Being a Good Guest

Lessons from an Indigenous Leader

I had the privilege of having a conversation with Adrian Jacobs, a Haudenosaunee Indigenous leader serving as the senior leader for Indigenous justice and reconciliation for the Christian Reformed Church in Canada. We spoke about the intersection of justice and worship and also about the use of Christian Indigenous songs in worship. More was said than could fit into these pages, so what appears below is an edited version of our conversation. One topic not included here is the Two Row Wampum Treaty, a living covenant made in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee (a confederacy of six Indigenous nations) and Dutch settlers—a covenant the settlers have repeatedly broken. Even if you are not of Dutch descent, if you live in the U.S. or Canada, I encourage you to learn about the Two Row Wampum Treaty (see  

—Rev. Joyce Borger

Justice and Worship

Joyce Borger: In this issue of Reformed Worship we talk about the intersection of justice and worship, particularly as it relates to the earth. Could you take a moment to reflect on that connection? 

Adrian Jacobs: I once heard an Old Testament scholar from the Vancouver School of Theology speak about how God made a covenant with the whole earth, of which humans are a part. And God in God’s wisdom gave humans agency over the earth. The two are connected; the earth suffers or benefits because of human agency. As the book of Romans teaches, the earth groans in this suffering because human beings haven’t really done well in living in a way that blesses the earth. So now the earth is reacting, which in turn affects the balance of all creation, which includes humanity. That imbalance that has occurred has resulted in many injustices.

Justice is central to worship. If you study the Old Testament in particular, but also the New, you find that acts of justice are about finding that balance again. People who have been overlooked are lifted up. People who have been oppressed are set free. People who have been brokenhearted are healed. Reconciliation happens; relationships among all of creation are put to right. There’s something about worship that embodies itself in that reconciliation. For the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, it’s restoring that friendship once again where it hasn’t been for a long time. Something disturbed that relationship, knocked it off course. And worship is all about this idea of coming back together into a good relationship, a respectful relationship, a peaceful relationship. That’s what I think about when I think about worship and justice. 

But sometimes I struggle in worship too. They may be singing Scripture and reading Scripture, but often not the whole passage; the portions related to justice are missed. We sing the flowery parts, but not the part that offers a correction. To be complete, worship needs to address the imbalance caused by unjust situations. To me, that is what will bring about the “beloved community.”

JB: I find it interesting that some Indigenous theologians talk about harmony and balance, as you have done. Then there is Martin Luther King talking about the beloved community, which you’ve just mentioned. And then in Scripture there is the word shalom, the desire to see all of creation—human and non-human—flourish and be everything it can be, to see it thrive. It seems to me that these are all expressions of the same desire, the same vision for how the world should be. So how am I and how are you creating that beloved community where you live, work, and worship? How are you creating that place of harmony and balance? To do that you need to identify where things are out of balance, where injustices have occurred and continue to occur. If shalom is the desire of our churches, then in worship we’ve got to cry out for all the places where we’re not seeing justice done. 

AJ: For Indigenous people that needs to happen before they will come to your church. The reputation of the church is important; they need to hear that it is a safe place to be an Indigenous person. Indigenous people know what injustice is all about. And if they find a church willing to do the work, they will tell others, “Oh, that church is where I can be heard. That’s where I can be found. That’s where I feel justice is at the center of our relationship. And that’s where I want to be right now.” Not many churches have that reputation. We aren’t there yet, but we could be. 

The good news is that in a few places and smaller settings, it’s becoming that safe and welcoming place. I know of one fellow whose connection to the church is through a drum group that meets at that church on Sunday afternoons. Because he has a relationship with people, including one of the leaders, he now can say to other people in the community, “Come on over to this place. It’s a safe place to be. You’re good there.” He’s not yet a part of the church, but he’s adjacent to the church. And the way in from a hostile position to a peaceful one is often that adjacent experience. But when he is ready for the next step, will he be welcomed? And will he feel like he could be a host in the church community as well? 

JB: And are we willing to change our own systems, cultures, and ways of being in order to make room in our church for others, like the person you mentioned, to become a host without expecting them to become just like us? If we are serious about wanting our churches to be seen in that way, where do we start? 



