expect us to be spiritual, and so we can walk into any setting and tell the Great Story.
HD: What a wonderful calling! Do you feel God’s calling to become a missionary beyond First Nations communities?
CBB: Absolutely, we have been to more than thirty countries and have been welcomed graciously. We are heading to England and Russia, where Native people are still viewed as having some mystique. We also can visit non-Native churches talking about Native ministry, helping those who are interested (to help them do it right) and raising the level of awareness toward First Nations ministry.
HD: What are the challenges of your current ministry?
CBB: Traveling full time with three teens is extremely challenging. Also, being on the road full time can be wearying. We are, however, constantly surprised by God’s grace in our lives. Doors are open in First Nations communities all across the country.
HD: How do you and your husband share this ministry?
CBB: We’re a pretty good team. I tell stories and sing songs. Randy is great at managing our family. Also, he preaches really well and has a pastor’s heart with an evangelist’s calling. It’s a great blend.
HD: How are you and your family received among First Nations communities as ministers and as a biracial couple?
CBB: Because my non-Native husband has worked in First Nations ministry for more than thirty years, he is always well received. As ministers, we are well received because we don’t pull any punches. We tell the truth, such as the Residential Schools,1 [and the fact that] my reaction as a Native person is anger, [but] as a Christian I react with great sadness that the truth of Jesus was often misrepresented.
HD: Often misrepresented?
CBB: There were sincere Christians in Canadian history who desired to bring Jesus in a good way. We are grateful to have received the gospel.
HD: What do you see happening among First Nations communities in regard to receptiveness to the gospel currently?
CBB: When we retell the Great Story of Jesus using cultural clothing, instruments, and musical/singing style, we are always received graciously. Some positive responses include, “You talk the way we talk,” “I think I’m going to go back to church,” and “You tell a hard message using story, so we can receive it.”
HD: That’s wonderful. Before you say more about that, I’d like to ask some questions about your faith journey. How long have you been a follower of Jesus?
CBB: Since I was eight years old.
HD: How did you come to faith?
CBB: My parents sent me to Bible Camp to get rid of me for a week. When Mom picked me up, I stood up in the back seat, leaned on the front seat, and said, “I accepted Jesus into my heart!” She said, “That’s nice, sit down,” and drove home.
HD: Where was home?
CBB: I am from Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, which is in the Carrier Nation. I grew up very close to the reserve. It has always been home to me and still is.
HD: Who were the women and men of faith who influenced you as a child?
CBB: All the Christian women in my nation are very strong in every way possible. I am a very strong woman today, but will still shrink in their presence! The most influential person in my life was my mom, Susan Schaefer. She always wanted to bring the gospel to our people and took me with her whenever she did. She also worked in an inner-city ministry, where later I pastored, on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for years. Although she struggles with rheumatoid arthritis, she is still the strongest person I know. C. S. Lewis was a very strong influence on me. Bishop O’Grady, a local Catholic priest whom my mom was very close to, was very influential.
HD: On your Web site, advertising your album The Good Road, you write about your songs “The Residential School Song” and “Cheslatta” [the name of your grandfather’s village], saying, “Both of these songs were very hard to write; it took me a couple years, and it was a healing process.” Can you spell that out for us a bit more?
CBB: I’ve got good news and bad news for you. What do you want to hear first? We usually say, “Gimme the bad news.” That’s what First Nations heard as well. When the good news of the gospel was brought to our people, it was often used as a weapon of assimilation. The government partnered with the church to form the Residential Schools. They believed the best way to assimilate our people was to legislate the removal of Native children from our homes. This tore the very fabric of our society. Today, Native people equate the church with assimilation. [They say,] “If you let your children go to church, the church will make them into white people.” We will never be able to measure the effect the Residential Schools have had on our people.
HD: And the good news?
