Brown-Again Christian

by Linda Gorsuch

Timi Wegley leans over the railing of the T'Yee J, a 46-foot boat leased by the BC (British Columbia) Mission Boat ministry. It is summer 2003; a warm wind blows across the waters off western Vancouver Island, Canada, and wraps around her 53-year-old body. The sea mist melts into her brown, Native American skin bringing welcome refreshment.

 Timi Wegley

Timi Wegley can smile today because she has found her true identity as a Native follower of Jesus.

How amazing that she is part of this team visiting Native coastal communities and sharing about God.

During a weeklong voyage, the boatload of eight Christian volunteers has been warmly welcomed. Excitement runs through the people of the remote settlements where the boat has docked; faces light up at the sight of returning friends. New friendships are forged as the volunteers conduct Christian children's camps, lead Bible studies and songfests, and help with community building projects.

For the past six years, Timi has been a devoted church member, faithfully working the same receptionist job. Her drinking addiction is a distant memory. To anyone observing her waking moments, all seems well. And yet, in her dream life, a growling beast close enough to snap at her heels spurs her on.

"I have this nightmare over and over," says Timi. "A huge monster is chasing me."

She runs blindly, afraid to turn around; the monster might catch her.

Timi was very young when her Yankin Sioux father abandoned his six children and left her with a Yankin Sioux first name, Weawaste (which means Good Woman), and her last name, Redlightning. Drugs and alcohol made a monster out of Timi's Lummi/Yakima mother who belittled and beat her children.

"When my mom came home drunk," said Timi, "you did not know if she would make you get out of bed and clean the house, beat you up, or make you listen to her rant and rave for hours."

When Timi was about five years old, her mother moved the family from the Lummi Indian reservation to the nearby town of Bellingham, WA. About this time, her mother's father, Yakima Chief Will Young, came to live with them. Born in 1886, Chief Young had seen his free-roaming people forced from ancestral lands onto reservations.

"My grandfather's legs were swollen and he could not get up and walk around," Timi says. "He would sit in an old rocking chair and I would sit at his feet and listen. I adored my grandfather. I would wait on him hand and foot. He had been a traveling medicine man and was a respected elder. He taught me to respect elders; you treat them as a treasure."

Timi felt special when her grandfather spoke her name, a pet name, in his Native tongue. Those were happy times spent at her grandfather's knee.

Sadly, Timi lost her grandfather when she was only seven. After his death, Timi lost contact with her Native roots. With no adult to comfort her, Timi endured a childhood of rejection from her abusive, alcoholic mother.

"All my life," Timi says "my mother told me I was worthless."

In public school, Timi was the only brown-skinned student adrift in a sea of white faces. "What are you doing in town with white people?" she recalls being asked. Stung by rejection and disconnected from her Native roots, Timi searched for acceptance in the white culture. Having grown up in a household addicted to drugs and alcohol, it wasn't surprising she turned to drink.

"I know what it's like to constantly chase that illusive feeling," Timi says, "—that feeling of being accepted, beautiful, and powerful but the next morning waking up hung over and still ugly."

At 30, Timi married a square-jawed Norwegian. Although he wasn't an addict, he was a superb manipulator who controlled her life by making her feel guilty for drinking. If Timi were a good wife as he narrowly defined it, he would allow her to go out. If she displeased him, he took their children and left her alone.

"I did not recognize it as abuse," says Timi. "I just thought I deserved it," unaware this fed her feelings of worthlessness, sustaining the monster of her nightmares.

In her 40s, Timi, seeking a way to stop drinking, met one of her neighbors, Margaret. They began walking together for exercise.

"Margaret would talk to me about Jesus," Timi says. "Finally one day I said to her, 'But Jesus is a white man's God.'" Timi pictured white people in church pews wearing all-white clothing. Everyone was white—perfectly white. "After all," she told Margaret, "you have to be perfect to be a Christian."

In response, Margaret confessed she used to be an alcoholic and a practicing witch.

"No way!" Timi replied, astonished.

But Margaret offered her scarred hands as proof of her former troubled life: once, when making a wax doll to harm an enemy, she had accidentally spilled hot wax on her own hands.

Margaret took Timi to church. There, Timi grew to understand that God doesn't hold back His love and acceptance because people are not perfect. It wasn't long before Timi responded to God's unconditional love. She decided to be baptized to signify her faith in the only perfect one—Jesus. On her way home that day in 1992, "The greens were greener and the yellows yellower." Timi says. "Everything seemed washed clean and brand new."

Thirsty to live as a Christian, Timi soaked up Bible teaching. And her addiction? "God poured so much of His Holy Spirit into me," she says, "that I do not feel that I kicked anything, I just quit."

Gone was the feeling of inadequacy, the sense of not belonging. But the monster still skulked in the shadows.

Two years later, Timi hurt her knee playing softball on the church league. "I could not get out of my chair," she says. "Margaret would bring me food to help me out."

Physically nourished, she stopped feeding herself spiritually, stopped going to church and reading the Bible. After taking medication for an entire year, Timi attempted to kill the pain in her injured knee by drinking alcoholic cocktails, spiraling down into her old addiction.

"I would walk through the house and just fall down," Timi says.

Her husband kicked her out and started divorce proceedings.

"See, I told you. You're nothing but a failure," Timi could hear her mother's voice. "You're a worthless drunk. You can't make it without a husband. You'll fail."

