Vance Blackfox: Shifting the narrative of mission and service

Vance Blackfox at Vine Deloria Jr. Symposium

From an early age, Vance Blackfox (2012, MATS) felt a call to help others feel included. Blackfox has fulfilled that call in many different roles across the church: as a youth leader and a director of youth programs, in positions at Women of the ELCA and Augsburg Fortress Publishers, at California Lutheran University and at LSTC.

Now he is serving in a new position within the ELCA: desk director for American Indian Alaska Native Tribal Nations.

This new position is a significant change for the ELCA. By creating a desk director for American Indian Alaska Native Tribal Nations, the ELCA is recognizing Indigenous people as sovereign nations. This position is similar to desk directors relating to different regions around the world serving ELCA Global Mission.

In his new role, Blackfox will be building relationships with tribes and tribal leaders while partnering with and supporting the Indigenous and Native ministries that have existed and been working in Indian Country for many years.

“The ELCA needs to support the work that Native people are doing through organizations like Boarding School Healing Coalition and the National Congress of American Indians,” Blackfox said. “How does the church partner in a way that’s helpful and healthy and as an advocate of justice or maybe even a host of activists? The church must move beyond its paternalistic patterns with Native peoples and communities, deleting the imbalance, and instead embrace the opportunities to learn from the knowledge and great wisdom that Indigenous people have to offer. What a great way to build healthy and right relationships with us that would be.”

He started the new position in August, ending the first extended break he’s had from work since he was 13 years old. He finished his work with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in April. Although he enjoyed his time off, he didn’t stop working for inclusion and healing.

Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery

One major effort toward healing is the ELCA’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. Over the last year, Blackfox was part of a large group of ELCA leaders called together by the presiding bishop to begin the work on how the church will take action on repudiation.

“There are some powerhouse leaders in the ELCA taking part in the conversation,” he said. “I’d like to think that the Creator gave us some inspiration before some of the particular and major issues nationally came about. This gives us energy to be more connected to the organizations, tribes and the leaders in Indian Country who are already addressing challenges like missing and murdered Indigenous women and boarding school healing. The church is listening to Native voices again, like mine, who are saying, ‘We’ve got to make some moves here.’ Overall, the ELCA is doing some great things to get us in position. We’re not doing the things yet, but we’re doing some things to get us ready for what we’re going to be doing.”

Other+Wise

Inclusion and healing are part of the work Blackfox does with Other+Wise, an immersion program for youth and young adults that he germinated when he was director of Youth in Mission at LSTC. He is encouraged by the support the program has received from congregations over the last years.

“We always include an indigenous element in all of our programming, even if it is a more broadly constructed program, like Denver’s urban focus or the history of the border and borderlands in Texas. What’s first? The Indigenous element. People are showing up and are excited by learning and are taking to heart some of the things that me and others have been saying: ‘Receive this wisdom, receive this gift. Know that we are still not selfish with it. Just don’t abuse it and don’t appropriate it’” Blackfox said.

Other+Wise is also a sponsor of the Vine Deloria Jr. Theological Symposium at LSTC.

Vine Deloria Jr. Theological Symposium at LSTC

Blackfox also remains committed to producing the Vine Deloria Jr. Theological Symposium at LSTC. He founded the symposium 13 years ago.

“I care about Vine, and I care about white people knowing about Vine and what he did for Indian people,” he said. “Vine certainly opened doors for me when he was alive but has been equally impactful and important to my journey since he walked on. He continues to offer me incredible gifts that keep coming, keep appearing. I feel that way about the gifts he offers the Church and the world, that maybe they don’t see yet. He was one of the most prolific philosophers we have in the United States and he was a Lutheran theologian. He’s ours and I don’t think we, as Lutherans, know what we have.

“We really miss [deceased faculty member] Gordon Straw’s knowledge and expertise. The symposium was part of his dream as a Vine scholar, as well.”

Last year the symposium moved from in-person to Zoom and livestreamed on Facebook due to the pandemic. All 2021 sessions (Nov. 16-17) were available online.

The two-day event focuses on a different theme each year. This year’s was the intersection of Indian boarding schools and theological and Christian education with panel discussions by Native leaders, “learning lunches,” and United Lutheran Seminary President R. Guy Erwin delivering the keynote lecture.

Modeling our mission after Jesus

It is in Blackfox’s theology of mission as relationship building that all of his commitments converge.

“Mission is about relationship building. Our mission has to be modeled after Jesus. And Jesus’ sense of service had everything to do with making sure that people felt loved and included. We shouldn’t interpret the moments that he fed people as service. When Jesus fed people, it was to bring them to community, to empower the least,” he said.

The paternalistic approach to mission is rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery and an inability to understand that mission really is about relationships. For too long mission has been bound up in racism, disrespect of creation and other forms of brokenness,” he said.

“Jesus was very much a tribal person. In the feeding stories, for me, Jesus wasn’t serving the people. Jesus is, like, ‘These are my people. Why wouldn’t I feed my family?’ It wasn’t, ‘I’m me and I’m going to serve them.’ It was, ‘This is us. We’re all hungry. I have the power to take care of this, so I’m going to do it.’ Just like our grandmas do in our Indian churches. They turn nothing into something every Sunday. And not because they’re serving anybody. No, they too are thinking, ‘It’s my family, it’s my church family. We’re hungry, we’ve got to eat. I have the ability to take care of this so I’m going to do it.’ So how do we shift the narrative and stop justifying this unhealthy way of doing service to people? Instead, we need to do mission in a new but very old way by building good and healthy relationships with one another.


Original article published in the Fall 2021 Epistle Magazine; written by Jan Boden

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