Angela Tarango’s Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle uncovers the history and religious experiences of the first American Indian converts to Pentecostalism. Focusing on the Assemblies of God denomination, the story begins in 1918, when white missionaries fanned out from the South and Midwest to convert Native Americans in the West and other parts of the country. Drawing on new approaches to the global history of Pentecostalism, Tarango shows how converted indigenous leaders eventually transformed a standard Pentecostal theology of missions in ways that reflected their own religious struggles and advanced their sovereignty within the denomination.
In the following excerpt (pp. 50-52), Tarango tells the story of Charlie Lee, an American Indian convert to Christianity who became a missionary and practiced Pentecostalism without losing his sense of identity as a Navajo.
Charlie Lee grew up herding sheep in the shadow of the Shiprock on the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of northwestern New Mexico. From a young age, Lee was a spiritual seeker—he wanted to know the meaning of life and, as a Navajo, turned to his elders for answers. According to Lee, “My wise old grandfather tried to draw from the resources of his own years of experience to bring some measure of satisfaction to my inquisitive mind, but still the searching went on.” His grandfather and grandmother taught him about the Navajo gods and traditional beliefs, but it was not enough. At a government boarding school, Lee discovered that he was a talented artist. His talent attracted notice, and school officials sent him to the Santa Fe Indian School, a boarding school that specialized in the arts. His paintings, traditional renderings of Navajo life and animals, began selling remarkably well. By the time Lee graduated, he had exhibited his paintings at the Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, New Mexico, the State Art Museum in Santa Fe, the Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and the de Young Art Memorial in San Francisco. He had also won two first prizes at the 1946 New Mexico State Fair, one for animal figures and one in the home life category. Dealers all over the Southwest bought his paintings, and the Smithsonian Institution purchased one as an example of modern Navajo art. Fame and fortune had unexpectedly smiled on the young Lee.
Lee realized that he was extraordinarily fortunate because his artistic ability had given him a viable way to make a living. Yet he was still seeking answers and felt a call to serve his people. Boarding school had introduced him to mainline Protestant Christianity. To him this was simply the “white man’s God,” an impersonal and detached deity who could not give him the answers he needed. The summer after graduation from high school, he visited an Apache friend at the San Carlos reservation in Arizona, where he encountered [Assemblies of God (AG)] missionaries and Pentecostal-style worship. Lee reported, “For the first time in my life I saw a group of Indians worshiping God with enthusiasm and sincerity. They not only testified to the saving grace of God, salvation through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, but also emphasized the infilling of the Holy Spirit.” Upon attending several services, Lee experienced a conversion that he explained as “a personal confrontation with a Being, not a religious process of being initiated into an organization. It was a confrontation with an individual personality—Jesus Christ.”
When Lee converted, he moved beyond making a commitment to Jesus. “But to me this salvation which I heard about was more than a thing to help me. I began to reason this way: I want to help my people; lift them out of their ignorance and darkness. The best thing I can offer them is the story of Jesus because that is of eternal value.” Brother Lee believed that God had handed him a “burden” to shoulder—a “burden” for his own people. Shortly after his conversion, Brother Lee gave up his art, and in 1948 he enrolled at Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Missouri. Although he continued to paint as a hobby, his art now funded his ministry to the Navajos and helped fund the building of a church. At CBI he learned about the indigenous principle from Melvin Hodges and decided to apply it to a mission to his own Navajo people. In 1951, Brother Lee returned to his beloved homeland and began to preach the Gospel in Navajo—a radical move considered risky by other AG missionaries.
Excellence, tenacity, and ingenuity best defined Brother Charlie Lee and his missionary work among the Navajos. As an artist, his colleagues considered him one of the best of his generation. As a missionary, he lived out his life according to the indigenous principle. Brother Lee eventually built the first fully indigenous church in the AG even though no one in the AG expected him to be so successful. Brother Lee was different from many of his Indian contemporaries because he came out of a stable traditional family and enjoyed a flourishing career before conversion. By white conventions, he was a “model Indian” for his time: an accomplished artist who could appeal to both white and Indian audiences while still retaining a traditional Navajo style in his paintings. This pattern also marked his missionary work. Brother Lee was one of the first Indian converts who fully and publicly embraced both the Indian and Pentecostal halves of his life. For Brother Lee, choosing the “Jesus Way” did not mean that he had to repudiate the “Navajo Way.”
From Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle by Angela Tarango. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.
- Charlie Lee, “Charlie Lee’s Testimony,” Pentecostal Evangel, 17 August 1952, 10.↩
- Turning Point with David Manse, The Charlie Lee Story, 1976, Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, Springfield, Mo., 4.↩
- Lee, “Charlie Lee’s Testimony,” 10.↩
- Manse, The Charlie Lee Story, 8.↩
- Lee, “Charlie Lee’s Testimony,” 10.↩
- Manse, The Charlie Lee Story, 10. The official reason that the AG considered it risky that Lee preached in Navajo was because there was some doubt as to whether certain theological concepts would translate correctly. Yet it is probable that white missionaries did not like Lee to preach in Navajo because they had no way of monitoring what he was preaching.↩