Although Timi's mother was long dead, her abuse played relentlessly in Timi's head, guilt's beastly power smothering every glimmer of faith and hope.

"It got so bad near the end," Timi says, "that I was taking almost any drug." Death seemed like the only escape.

Timi picked out a spot along the riverbank to die of starvation and exposure. Thankfully, a flicker of sanity penetrated her foggy thinking persuading Timi to check herself into a drug treatment center.

During her two-month treatment, the monster appeared frequently in her dreams. "I thought I had failed God," Timi says.

Driven, Timi read the Bible through twice. "I needed to know if He could love me in spite of what I had done," she says. Hope, forgiveness, transformaton nourished by God's words, Timi's heart blossomed with the determination that, this time, she would do all things God's way. She would not relapse.

On the day of her release, October 9, 1997, Timi stepped off a bus in Bellingham, Washington, carrying a small suitcase of belongings and only $21.50 in her purse. She slept on her brother's couch for those first weeks. Soon, she found a job and a loving, accepting church family. And yet, sometimes the monster was close, very close.

One fourth of July, alone—how easy to get drunk when no one would see—the urge to drink was almost overwhelming.

"I got honest with God," Timi says. "I prayed 'I want a drink. I want a drink so bad and I can't. I need Your help!' So I just opened His Word, lay on the bed, and just started reading. I read until I went to sleep and got through it."

Going directly to God whenever she sensed trouble became Timi's lifeline. And God made His power and forgiveness real over the next six years. Timi looked to her other lifeline, her church family, to answer her searching questions. Slowly, Timi regained her confidence.

Although comfortable as a Christian, she had turned her back on her Native identity. To help other Natives, Timi volunteered on the BC Mission Boat.

 T'yee J Mission Boat
 The T'Yee J, a 46-foot boat leased by the BC Mission Boat ministry has opened doors of outreach for many over the years. For Timi, it started her on a  journey of finding out who she really is.
















Timing its arrival to coincide with the family campout, the T'Yee J anchors near a special island. For untold generations; the natives of the Nuchatlitz Islands freely followed the seasonal cycles harvesting crab, clams, oysters and fish. They built up a generational memory of the place and their forebears.

But, when the island's sparse water supply became contaminated some 30 years ago, the government relocated the native settlement to Oclucje, a small community.

Ancestral freedom lost, each year the Mowachaht-Nuchatlaht people make the 1 1/2 hour-long boat voyage to camp out on this rainy, wind-swept island. Their matriarch, Grandma Rose, lived on the island as a young bride with her husband, Alban—the last native speaker of the Nuchatlaht dialect.

Grandma Rose loved to spend time with other Christians. When Timi and the other team members arrive at camp, Grandma Rose envelops the visitors in a circle of cheery conversation. Over the next three days, people enjoy a feast of Christian fellowship; listening to daily Bible stories, making traditional crafts with children, and playing games on the beach. Evenings bring communal dinners, sharing, and sing-along times.

Timi observes how the tribal members treat Grandma Rose. People listen when she speaks. Even the children stop squirming to hear her tell the old stories. She makes the animals in the stories and the moral lessons they teach come alive.

Respected for her Indian wisdom, Grandma Rose also lived out Christian values. Alone at a campfire with Timi on the second night, Grandma Rose points to a pile of broken boards where her house once stood. Sadness in her voice, she tells Timi about the forced departure. But however badly the white government may have handled the resettlement, Grandma Rose harbors no bitterness; she has forgiven long ago.

"What a beautiful lady," Timi thinks. "What a beautiful Native Christian lady." Grandma Rose moves effortlessly between her two worlds, drawing goodness from each and sharing wisdom with others.

When Timi shares her struggle for identity as a Christian who has turned her back on her Indian roots, Grandma Rose listens and understands.

The next day, Grandma Rose prays over the group in her Native tongue. Timi closes her eyes and soaks up the soothing sound of the language. When had she last listened so intently to a voice with that familiar cadence? Had it been the voice of her grandfather?

As Grandma Rose continues to pray, Timi feels a change taking place within her.

"It was as if God was pouring me back into my brown skin," Timi says, "until I was full."

Back aboard ship that evening, the volunteers have their usual group prayer time. "When I began to pray, I felt God was removing a lifetime of fear, guilt and abuse from the remote recesses of my heart.."

Later that evening, Timi cries as never before. The tears well up from a secret fountain deep within her soul. "It was like standing under a waterfall," says Timi. "I felt clean and refreshed."

"God chose to heal me in an Indian way, something I could relate to and know He was God of all people, not just white."

The pains of her past had been healed by prayer and purged. Now, there remained only one last enemy to flush out.

That night Timi dreamed the monster dream.

She runs.

She tries to hide. No good.

The growls of the monster grow closer.

A huge hand grips the sides of her head. Oh, no!

But wait. It's the hand of God, forcing Timi to turn around, to face the monster.

In the distant darkness, red eyes threaten. A blurry bulk billows towards her.

Timi cringes.

But before the monster can form, it explodes like a ruptured pillow, scattering flurries of feathers into nothingness.

Timi never dreams the dream again.

Weawaste Redlightning is free.

Timi Wegley is the recipient of the Frances Crawford Marvin American Indian Scholarship. She will complete a long journey

when she graduates this June with a self-designed degree in Indian Law from Fairhaven College in Bellingham, WA.