Robert Soto, a Lipan Apache, wants to reach his community for Christ.
He recognizes that traditional methods might not be the best way to reach a culture that is steeped in tradition and often marginalized.
His congregation asked him to consider a ministry for Native Americans when their friends wouldn’t accept invitations to attend the Grace Brethren Church he led in McAllen, Tex., because it was “a white man’s church.”
Wanting to use the best of the Native American cultural expression for the honor and glory of Jesus Christ, he began to make changes, first by adding Native praise songs to the service.
The move was almost the downfall of the growing church. Rumors swirled as Soto, who is also known for his feather dancing in colorful Native dress, was accused of being a demon worshiper, a deceiver, and worse. Attendance dropped, they lost their building, and his salary was dropped. “I almost walked away from the ministry,” he remembers.
“I concluded I was not going to allow man’s opinions to destroy the calling God had placed in my heart,” he says.
Today, he pastors the McAllen Grace Brethren Church, which has a more contemporary service led by a small worship team. The Native Church is more contextual in worship. “Both services are made up of Natives and most of them participate in both,” he says. (He has also founded four American Indian congregations: three in Texas and one in Florida, along with Son Tree Native Path, a ministry which reached the Native community in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.)
When undercover federal agents entered their family pow wow in 2006 and confiscated eagle feathers that had not been issued by the federal government, Soto fought back.
Seeing the action as a violation of religious freedom, he filed suit. On June 13, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided in Soto’s favor in McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Jewell, and the feathers were ultimately returned.
“We do not worship the eagle feathers,” he says, stressing that the feather is a symbol of one’s Nativeness, as the cross is to Christians. “It is difficult for one to understand the importance of the use of eagle feathers not so much as a pastor, but as a spiritual leader among our people. It is a testimony to our Native community that I have not forgotten who I am and where I came from.”
As an evangelical pastor, he feels the use of eagle feathers becomes an opportunity to share the gospel with those God has called him to serve. “It is part of my contextual ministry as I attempt to reach my people through our cultural expressions given to us by God when he created our people. As Natives, as with any other culture, we take the best of who we are and use it to honor and glorify the Lord and to bring others to Jesus Christ,” he says.
For more information on Robert Soto and McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Jewell, see becketlaw.org/case/mcallen-grace-brethren-church-v-jewell/.