Rev. Alvin René, 76, of Bellingham, Washington, entered the Glory of Jesus Christ on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. He was born August 15, 1945 to Francis Hicks of Baltimore, MD, and John Joseph Marcel René of the Abenaki tribe, Odanak, Quebec. Rev. Alvin René is survived by his wife of fifty two years, Beverly Austin of Bellingham, WA; two sisters, Bobbi and Diane, of Pennsylvania and Colorado and a cousin, Rita Gribbell, also of Pennsylvania. He was preceded in death by two brothers, John and Steve René. He is survived by one daughter, Sarah D. Langdon, of Virginia Beach, VA, and two granddaughters, Reagan and Sydney. He was preceded in death by a son, Michael Joseph, and is survived by two grandsons, Conner and Andrew.
Rev. Renè and his wife were led to the Lord by a missionary from New Zealand. They learned to walk in the Spirit through his ministry. Rev. René has worked in Baltimore and Canada, respectively in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, CA, as a missionary pastor to First Nations people. In British Columbia he lived for a while on Penticton reserve working under NAIM missionaries. He finished Bible college at Briarcest Bible College in Caronport, Saskatchewan. He worked and made friends with the First Nations Community in Moosejaw. Rev. René and his wife did evangelism and established a fellowship with another NAIM missionary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Rev. René and his wife shared Christ with the head of athletics at the friendship center. They later accepted Christ.
He returned to Baltimore. He and his wife joined the American Indian Society. It gave them the opportunity to speak about Jesus to some of the BIA leadership.
Rev. René spent time in Seattle, WA, working independently, making friends and helping with indigenous fellowships. He started a Native Men’s Breakfast on Saturdays.
He has been a NAIM Missionary for 25 years. He rejoined NAIM in Washington and worked with the Nooksack Tribe for 20 years. He and a Choctaw Missionary held a yearly Intertribal Gathering until Covid-19 hit. Rev. Alvin Renè retired the month before he went home to Jesus Christ!
He gives all of the glory to God.
Each of us is on a journey. Sometimes there is hardship along the way but the Creator of the universe has a plan for each one of us. This is my story.
My family is from Odanak, Abenaki Reserve, in Quebec. The French community was slowly taking away our land so that we could not live according to the old ways. My grandparents were artisans, making baskets, crafts and birch bark canoes to sell from Quebec to Maine – but times were changing. My grandparents, their nine adult children and their families emigrated from the Reserve to form a community in Baltimore, Maryland. My dad was the youngest son. Most of them found work in Baltimore.
I was one of five children. My mom was Irish American, but her family wanted nothing to do with “Indians.” Our large family gathered on weekends. They spoke a combination of Abenaki (an Algonquian language), French and some English, often using all three in the same sentence! There were lots of aunts, uncles and children. Sadly, there were a lot of beer bottles too.
My grandmother, my Memère, was the matriarch of our family. She practiced Catholicism and the Abenaki traditional ways. When my little brother Stevie and I stayed with her, we were sometimes frightened. She would go upstairs and close her door. We could hear her singing and chanting. We used to see strange things in the house. We learned not to talk about those things to outsiders.
Ten days after my sixth birthday, my world came crashing down. My mom died in a car accident. A social service worker came to the funeral home and put me in a cab all by myself. I was sent to a Catholic orphanage. The nuns said my mother was in heaven and she wasn’t coming back. My siblings were fostered out. I was alone, the only Native child among 60 other little boys. I later learned that I didn’t speak for two months. There was money owed for a residential program my mom used because she had to work. My family couldn’t or wouldn’t pay and my Dad was alcoholic. He tried to visit several times but his drinking kept him from being allowed to see me. I was suddenly all alone in a strange world.
At Christmas the chapels were beautiful, filled with lighted trees, but at other times, the nun’s God seemed to want to send us all to Hell!
I was used to sleeping in a big bed with my brothers. In the orphanage, we each slept in small iron beds in a large dark dorm room. We were not allowed to talk or make noise crying. The nuns back then were often cruel. If they were frustrated with us, we were beaten with the rod end of a radiator brush. We were humiliated. If we took a drink of water before bed, we were forced to drink more until we threw up.
They did not understand my culture at all. They made me sit at a desk in the front row because they thought I was shifty-eyed. My family taught me that making direct eye contact was rude and aggressive. There were so many dos and don’ts that I didn’t understand. I couldn’t avoid being punished. They wanted me to “speak up,” but my tribe, like a lot of Native tribes, is soft-spoken.
The nun’s religion scared me. They thought children’s prayers were more likely to reach God. When a nun died, they made us sit with her in a candlelit room. We were afraid that she would suddenly move or sit up. I wanted to run away but I didn’t know how to find Memère’s house.
After six years in the orphanage, I ended up in two foster homes. Both men in the families had trouble with alcohol. The man in the second home was violent and threatening.
Because of all the trauma I encountered, I didn’t talk very much and I didn’t trust people.
There were some bright spots that I now see as our Creator’s care. I was born with mild cerebral palsy. Catholic Charities made sure that I was fitted with a leg brace that, as an adult, allowed me to walk with only a mild limp. It made it possible for me to work and take care of myself. It also made it possible for me to serve as a Pastor to my own people. I see God’s hand in my first foster family. The father was head of an organization that worked with children who had some disability. When I aged out of foster care, they let me live with them. Because of my condition and my test scores, I had full tuition for college. I tried college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I later went back to Bible college. I was still connected to my extended family, but my father was dead, my younger brother was in prison and my older brother was following in my father’s footsteps, drinking and getting in fights. I didn’t fit into the white world either. I had people to socialize with but I didn’t get close to many of them.
I met my wife in Baltimore. She was involved in several religious groups. She was searching for spiritual truth. I avoided her friends. I also avoided being involved in any religious groups. Some were involved in rituals and rules that were confusing. I had some frightening experiences in others.
That all changed when we met an evangelist/pastor from New Zealand. David Wilson was given a boomerang by an indigenous friend to honor him. David’s Creator God loved people from all nations and cultures. He told me about a Jesus I never knew. I thought Jesus only liked white people. David showed us God’s words in the Bible. It says that Jesus came to earth to die for all people. He died in our place to pay for our sins and to offer us new life forever, if we believe in Him. He gives us His Holy Spirit to live inside us and guide us. He gives us power to live a holy life even when we have hard times. His power also protects us from things on earth and in the spirit world. He promises to never leave us. Holy Bible, Hebrews 13:5-6. In Heaven there will be people from every tribe and every Nation worshipping our Creator. Holy Bible, Revelation 5:9.
Beverly believed in Jesus a year before I did. I watched her change from a lonely, intellectual woman with hidden abuse issues to a woman filled with confidence and joy. One of our best friends gave up hard drugs and spent his weekend nights with Beverly and David in the Red Light district, sharing Jesus with people who had lost their way. I watched and listened. I wanted to know if it was real.
David walked with Jesus and let the Holy Spirit lead him to people like me who needed to hear Jesus’ story. I finally found and was found by the Creator God who loves me. Many Native/First Nations people have great losses and trauma in their lives.
That’s why Jesus gave me this story and chose us to share it with other Native people.
Pastor Alvin Renè Koʹlego Undwa (“He brings good words”)
Enrolled Member of the Waban-Aki (Abenaki) Band at Odanak, Quebec