Inside the Controversial US Evangelical Movement Targeting Indigenous People
How modern-day apostles and prophets are waging spiritual warfare in the North
- by Joel BardeJoel Barde Photography by Mike Deal
Updated 10:26, Dec. 19, 2019 | Published 10:57, Oct. 23, 2017This article was published over a year ago. Some information may no longer be current.
Parishioners get on their feet on a Friday evening at the First Nations Family Worship Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
It’s late October 2015, and around 200 people are packed into Winnipeg’s First Nations Family Worship Centre. Facing a tall cross, believers sway in unison, arms outstretched. Some cry. Others flutter their wrists, as if an electrical current were running through them.
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Over the past three nights, a group of visiting religious leaders has inducted these largely Anishinaabe parishioners into their movement. The highly emotional services have built to this moment, a spiritual release called “Awakening Manitoba.” “I feel an anointing coming on!” shouts the centre’s Ojibwe pastor, Raymond McLean, pumping his fist in the air onstage. He gestures for Alain Caron—a spectacled, scholarly preacher who has won over the congregation with a series of impassioned sermons—to join him. McLean hooks a burly arm around Caron, who closes his eyes and dances to the blaring Christian rock.
Many of the worshippers make their way forward. As they reach Caron, he lays his hands on their heads and releases a torrent of inscrutable words. Some walk away. Others fall backwards into the arms of a deacon, who lays them flat and draws blue blankets over their motionless bodies.
They rest for a moment, faint smiles on their faces, invested with a radical new commission. As soldiers in God’s army, they will infiltrate government agencies, rid the world of idolatry, and urgently build God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Under McLean’s command, they will start here, at home: purifying Winnipeg’s troubled North End, then spreading their message to other First Nations communities.
Since that October weekend, the Family Worship Centre has become part of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a growing religious movement quietly reshaping evangelical Christianity. While approximately three million Americans attend churches that outwardly identify with the NAR, the movement is thought to be much larger. By avoiding the trappings of organized religion, the NAR has stitched together non-denominational networks of believers, including Catholics. NAR leaders aim to create a united church—a church that, in preparation for the end times, will assimilate all Christians and dominate the world’s religious landscape.
The NAR is led by apostles and prophets. Apostles are God’s generals, charged with implementing his will on earth. They work hand in hand with prophets, who receive ongoing revelations that guide the movement. In 2014, Cindy Jacobs—an apostle who is also one of the NAR’s most influential prophets—had a vision of a “prophetic mantle upon Manitoba” and claimed that God wanted to release a “spirit of reconciliation” among Indigenous and non-Indigenous churches. One of the NAR leaders who have seized upon the decree is Caron, a prominent apostle from Gatineau, Quebec.
Apostles can be granted enormous powers. In some situations, they manage church finances—functions that fall to elected officials under traditional evangelical and Pentecostal systems. In certain networks, they can even hire and fire pastors. According to Rachel Tabachnick, an expert on the NAR, ignoring an apostle’s decrees is to invite demonic attack. “Submitting becomes a measure of one’s faith,” she explains.
Apostles can also garnish a portion of the tithes from the churches they oversee, with some top apostles being known to pocket millions per year. The NAR embraces elements of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that believers who give generously to their church are rewarded with material wealth and physical healing. “If you want to get out of poverty, you need to start tithing,” Caron told the congregants, who lined up to place bills in a colourful pile beside the altar. “Our tithes are going up, and our blessings are coming down!”
The NAR’s meteoric rise has alarmed many within the evangelical world. Its critics feel that the movement’s authoritarian structure is regressive and warn that its leaders are pushing Christian teachings to disturbing extremes. In 2000, the Assemblies of God Church, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, released a statement critiquing the NAR’s embrace of apostles and prophets and obsession with the demonic world. “To conclude that every sickness, injury, birth deformity and negative personality trait is caused by a demon is a misreading of Scripture,” it said. Chris Rosebrough, a Minnesota pastor and host of a Christian radio program dedicated to exposing what he believes to be false doctrines, doesn’t mince words: “It’s like a cancer within Christianity,” he tells me by phone. “What we are talking about is a formula for mass manipulation, the creation of cult leaders, and people who are absolutely unaccountable.” Others have compared it to ISIS or the Taliban.
The most high-profile example of the movement’s sway is a series of prayer and fasting rallies organized by Lou Engle, a prominent apostle and conservative activist. The events, which are known as TheCall and have been held around the world for almost twenty years, guide stadiums full of ecstatic worshippers into destroying demonic forces that Engle and other leading apostles claim cause societal ills (poverty and violence) and “ungodly” behaviour (abortion and homosexuality). The popularity of TheCall has drawn in Republican lawmakers such as Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee. Over the years, Engle has used the events to mobilize support for a host of far-right causes, including Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative against same-sex marriage, and Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill.
Much of the theology and structure of the NAR can be traced back to the late C. Peter Wagner, a prolific author widely referred to as the movement’s “intellectual godfather.” Wagner—who died last October at the age of eighty-six—was a leading researcher of church growth, a field of study that draws heavily on sociology to more effectively spread Christianity abroad. In the late 1990s, Wagner started to track, among certain Pentecostal churches, an emerging belief in the existence of modern-day apostles and a desire to see Christians play a greater interventionist role in politics. According to this new breed of believer, God’s mandate was not merely to save individual souls but to convert entire societies. Wagner coined the term “New Apostolic Reformation” and formed a network of apostles that has served as a model for the movement. He also defined and shaped its core teachings, chief among them that Christians are to take “dominion” over the seven “spheres” of society: family, arts and entertainment, media, business, religion, education, and government.