AJ: I know the Haudenosaunee creation story. I know the Haudenosaunee peacemaker story. I’m well aware of our culture and what the meaning of wampum is and all of that. So when I hear other people share our stories, even other Indigenous people, I put my antenna up. Are they getting it right? And there have been times where I thought, “Yeah, they’ve got it; they’ve got that story and they’ve got it down well.” Other times they’re mixing it up. Maybe I could sit down and share a bigger picture, help you understand it better. I heard a non-Indigenous person utilize our story and talk about some element of it, and after he was done, I thought he did that very well. He understood where we were coming from. He understood the story for what it means to us as Indigenous people, and he made a very contextual application in his own setting and it all made sense. It didn’t do injustice to our story, even in his recontextualization. You need to take the time to learn our story. But if you don’t know our story, and we yours, we can’t begin to talk about reconciliation. 

Back in the nineties there was a church that was going through the “worship wars.” The older people wanted the hymns; the young people wanted the praise teams and choruses. The church couldn’t support two different services, and they didn’t want to do one style one week and another the next. So they said, “Let’s get the worship committee, who are older who love hymns, and let’s get some young people who want the choruses, and have them plan the services together.” Sure enough, over time they developed friendships and mutually supported each other. They understood that they each needed their own music, and they were OK with including it. It wasn’t an either/or, but a both/and solution. The default in the Western way of thinking is either/or. But the more Indigenous way is both/and, because we believe both matter. So how can we address issues together? How can we like and respect people with both perspectives, deal with them both and not be exclusionary with one? Because if you slam the door on one perspective, folks will leave. I would. I’d realize that it’s pretty clear they don’t want me there. 

Both/and. When that first wampum covenant was being negotiated with the Dutch, [the Dutch] said, “We’ll be your fathers, and you, you’ll be our children.” But the clan mothers on our side said, “Oh, no, that’s not the way it is. We’re the older brother because we’ve been in the land for a long time. We’re brothers, but you’re the younger brother.” So out of that assertion from the women, a just and equitable relationship between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch settlers lasted for a few decades. 

Author and pastor Pete Scazzero once said, “Jesus may be in your heart, but grandpa is in your bones” (Scazzero, Twitter post, June 30, 2017, 3:05 p.m., Flipping that around, I can say that not only is bad colonization in Dutch bones, but that equitable relationship is in Dutch bones, too. The possibilities for a return to that peaceful relationship, of both/and, exists. You have to own all of your history—good, bad, and ugly. You need to learn our story, the story of the Indigenous Peoples, and your own story—and how those intersect. 

JB: It’s beautiful to be reminded that redemption is a line that runs through all our lives, including our histories. Reconciliation, then, is going back to the way God always intended things to be; it’s the realization of the possibilities that have always existed through God’s grace. 



JB: So, assuming that we’re doing the ongoing work of learning the story, what else should the church be doing? 

AJ: I’m often asked to give the Haudenosaunee traditional Thanksgiving address. It’s a greeting and a thanking of creation. It isn’t a prayer, and it isn’t creation worship. It begins with a community. The community greets and thanks the earth as its metaphorical mother, the provider of everything. It moves on to greet and thank the waters, the grasses, the plants that give us medicines and food, the trees, and all the animals. All of these things provide sustenance for human beings, and there is thanksgiving and a smile and a joy that comes to the community because of that provision. But the plants and animals have helpers as well. So the thunders are referred to as grandfathers bringing the rains, the sun as elder brother that warms the earth so things can grow. The moon is grandmother watching over the waters of the earth, including the reproductive waters. And then the stars are seen as signs marking seasons. And then we greet and thank the four winds that change up the weather systems, but also the winds of inspiration that brought people to our elders and teachers who have taught us how to live well in the air from all directions. And then finally, there is a greeting and thanking of the Creator. 

Churches ask me to bring those words of greeting and thanksgiving in the traditional way. People find it very grounding, especially if it is spoken outside. When I was a kid, that particular address went on for an hour and fifteen minutes sometimes. Even though I try to keep it under twenty-five minutes, people get anxious about it. And then after that twenty-five minutes it is strange how often the leader will come to us and invite people to pray to thank God, or do a greeting, as if what we had been doing wasn’t a part of their worship. I wonder then if there is space in their worship. 

I wonder if I need to make more space. Despite the time constraints I try to do the greeting and thanksgiving very well so I don’t offend my own community. But if there is a traditional person there they might come up to me and say, “That was well done, but you forgot this piece.” Now I say, “I may have forgotten something so everybody here can add to it and make our thanksgiving complete.” Others are included in this invitation.



JB: How else might we make space and be inclusive of all the people who are gathered in our congregations, including Indigenous Persons? 

