Biracial Converge leader builds initiative to love Quechua people in South America through words and deeds
Like many boys growing up in the northernmost towns of America, Ryan O’Leary dreamed about hockey. First, he wanted to play college hockey. He dreamed of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and finally playing in the National Hockey League.
Such dreams meant leaving his childhood home in northern Minnesota. Ryan is an enrolled tribal member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, a small Indigenous band that maintains its headquarters in tiny Nett Lake, Minnesota. Ryan grew up just outside Nett Lake, which is 60 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart. Ontario is just a little farther — in the other direction.
Even so, O’Leary’s dream was no figment of the imagination. The National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames drafted the part-Indigenous, part Anglo boy in the fourth round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. He was the 10th highest-drafted American high school player that year.
Rather than sign with the Flames, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Denver, a collegiate hockey powerhouse. Eight national championship banners currently hang from DU’s Magness Arena rafters.
Thus, the dream was gaining momentum and taking O’Leary across America. But during his junior year at Denver, an opponent checked O’Leary in the back, sending the left wing to the ice and tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament. That wound, those few seconds, reshaped O’Leary’s life and ended his boyhood dream.
Building cultural bridges
In the nearly three decades since, O’Leary’s biracial identity has anchored a new purpose no wound can end: building bridges for the gospel between Indigenous Americans and non-Indigenous Americans. With his hockey career in the rearview mirror, his travels across America took on a whole new purpose.
“Because of my ethnic background, because of being a person who is both Anglo and Indigenous, I feel I can be a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” the father of four said. “That really depicts who I am.”
O’Leary recently became a bridge to another people group when Converge International Ministries named him Quechua Initiative leader. Converge has begun the earliest stages of vision and recruitment to minister to the Quechua people of Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina.
Dan Nelson leads Converge’s international ministry efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean. He said stronger ministry to the Quechua people started gaining momentum three years ago.
A Converge leader in Brazil, Jonathan Mathews, has been equipping Brazilian Christians to serve the Quechua. He reached out to Nelson to talk about the spiritual needs of the people.
Because of my ethnic background, because of being a person who is both Anglo and Indigenous, I feel I can be a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. That really depicts who I am.
Eighteen months ago, Nelson traveled to the region to do some research. He wanted to understand the spiritual demographics better.
He learned there are 22 dialects among the Quechua, but people from different dialects often interact with one another. Bible translators have nearly finished Scriptures for all those dialects. And some of the Quechua sub-groups are more discipled than other Quechua groups.
“This is something we needed to go after,” Nelson said. But no initiative was possible until they could find a leader.
In May 2020, Ryan and Kristen agreed to become Quechua Initiative leaders.
“He’s just a dynamite leader,” Nelson said. “He carries himself well. He understands people. He’s relational. I was looking for somebody who could lead other people and lead an effort to start a movement among the Quechua.”
Under O’Leary’s leadership, Converge can now form a vision for the Quechua, formalize partnerships and send missionaries when the time is right.
Kristen and Ryan O’Leary are connecting with another couple committed to serving the Quechua people. He’s living out his identity again, an encourager and equipper, a bridge for this couple to the Quechua.
O’Leary is also forming a ministry plan, including creating an executive leadership team to develop and execute a strategy. One of Converge’s core beliefs is expressed as Better Together. Thus, Converge leaders emphasize supportive relationships, shared expertise and leadership development.
The O’Learys are also pursuing prayer partners and financial supporters. They’d love to take a short-term mission trip as soon as there is a break in COVID-19.
Overcoming doubt and answering God's call
Looking back, he now sees the faith of his childhood through college years as a belief in — but not a commitment to — Christ as Lord and savior. But, in his 20s, O’Leary found himself not sure he believed in Christ or God anymore
After graduating from Denver with a business degree, O’Leary moved back to Minnesota. His mother and father raised O’Leary to know Scripture and believe in the Lord.
Driving up a hill one day, looking over Lake Superior, he suddenly realized he still had faith. O’Leary was aware again that the Christ he’d trusted as a boy still influenced his heart.
“I began to see things in my life and how God was involved in it and I had this newfound desire to go back into church, read the Bible and serve in church,” he said.
A real passion for reading Scripture gripped O’Leary. He’d spend hours in the library, sometimes a whole day, just reading the Bible.
“I had a sense that God was giving me a vision for preaching and leadership,” he said.
His other significant childhood influence — being an Indigenous American — remained important.
“Indigenous culture has been a huge influence in my life,” he said, noting his family has picked wild rice since his childhood, a common food for Indigenous families.
How to proceed with ministry and his Indigenous identity was unknown to O’Leary. With support from his home reservation, he pursued a Master’s in Business Management from The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth before starting law school. However, he increasingly felt law school wasn’t the right path.
He discovered training for pastoral ministry at Bethel Seminary, a Converge ministry partner in St. Paul, Minnesota, was the right path. Two years into his time at Bethel, a Duluth pastor recommended O’Leary become the next pastor of Indian Fellowship Church of Minneapolis. He started that pastorate in 2000 focused on reaching Indigenous people.
During that time, Art Erickson, a Minnesota and National Prayer Breakfast leader, invited O’Leary to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Looking around the massive room with about 4000 people from all over the world in attendance, he noticed a lack of Indigenous representation at the event.
“Can we do something about that?” he asked a leader at the prayer breakfast.
"I’ll give you five tickets next year to bring Indigenous people with you,” the leader told him.
The following year, he committed to giving O’Leary 10 tickets for Indigenous people. The year after that, he gave him 15.
