Peltier family descendant John Henson said it was a calling from God and a love of serving his fellow man that spurred him to pursue religious ministry.
The Shreveport, Louisiana, resident has completed a year-and-a-half long process to become an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.
Henson first thought about ministry when he was at a church youth camp. It wasn’t until finishing college that Henson decided how to answer the call. He became an ordained Baptist minister in 1994.
“It’s kind of been an ongoing work that I feel God has done in my life,” he said.
As part of his hospice chaplain duties in Fort Worth, Texas, he ministered to many patients of the Episcopal faith. Curious about the history of the Episcopal Church, he learned more about the Book of Common Prayer. Henson eventually purchased a copy of his own and “fell in love with it,” he said.
“(The prayers) became so meaningful to me and I’ve always loved the liturgy and the tradition of the Episcopal Church and the inclusivity,” he said.
However, as a Potawatomi, he wanted to be certain the church acknowledged the historic harms done to Indigenous people. That meant confronting the sometimes-traumatic experiences Indigenous people have had with organized religion, from abuse perpetrated by church leaders to the pain of being forced to attend religious boarding schools.
Henson learned the Episcopal Church had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009. The Doctrine was issued by the Catholic Church in 1452 and provided a framework for Christian explorers to seize lands uninhabited by Christians. The Catholic Church did not denounce the Doctrine until 2023.
“I wanted to know how the Episcopal Church had dealt with that and they had been making some reparations and things of that nature,” Henson said. “That increased my interest even more in wanting to take that step, to become a member of the Episcopal Church and also a priest.”
Henson said he has relatives and friends who survived a traumatic experience at a boarding school. Part of his Potawatomi family is related to Jim Thorpe, who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Recently, the remains of 186 Indigenous children were discovered there, far from their families and ancestral homelands.
Becoming a priest
The process to become ordained in the Episcopal Church usually takes between three to five years. For Henson, it took a year and a half. Since he had already received a Master of Divinity at a Baptist seminary and had a Doctor of Ministry, the process was quicker.
Henson became a postulant, which is a period of discernment with the church. The second step is to become a deacon. That period is followed by a minimum of six months until he could become ordained as a priest.
“I guess mine was a little faster track than most, but it still was a long, long process. There’s psychological evaluations, a very exhaustive background check. That takes time as well, and just different periods of training that go along with that process,” he said.
Henson said remaining patient during this time was a challenge.
“I had to grow a lot in my patience. (I had to) remember that this is what I really feel God has called me to do and that it would certainly be worth the wait,” he said. “I can learn about myself and learn about God and learn about what it is that I’ll be doing as a priest.”
During this period, Henson also continued to serve as pastor of his Baptist/interdenominational church, Church for the Highlands in Shreveport, Louisiana. Remaining engaged in church activities helped his focus.
“Most of the people that are going into priesthood are either in seminary or they are out of seminary and just going through the process. But I was able to continue to be engaged in all my ministry activities,” he said. “Our church has always used the Book of Common Prayer, so it wasn’t a radical shift for them.”
Ultimately, the time spent reflecting was rewarding. Henson wrote what are known as Ember Day letters, sharing his spiritual growth, what he learned or ways he could improve. He also educated himself on the history of the Anglican Church, its sacraments and his role first as a deacon, then later as a priest.
He understands how today, younger generations are exploring their faith more fully. It is not uncommon for young people to see their faith as belonging to their parents, and they may search for ways to take ownership of their faith as they mature.
“That is a key part of being young, kind of deconstructing your faith as you get away from home and you’re in college, trying to figure it out,” he said. “It’s okay to ask questions and to even doubt and to try to figure out ‘What is it that I really believe?’”
Having gone through a personal family tragedy and leaning heavily on his own faith, Henson has advice. He and his wife Jinny’s 12-year-old daughter died in 2009 following a church bus accident.
“As a result of that, (I was) continuing to question my faith and saying, ‘God, I’ve done all this for you and how could this happen?’ I think God is okay with that. That’s what I tell people who are going through those things is that God can handle our doubt, our anger and our confusion and enable us to grow from that,” Henson said.
He encourages people examining their faith to remember that God will remain constant as they search.
“I certainly don’t believe God caused that to happen to my daughter, but God can bring good out of something very bad,” he said. “People going through (personal tragedy) need to know God will work with you, even as you deconstruct your faith a bit or as you try to sort it all out.”
In addition to his religious faith, Henson also finds strength in Potawatomi culture.
“Within our Potawatomi heritage, there is a deep spirituality, recognizing Creator and the spiritual energy and the spiritual forces that exist. I think that’s helpful as well, how God speaks to us (within) different traditions and different cultures,” Henson said. “God is always willing to show us more and to help us learn more about who we are and what we’re to do in this world.”
He knows some Indigenous people may experience difficulty at times, when religious teachings may conflict with Indigenous values. Henson believes navigating those challenges helps him relate to other faiths.
“It has been a part of my journey as well, asking how God’s presence in reality transcends our cultural understandings of God,” he said. “That helps me to relate more to people who don’t have the same religion that I do, whether they’re Hindu or Buddhist or Jewish or Muslim, that God is at work in our creation.”
Henson recommends the book Native: Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God by Potawatomi author Kaitlin B. Curtice, which explores her life as a Potawatomi woman growing up within a Christian church.
“She talks about the balance between two worlds, and she does a very good job of that,” he said.
Serving his community
Henson’s Episcopal bishop has allowed him to stay at Shreveport’s Church for the Highlands and appointed him to serve as a priest there, a church that serves a largely inner-city congregation. Many of his parishioners are facing significant economic challenges. The church also tries to help the area’s unhoused and immigrants who are new to the area.
“My work continues in that way, and it becomes an even more special thing, I think, in terms of being a priest and being able to take the love of God to people, even if they never step into our church,” Henson said. “We do things in the community to provide food and clothing and we do meals every week for people. We are applying the gospel into the lives of the people who are most vulnerable in our community.”
Henson is also serving as the Missioner for Racial Reconciliation in the Diocese of Western Louisiana, which covers everything in the state but Baton Rouge and south to New Orleans. He is planning to lead a new state group, Sacred Ground, to bring people together to examine the history of race in America and how racism has affected minorities.
As he begins navigating his life as an ordained Episcopal priest, he’s focused on the work that needs to be done in his community and among his parishioners.
“It’s work that’s always needed, even more these days when people are saying you can’t teach about racism. We need to say, ‘This is history, like it or not,’” he said. “I think that’s where healing can begin as people begin to understand. We need more people loving their neighbors and being able to participate in a society that is good.”
He hopes that by focusing on community, society as a whole can return to a more empathetic place. By including the voices of often-marginalized people, like Indigenous, African American, Asian American and LGBTQ+ people, understanding can grow.
“You can develop commonality and empathy just by people telling their stories. That breaks down a lot of the barriers and helps people to understand what it’s like to grow up Black in Louisiana what it’s like to grow up Native,” he said. “It helps for people who don’t have a sense of understanding of that to develop empathy. And we need more of it, right?”