If he hadn’t mentioned it, no one would have noticed that Bishop Bruce Blake was wearing moccasins. No one really looks at the feet of a bishop. Standing in front of the 2004 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., was a bishop wearing moccasins. They were not for show, but the honoring of a gift, demonstrated by the wearing.
With the moccasins came a story. It was a story that would change those listening.
“Many of you knew Tom Roughface, who was superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference for many years and an insightful leader who stirred us to action,” Bishop Blake began. “His death left a gaping hole in the life of the church. His loss was apparent, but now I want to share with you the rest of the story.”
He described for the crowd the honoring, give-away traditions which accompany Ponca funerals and those of other Native cultures. He spoke of the Roughface family, who in their time of loss chose to give-away to the community, offering gifts in the name of their father and grandfather. He said, “We were accustomed to friends giving to a bereaved family. We experienced the family giving to us.”
A year later, as the Ponca period of mourning ended, family and friends again gathered in White Eagle to offer gifts in honor of Tom Roughface. There Bruce Blake, the friend and colleague of Tom Roughface, was given moccasins to help keep him on the journey. Holding those moccasins, Bishop Blake was struck by the theme, “Give until it heals!”
Speaking to the United Methodist audience gathered from around the world, Bishop Blake spoke of giving as a means of healing. He spoke of giving with joy and of raising the standard of giving. He spoke of organizing lives around the Good News. He spoke while wearing moccasins and a beaded cross.
Throughout the crowd, like woven beads, were those who had seen the moccasins. They were Ponca, Kiowa, Tlingit, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, Lumbee and others. They had seen the moccasins and were quiet. Never in the history of the United Methodist Church had a bishop worn moccasins. Never had a bishop worn moccasins to honor his friend. It was a quiet moment, but it was not unnoticed.
There was a memory of those in the audience that morning. There was a memory that for a time in the United States and Canada, the tradition of “giving-away” was against the law. Churches had condemned it as “squandering resources” and “impoverishing oneself.” To Native people, the give-away was a means to redistribute wealth among the community. It was a way to honor the life or memory of a loved one, and share with those around them. As Bishop Blake recalled, “The sharing was not in the form of words, but in the form of giving. Thousands of dollars of gifts were given to members of the tribe and friends. If persons needed food, the Roughface family gave them a basket of food. Others needed household supplies. The family gave them a basket of supplies.”
As the Roughface family prepared for the give-aways, members of their community who were able donated blankets, money, cooking skills and prayers, so that they might give-away. Giving-away is a means of circular giving.
Some who were in the crowd had survived Native American boarding schools operated by denominations and the U.S. government. There, their hair had been cut. They were not allowed to speak their languages. They were taught to read by reading the Bible, and those who taught them to read the Bible beat them with sticks if they spoke their language. Their clothing, jewelry and traditional names were taken away. They were told that if they were to be Christian, they could not be Native. Some believed what they said. Some would not teach their children. But others believed that God could use their culture and lives to refresh the church. They waited, living out their faith, as Native people, who loved God and their cultures.
The moccasins that morning had become a gift of healing. They had become an affirmation that Native culture could be an offering, a give-away to the world. They became an affirmation that what God said was good, was good.
It was a quiet moment. Many would not have singled it out. A bishop stepped up to a microphone wearing moccasins. They were a gift from the family of a friend, but the gift had been much more. It had been a gift of sharing, of giving from the heart. And one believer had responded to another, put on the moccasins and shared them with the church. They were soft footsteps, but they were heard.
*Buckley is director of the Native People Communications Office at United Methodist Communications.