To accomplish that, Wagner helped develop a set of proselytizing techniques. Known as “strategic-level spiritual warfare,” the methods have been used extensively in Canada’s North, where the movement has woven itself into the religious landscape. Since 2015, the NAR has set its sights on another frontier of Indigenous Canada—Manitoba.
There is, of course, a long and troubled history that binds Indigenous people in Canada to Christianity. Jesuit missionaries began efforts to convert Indigenous peoples as early as the seventeenth century. And while some turned to Christ of their own volition, many had the faith violently forced upon them. With the support of the federal government, missionaries extinguished Indigenous spiritual practices and operated schools where physical and sexual abuse ran rampant. Yet despite this past and its lingering traumas, evangelical Christianity has proven popular among First Nations people, many of whom are bolstered by its message of forgiveness and personal transformation. Many are especially intrigued by a movement that recognizes their stories, perspectives, and roles as original stewards of the land.
For McLean, who had started introducing the NAR’s teachings to his congregation years earlier, Awakening Manitoba was an electrifying experience. From the 1960s to the late 1990s, his father spread Pentecostalism to remote reserves in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. In those days, Indigenous Christians were relegated to the margins of Christendom. Not today, McLean feels. The Lord has installed him, a farm kid with a passion for preaching, at its centre.
Two years ago, at that first Awakening event, he bounded onto the stage wearing a tasselled black leather jacket with brightly coloured beadwork. “It’s the year of the Peg!” he roared, looking out at his jubilant followers.
Three rows from the front sat Roger Armbruster. In a room full of Indigenous believers, Armbruster stood out, not only because he is white. It was his behaviour. He acted like he’d seen it all before. And, in fact, he had—many times.
Armbruster first met McLean at a March for Jesus event in a First Nations community northwest of Winnipeg in 1998, and the men have since travelled together widely, sharing their message in Korea, Fiji, and Israel. Armbruster had connected Caron and McLean in 2013, introducing them at a conference at his Niverville, Manitoba church.
Armbruster began working with First Nations in the 1980s, running a coffee house in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and ministering at a nearby penitentiary. In the 1990s, he shifted his focus to the North, eventually becoming the northern director of Harvest Field Ministries. It was, he recalls, a thrilling era. Inuit were negotiating territorial independence—which they won in 1999—and were piecing back together their culture and identity. At the same time, Inuit were moving away from the Catholic and Anglican churches and embracing “spirit-filled” Christianity. Its strict moral code provided a sense of purpose for communities that felt unmoored, and the joyous, emotional worship stood in stark contrast to the previous services they had known.
Outside of the region, a similar phenomenon was taking place. Post-colonial societies across the world were shifting to charismatic Pentecostal Christianity. The Pew Research Center found that, by 2006, membership in this branch of Christianity approached or exceeded 50 percent of the populations of Brazil, Guatemala, and Kenya. Unlike Catholicism or Anglicanism, charismatic Pentecostal churches can easily absorb local culture and music. Because they do not require formal seminary training, clergy look and talk like their congregation. Over the past thirty years, the emphasis on supernatural gifts—the wealth and healing that God bestows on those who believe—has also helped this brand of worship surge in popularity, particularly among poor and marginalized populations.
With Harvest Field Ministries, Armbruster organized regional conferences that brought together Inuit Christians from the tiny fly-in hamlets that dot Baffin Island and northern Quebec. While the first Eastern Arctic Bible Conference, in 1984, drew only fifteen people, by the mid-2000s the events were filling arenas. They were also a magnet for the region’s leadership class, who, Armbruster believes, were excited by how the conferences embraced elements of Inuit culture and helped forge a sense of solidarity. Members of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, hamlet councillors, and regional and territorial authorities were regular fixtures. At one such gathering, Patterk Netser, a newly elected representative, held up a sign proudly announcing, “Jesus is Lord Over Nunavut.”
For many networks in the NAR, winning over local leaders is vital—only they, it’s believed, can bring about the systemic changes that are needed to defeat Satan’s forces. Among Armbruster’s most prominent acquaintances is Tagak Curley, considered one of the founders of Nunavut. A lifelong hunter who was born in a camp near Coral Harbour, in what was then the Northwest Territories, Curley earned an Order of Canada in part for his role in negotiating Nunavut’s land claim. He later served as a cabinet member in the government of the new territory. He has also been a born-again Christian for much of his adult life, rooting his politics in those religious beliefs. When I reached him—he’s now in his seventies—he said that Armbruster “is like a brother to many of our communities. He’s not one you would call a major prophet. He’s a helper more than anything else.”
Community leaders have embraced the NAR’s message of Christian healing. Eva Deer, a former mayor of Quaqtaq in Nunavik, the Inuit region of northern Quebec, appeared in the Transformations movie and works closely with apostle and prophet Russ Moyer (an ambassador of the International Coalition of Apostles— the original network started by Wagner). She runs a publicly funded healing centre that treats intergenerational trauma through prayer and Christian counselling. “Only the spirit of God can really heal a person,” explained Deer when I reached her by phone. “Psychologists cannot heal a person.” Armbruster spoke at the centre’s official opening. Johnny Oovaut, who was also featured in the Transformations movie, has organized “Men Arise” events, which supposedly bring Christian healing to Inuit men. In 2010, the conference featured a presentation by a missionary who claims to have overcome homosexuality through religion. Both initiatives are funded through Ungaluk, a Nunavik crime prevention program financed by the Quebec government.
“I believe there is a spiritual authority that has been given to the original peoples of the land,” says Armbruster, who explains that his role is to help Indigenous communities, both in Canada and abroad, carry out their ultimate commission: to “fill the earth with sons and daughters who will reflect His image.”