AJ: I was at the World Council of Churches Mission Conference in Tanzania, where they had all kinds of people from across Africa leading us in worship in different ways. There were many choirs that danced as a group while they sang. I attended worship at a Lutheran church, which included three choirs. One of the choirs was from the Masai, and as they sang and did their choreographed dancing, every now and again the leader would jump. His shoes were made from a tire tread, and he would really fly. When he landed, he stumbled a little bit. But it was so full of joy. I didn’t know what they were singing, but I was moved by everything they were doing because they were doing it their way. Each choir did their own thing, and they were unique and different. The rest of the service followed a Lutheran liturgy and was in a language I didn’t understand, but these choirs helped me worship, and when they were doing their thing, they were the hosts. I was the guest, as was everyone else at that moment—even the Lutherans whose church we were at. 

If you invite somebody, allow them to lead and position yourself as the guest—not the judgmental guest, not the one discerning whether this is right or wrong, but somebody who’s listening and receiving. Realize that until you learn to love the music, you don’t have much of an opinion to offer about it. But learn to be a guest in those moments.

I’ve talked to many Indigenous and other people of color across the U.S. and Canada who have been members of their denominations for decades and sometimes even hold leadership positions, and they have never been invited to be the host, only ever a guest, even after all those years. So make room in your service for somebody else to be the host. And if you have invited them, allow them to lead in their way, in their time, and you assume that position of guest. So that’s my hope: that we’ll build this mentality in the church that we will be comfortable to sit back and invite others in to make our church their home, that our worship and music will begin to look and sound as much like them as it does us. 


The World in Six Songs

JB: Would you speak a bit about music and how we might be good guests when Indigenous music is used in worship? 

AJ: Music is Indigenous in the sense that it expresses who you are. 

Some time ago, I came across a book by Daniel Levitin called The World in Six Songs (Dutton, 2009). Levitin, who is both a musician and a neuroscientist, contends that there are six song types present throughout the world that have shaped society—friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love—and it’s those six song types that make us human.

Even though I grew up in the traditions of my ancestors, I have always loved blues music. Levitin sees the blues as a type of comfort song: when you listen to blues music, you hear your pain sung by somebody else. You experience a sense of communion that’s outside of yourself. There’s a hormone released in your brain that makes you feel like you’re a part of a community, and it comforts you. Sad songs comfort you because you know you are not alone in your pain; someone else gets it. I’ve felt that comfort without really understanding it. 

Levitin also points out that each of those six types of songs are produced within a cultural context and environment that changes how they are expressed and what they sound like. People then learn to love various expressions of those six songs because it fits their context. 

That’s what’s at the heart of worship. I came to a Christian faith back in the seventies, during the Jesus movement, and short, folk-like choruses were used in our worship, not hymns. To this day I don’t really have a heart for hymns because they are not a part of my cultural experience and don’t give expression to my faith. 

There are now Christian musicians, like Jonathan Maracle, who are utilizing traditional Indigenous-sounding melodies and rhythms in their music. When Maracle sings those songs, I recognize them because I grew up with that sound; it is my heart language. That’s why I often say that if you don’t love a style of music, you can’t really criticize it because you don’t know it. If you love it, then your opinion can mean something. But don’t rush to judgment. 


Can We Sing Your Songs? 

JB: Would you address churches who agree with you and think it is important to utilize the heart languages of both people in our congregations and Christians across the world as a reminder that they too are a part of the body of Christ? And, just as these churches would sing a song in Spanish or a song from Egypt, can they sing a song from the Indigenous Peoples of Canada? If so, how do they do so respectfully? 

AJ: Let me offer these words of advice: 

  1. Receive permission: Many Canadian Indigenous song writers have already given their permission, but if you are unsure, reach out and ask them. 
  2. Learn our music: Listen to how it is sung and led by the people who know the music. Challenge yourself to learn the complexity of the rhythms rather than smooth them out. If you, for example, use one of Maracle’s songs, when I hear it, the Haudenosaunee melody and the rhythm come through. 
  3. Have enough time and space: Indigenous music is not linear, and time should not be imposed upon it. Make sure that you give enough time and space for whatever you’re inviting to happen to actually happen. And don’t assume it’s going to happen the way you planned for it to happen. Plan for more time than you think you will need so you don’t encroach on other people’s plans. Sometimes people hear Indigenous music and think it’s lovely, but they only use one verse of it. That violates the purpose of the song, and it becomes musical tokenism. 
  4. Founded on a relationship: None of this can happen outside of relationship. That may be where it should start. 

