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Mark Charles on Indigenous Wisdom

Conversation with Mark Charles about Indigenous Wisdom

Mark Charles has written about attending several World Christian Gathering on Indigenous People (WCGIP) events, including the 2011 one hosted by Maori Christians in New Zealand.

Mark Charles, Navajo (Photo by Steven Huyser-Honig)Maori landowners agreed to put part of their land within the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust (Wikipedia public domain); native kaka, New Zealand bush parrot (Wikipedia photo by David Small); and traditional Maori "hongi" greeting reminds people they share the "ha" or breath of life (Flickr photo by Kara Reuter)
What sticks with you as you think back on your WCGIP experience?

It was striking to spend time at a Maori village that’s working with the government to restore bird habitat at Maungatautari Trust. The Maori came across the Pacific in canoes about 1,000 years ago. Rats or mice probably came with them. When the British colonized New Zealand, they brought even bigger animals, but even introducing a mouse to an island with no mammalian predators can do significant damage. At Maungatautari, they have now installed a 29-mile pest-proof fence and are removing predators and reintroducing native birds.

Sometimes people romanticize indigenous people as “Oh, they’re so in harmony with nature.” It was striking for me to hear a Maori leader say, “We were part of introducing foreign animal life that destroyed this habitat. We want to take responsibility, but we’re still learning. We don’t know the best way to restore what was here when we came.”

You’ve written about how Maori people greet one another. Can you say more?

 After all the welcome ceremony speeches, songs, and gifts, our entire WCGIP group filed past the Maori king and our hosts. They greeted all of us the same way. You put your heads together, touch noses, and share a breath, often while putting your hands on each other’s heads. It felt more intimate than a kiss on the cheek, not as intimate as a kiss on the lips. This greeting line went on for 45 minutes. It helped me to feel less like an outsider, more like I was included in their Maori family.

In your travels, what other greeting customs have you noticed?

Wherever you go, the way of greeting tells you a lot about the people or community and how to gain some trust within the group. For the Dutch it’s a very firm handshake, maybe a hug or slap on the back. For the Navaho, the first thing you do is you go clockwise and do a loose handshake with everyone in the room. You do the same when you leave. When I visited Haiti recently, they were coming out of a cholera epidemic, so the government was suggesting that people just touch fists, not shake hands.

How do different cultural values for greetings and relationships play out in worship?

Most indigenous communities I meet and worship with have a much higher value for relationships than American culture does. If I ask your average American, “Who are you?” they’re going to tell me their profession. Most Navajos or other indigenous people would tell you who their family is and where they’re from. One way is identifying yourself professionally by what you produce. The other is identifying yourself relationally.

Our greetings in American churches tend to reflect our lack of value for relationships. It’s very common to get asked, as you pass someone, “How are you doing?” And you call, over your shoulder, “Oh, I’m fine.” We’re not expecting, nor do we want to hear, “Oh, things are horrible. Let me tell you about it.” And we end up projecting those values upon God.

How do cultural values about productivity or relationships affect missions?

Living in an indigenous community and observing many Western missionaries, I see that most Western mission teams aren’t centered around relationships. They’re centered around what we can build, what we can teach, or what we can give away—“for them.” Not only does that shape the missionaries’ perception of God, but it shapes our perception of God. It communicates that God can’t really use you in his kingdom until you get your degree or get some richer friends. I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek to do, build, teach, or give, but look at Jesus. He waited 30 years before he did anything. It takes that long to build trust, establish integrity, and know how to teach in the context. That’s something the Western church doesn’t understand very well.

This video shows a bit of the welcoming ceremony (see 2:00 to 4:00) that Mark Charles experienced.