“God has orchestrated circumstances and events helping fulfill his will for my life and others through these things,” O’Leary said.
Act justly in response to Scripture
He kept focused on evangelizing or discipling Indigenous people. In his developing role with Converge, O’Leary continues the ministry that comes out of his own wounds, his identity and the struggles of Indigenous people in America.
He has experienced racially motivated words since as early 7th grade and in high school and college from peers and adults. He still sees something positive in the pain.
“That’s been a significant formational tool,” he said. “I’m understanding and compassionate toward other tribal people and what they go through because of racism.”
The Quechua trace their history back to the Inca Empire of South America. The Incas were the ruling power in South America. The Spaniards conquered the Incas, eventually taking Cusco in Peru, where the Quechua were based.
But the Quechua indigenous people have maintained their roots, language and culture. They continue to live in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
Like the Quechua people, many Indigenous people in America are fighting to maintain their culture. In addition, Indigenous American people are focusing on protecting their sovereignty as tribal nations.
Now it is time for the church to listen to God’s word through the prophet Micah and to act justly in response to it.
The historical trauma Indigenous people have experienced provides an explanation for why tribal people have high rates of addiction, suicide, and other life challenges. At the same time, O’Leary stresses the potential that Indigenous people possess and emphasizes that people should not only focus on the plight of the people.
The westward expansion of Anglo-American culture in the 1800s brought an educational and religious component. To Indigenous people, forced education and religious teaching often amounted to an attack on Indigenous language and culture.
Now there are wounds and damaged relationships from those experiences, which even hinders the gospel’s acceptance.
“What indigenous people experienced for over 100 years in the name of Christianity was deeply unjust,” O’Leary said.
In response, one of O’Leary’s deep passions comes from Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
So, O’Leary continues, “Now it is time for the church to listen to God’s word through the prophet Micah and to act justly in response to it.”
Every tribe. Every nation. Every tongue.
O’Leary takes a balanced approach to encouraging and equipping leaders from all cultures. There is sin and spiritual warfare truly damaging the lives of everyone, regardless of culture. At the same time, he leverages his experience to acknowledge the wounds present among Indigenous people and how God loves the people, as he does people from every other racial group across the globe.
“What are reconciled relationships?” O’Leary asks. “On earth, it’s coming together in the body of Christ and practicing the ‘one anothers’ found in the New Testament.”
Such is also true for the Quechua people, given the displacement they’ve suffered in the past.
O’Leary recently preached a four-part sermon series at his home church. Titled Healing the Racial Divide, he taught from Scripture that God shows no partiality because God created everyone in his image.
Someday, as O’Leary preached, people of every tribe, nation and tongue will worship Christ forever in heaven.
What O’Leary hopes to show the Quechua people and Indigenous people in America is exemplified in Revelation 7: people of every tribe will worship Christ. Christ is not the white man’s god, O’Leary passionately believes.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, there is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Eph. 4:6-7).
O’Leary’s passion stimulates his creativity: What if churches opened their building so tribal language classes could happen? What if churches participated with tribal colleges to revitalize Indigenous languages? These kinds of ministry activities don’t contradict a Biblical worldview, he explains. No one must change their language to follow Christ.
From missions field to missions force
Ryan and Kristen O’Leary have an adult daughter and three boys. His purpose and goals still take him on distant travels. In October, he spoke at a Converge church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that wanted to minister to a nearby reservation.
Converge champions such efforts at diversity and unity; a significant part of its 10-year vision is accomplished by what the Green Bay church desires. To pursue that kind of service is expanding cultural diversity within Converge as a movement. This includes addressing racial barriers to the gospel.
O’Leary’s trip to Green Bay came only days after he and his wife attended (and O’Leary spoke at) an Indigenous pastors’ conference in Mississippi. The conference was designed to encourage and equip leaders in tribal churches across America.
Addressing such groups is common for O’Leary, who speaks at various camps, conferences and churches across North America. Among his many speaking engagements, O’Leary has shared among the Seminole people on an Easter weekend in southern Florida, evangelized First Nations hockey players in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, Canada, and preached at camp revival services among Metis people north of Edmonton.
God’s call has also mobilized O’Leary to serve tribal churches in Minnesota. In addition, O’Leary also worked for the largest ministry to Indigenous young adults aged 16-35 in North America.
“I know few people who are as connected to the evangelical Indigenous leadership throughout the United States as Ryan is,” Nelson said.
In 2017, O’Leary and other leaders created the United in Christ conference to unify Christian tribal leaders. More than 300 tribal leaders from dozens of tribes across several U.S. states and Canadian provinces attended.
He hopes to have that conference again in 2021 with a critical change. Indigenous people are increasingly eager to act on their potential as kingdom servants. The theme of this coming summer’s United in Christ conference is ‘Changing Native America from Being a Missions Field to Being a Missions Force.’
I know few people who are as connected to the evangelical Indigenous leadership throughout the United States as Ryan is.
The Quechua people, especially those tribes that are more discipled than some, have the same potential.
“They’ve been seen as a missions field for a long time, but now it’s changing,” O’Leary said. “Indigenous leaders are saying we need to move from being a missions field to becoming a missions force.”
In the last few months, as Dan Nelson spent time with Ryan and Kristen, he knew he’d found a couple the Lord had prepared for leadership of a movement to serve the Quechua.
“His heritage and background come together and just make it an even better fit,” Nelson said. “Now the idea is to come in behind translators and see the gospel penetrate and see churches being planted and see the gospel take root.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.