But it’s never quite as simple as we’d like it to be. So here are a few other things to consider: 

  1. Communal ownership changes things: Part of what we’ve always done as Indigenous folk is that we’ve shared our songs with other Indigenous people too and invited them into our dances. Often those songs are shared again, and there is a sense of communal ownership, and as the music is passed along it doesn’t remain static. Cultures are dynamic as well and share and influence one another. Our people have an alligator dance. We don’t have alligators in New York state. But somehow that song made its way from the Gulf Coast, where alligators live, up to us. At one point it must have been gifted to us, and now it’s one of our social dances. Over time that alligator dance became fitted to our style to the point that it is recognized as one of our cultural objects, something that is Haudenosaunee. Sometimes it is good to learn to do something another person’s way, and sometimes we need to celebrate our own uniqueness. 
  2. Don’t neglect your own song: I once visited a Chinese church in Canada. The first service was held in Mandarin and the second in Cantonese. The first service was very Western, just in Mandarin. Then at one point they apologized in English for the song they were about to sing because it would be done in the Mandarin style. But it was wonderful because you could tell that they were singing from their heart, and it connected to them in a way the Western music didn’t. At the next service, held in Cantonese, they followed an even more formal Western liturgy, but they loved Western music and they liked the formality. That is what their hearts desired and it was true to them. There needs to be freedom to worship in your way, to sing songs that give expression to your heart. We need to create space for and respect that. 
  3. Language and meaning: It goes deeper than just musical style. Sometimes it isn’t just the style that is a disconnect, but the words themselves. For myself, I find language around “king” and “kingdom” to be challenging. The Haudenosaunee didn’t have kings. One person during the colonial period said of the Haudenosaunee leaders, “Oh, how they move at the voice of their people.” And that is true. The mothers, the grandmothers, and the women all spoke to the chiefs and said, “You represent the people. So when you stand up to speak, you say what the people have been saying.” You’re not a king telling everybody what to do and think. You’re speaking on behalf of the people. I understand the theology behind the terminology of king and kingdom, but the more I think about our Haudenosaunee way I can’t help but think of what Moses said to the Israelites: “Now, I know you guys. When you get to the Promised Land, you’re going to see all these kings around you, and you’re going to ask me for a king. I’ll tell you how it’s supposed to be. First of all, he must be a leader among brothers.” So it’s egalitarian leadership, not a hierarchy. “He must not make money off of his leadership. He’s not to multiply horses; he’s not to multiply his political power and oomph and ability to coerce other people. And he’s not to multiply wives to himself to invade the whole social fabric and build up a dynasty.” And that is the Haudenosaunee way: leaders among equals, traditional chiefs working secular jobs to support themselves and not multiplying gold. And then faithfulness to one’s wife. My parents were married for fifty-five years, my grandparents for sixty-six. The king is the leader among the whole nation. But the leadership model that we have is these many kinds of leaders, clan mothers, traditional chiefs, and faith leaders, both male and female. In church worship I’m singing about a king, but now I’m having to do this exegesis in my head. So I kind of miss out on the song because I’m trying to reinterpret it in my head; the word doesn’t relate. And I thought to myself, “You know, if we sang it from our perspective, I wouldn’t have to do that.” It makes me wonder what other ways the language used in worship can become a stumbling block. 
  4. Cultural translation: You also can’t just do a straight translation all the time because without understanding the word in its cultural context, we might actually be communicating something very different than we intended. Whenever you’re trying to go from one language to another, you also have to figure out how to fit it with the melody. Even the same language can have a word that is understood differently in different communities or has changed over time. 
  5. Do your best when speaking the language: At the end of the day, when utilizing the language, do the best that you can. Know that your best efforts are totally acceptable, even if you butcher it. So don’t be afraid, especially if the permission to use the song or other worship element has been given. 

Adrian Jacobs, Ganosono of the Turtle Clan, Cayuga Nation of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy at Grand River Territory, Ontario, is the father of five and grandfather of three grandsons and one granddaughter. He lives on the Dish with One Spoon territory as senior leader for Indigenous justice and reconciliation. He is an educator in the areas of Indigenous history, culture, and contemporary issues. He networks with Indigenous leaders, knowledge keepers, and elders in Canada, the United States, and internationally.

Reformed Worship 148 © June 2023 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.