CBB: One Native person asked me, “How can you be a Christian after what they did to our people?” I was stung with the depth of this question, and knew I could not shrug off this answer. I prayed in the seconds I had, and God brought my mind back to Jesus. I answered, “Jesus predates our contact with Europeans; he was a man who was born into a specific culture, spoke their language, and participated in ceremonies.” The Native person said, “I’ve never heard that before.” I was grateful to be used by God to move this Native person a little closer to the cross. The gospel story is one of beauty and love. Creator loved this world so much that he sent his one and only son, so that all who believe in him would not die, but have eternal life. Beautiful. Creator not only started everything and exists far off, but actually loves me.
HD: What inspired you to become a musician?
CBB: My mom sang to me when I was little, as did my Uncle Norman. Later in life, there were many Native singers at the local inner-city ministry where my mom volunteered. I had always loved singing, and my mom always said I sang like a bird. (It may have been an old crow, but she was always encouraging!) I was inspired to sing using First Nations drum and chant by the band Broken Walls, led by Jonathan Maracle, a Tyendinega Territory Mohawk. I was also inspired by the Native people on the Downtown Eastside whose struggles with addiction and poverty changed my life. God showed me so many things. Many people believe the Downtown Eastside to be one of the spiritually “darkest” places, but, for me, it was a place of great healing.2
HD: Can you describe that healing a little bit?
CBB: We always go to places and hope that God will use us to change the world, and sometimes it happens. The process, however, always includes God’s side benefits. He uses our situations to minister to us, to change and heal us. Many times, we never realize there are areas of our lives that need a little attention until God shines a light on our hearts. Within my heart, God healed my identity. I had always loved being from Nadleh, and being Native was very important to me, but I did not know what that meant in the church. Being Native and being Christian always seemed like opposites. While at Street Church, I began a journey of healing—[realizing] that God created me as a Nadleh Whut’en, and that is who I can be, not only in life, but also in church. I didn’t need to lead a double life anymore, but could actually be Native and Christian at the same time. Also, the people at Street Church, in the midst of their brokenness, are a really strong community. We often overlook this when we see the craziness of the street, but it’s really more like a small town.
HD: What has your experience of being Native in other Christian churches been like?
CBB: I have always loved our First Nations culture, our dances, songs, and stories. However, I never saw anything Native in churches. The first time I saw anything cultural was a team from the south islands. They were amazing, but we never did anything Native for a few years after that either. It wasn’t until I was about twenty-two that I wore a button blanket for an international night at our church, Kings-way Foursquare Church. Because we never had anything cultural in churches while I was growing up, I wasn’t sure how this church would react. The pastors, Barry and Carol McGaffin, were very happy to see my Native button blanket, and it touched my heart deeply. Soon after, we started wearing our traditional blankets in church and taking First Nations dance teams all over the place.
HD: You’ve been involved in ministry of some kind since your youth.3 We could do an interview about each one of your leadership positions! How is it that you came to feel empowered as a woman in ministry?
CBB: During my time at Pacific Life Bible College [PLBC], I learned about the life and ministry of Aimee Semple McPherson [founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel]. She was an inspiration to me and had many, many firsts. I have been very fortunate in Foursquare Canada, because the philosophy generally is, “Why would we hold back more than 50 percent of church members from ministry?” There has always been a good representation of women on the national board and in all areas of leadership in Foursquare. Also, at all the schools I attended, PLBC, Regent College, and The King’s Seminary, there were many strong, smart, inspirational women professors. I’ve really been blessed.
HD: On your Facebook page, you have the quotation, “It is the mothers, not the warriors, who create a people and guide their destiny.” What does this quotation mean to you?
CBB: First Nations women are strong; we are called the life-givers. We have the power to influence our children to become strong Christians, thoughtful and good people. We have the power to inspire our children to greatness. Every society needs warriors, but the mothers carry a greater power.
HD: Do you feel a freedom to minister as a First Nations woman in a way you think the rest of the body of Christ could learn from?
CBB: Yes, absolutely I feel a freedom to minister as a First Nations woman. Yes, I believe the rest of the body of Christ could learn a lot from First Nations, not only respecting women in leadership. It is an overgeneralization to say that we do not have any trouble within our nations regarding gender relations; however, there are many, many women in leadership in our communities.
HD: What is another area in which the rest of the church can learn from First Nations culture?
CBB: First Nations people are also overlooked for leadership in large Christian institutions, not because we are inferior, but simply because we have different values. Native people will not promote themselves as is normal in Canadian society, but wait to be recognized. Good things don’t always come to those who wait. Rather, First Nations are looked at as having no initiative or leadership incentive. This is far from the truth; our people are wonderful leaders. Once, when visiting a First Nations community, someone said, “Our chief and two hereditary chiefs are here.” I smiled, walked to the back row of the church where several people were sitting, and said, “The chiefs are always sitting in the back row, so you must be the chiefs!” I was right, and they all laughed. It is our culture to honor the chiefs and ask them to come up and say some good words; they knew they did not need to push themselves forward. That is our way, but, sadly, we are overlooked in most church leadership settings simply because of different values.
HD: That is a beautiful example of what your culture has to teach us about the humility of Christ, I think. Are there any other messages you would like to send to the non-Native members of the church?
CBB: I would like to say that our Native people are beautiful. We have a difficult history and many things to overcome, but we are more than survivors: We are still warriors. Our ways and our culture are most often misunderstood by Christians, which is too bad, since most non-Native Christians are never asked if their culture is evil. Also, the church in Canada can learn many things from First Nations people.
HD: In closing, how can the readers pray for or learn more about your ministry?
CBB: We are currently involved with evangelism—retelling the Great Story of Jesus to our First Nations people. Please pray for our family, that God will continue to open doors for ministry and help us also in the day-to-day stuff. If anyone is interested in a Cheryl Bear CD, they can go to www.cdbaby.com (search Cheryl Bear) and have a listen. All songs are also available on iTunes.
I will conclude this interview with a testimony from Christina Dawson, a pastor and friend of Cheryl’s:
“Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel” (Prov. 27:9). This makes me think of Cheryl Bear and the way she taught about becoming an Indian Christian—that we can worship the Lord with the way he created us, with our regalia, with our songs, and with our dances. We were created for his glory, for his purpose. The Lord gave us these gifts so that we may honor him; without Jesus, we are nothing. Before I became a Christian, I didn’t care about making regalia or learning songs or dances and all of that. In fact, I didn’t like being Indian, because Indians were dumb, lazy, ugly, drunks, dirty, and good for nothing. But Jesus has changed my life, and I am proud of the way he created me and of all the gifts he has given me. Cheryl Bear has influenced me by being a good teacher, a good support, a good example of how a Christian Indian looks, and, most of all, a good sister and friend. This is an awesome fragrance unto the Lord!
- Established in the nineteenth century, Residential Schools funded by the Canadian government and run by churches were intended to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream Canadian society and teach them Christianity. Students lived apart from their families and were not allowed to speak Native languages or practice Native customs. Abuse and substandard living conditions were common at the schools, which were gradually shut down between 1969 and 1996. A similar system of boarding schools was established in the United States; the effects of familial separation and cultural shaming from this era continue to be felt in families on American reservations today.
- You can read one of the stories, “Uncle Chuck,” on Cheryl’s Web site, http://cherylbear.com/_wsn/page2.html.
- Cheryl served as youth leader at Prince George Native Pentecostal Church, pastor of the Downtown Eastside Foursquare Church/Street Church with Randy (1994–2004), board member of The Foursquare Gospel Church of Canada (2002–2004), member of the Evangelical Foursquare Church’s Aboriginal Council, board member and current chairwoman of the North American Institute of Indigenous Studies (1998–present), pastor of First Nations Church with Randy in Santa Fe Springs, California (2005–2008), representative for First Nations ministry for Foursquare Canada, and, currently, supervisor of the North Country Unit of Churches and the outreach pastor of Kingsway Foursquare Church, working for Canada’s First Nations in Burnaby, B.C.