Letter: Act of Repentance not a one-time event

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A group of Native American United Methodists has a message for the church: Repentance for sins against indigenous peoples is an ongoing process — not a one-time event.

In 2012, the United Methodist General Conference —  the denomination’s top legislative body — held an Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People service. A General Conference resolution also charged the denomination’s Council of Bishops with carrying out an ongoing process to improve relations with indigenous individuals including local or regional acts of repentance.

Many annual (regional) conferences have planned worship services where church members can acknowledge the church’s wrongs against Native Americans and other first peoples.

Native American United Methodist leaders have written an open letter to the bishops that offers advice on how these acts of repentance can avoid being “only token in nature.” The letter asserts that the church not only must confess past sins but also must address present challenges in ministering effectively with Native Americans and other indigenous people.

“We believe this is a time when our UMC can make a vital difference in the lives of our families, communities and nations,” the letter says, “and we, your indigenous brothers and sisters, can offer our wisdom and gifts to the UMC, if we cultivate and tend our partnership.”

The letter’s writers include: Cynthia Kent, chairperson of the Native American International Caucus; the Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director for the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan and the Rev. Chebon Kernell, executive secretary for Native American and Indigenous Ministries at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Oklahoma Area Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr., wrote the cover letter.

In writing the letter, the leaders also consulted with members of Native American International Caucus at their meeting in March. At that meeting, caucus members from across the United States stressed that the healing work will take time. 

“Repentance means to turn completely around and go the other direction,” Kent told United Methodist News Service. “What does this church have to do, to stop what they have been doing that has hurt and hindered the inclusion of native people into this denomination?”

A tangled history

Native Americans have been part of Methodism’s story nearly from the beginning.

One of John Wesley’s great hopes as a young pastor in the American colonies was to preach the gospel to the Yamacraws, Mark C. Shenise told those gathered at the Greater New Jersey Conference’s Act of Repentance in May.

“Unfortunately, he never had a serious chance to minister to the tribe before leaving for England,” said Shenise, who works with the denomination’s Commission on Archives and History. “(Wesley’s) desire to work amongst native peoples never waned despite distance and time which separated him from the New World.¨

Other Methodists did carry out Wesley’s call to evangelize, and as the letter notes, Native Americans were among the first to carry Methodism westward across the United States even “as they made their tragic death marches during the ‘Trails of Tears’ and other historic Native removals.”

But conversion to Christianity didn’t stop the U.S. government’s continued plunder of Native American land and lives.

Methodists played a key role in one such incident — the Sand Creek Massacre. A Methodist clergyman-turned-soldier, Col. John Chivington, on Nov. 29, 1864 ordered the cavalry charge that slaughtered a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.

Some 650 United Methodists recently visited the site during the Rocky Mountain Conference annual meeting. At the site, visitors learned that Chivington ordered the attack on a village where the peaceful Chief Black Kettle flew both the U.S. flag and a truce flag.

The Colorado Territory governor of the time, John Evans, also a Methodist, defended Chivington’s conduct despite a U.S. congressional panel’s finding that he had “surprised, and murdered, in cold blood … unsuspecting men, women, and children.”

Not just Sand Creek

The widespread mistreatment of Native Americans did not end with the final shots of the American Indian Wars.

From 1869 to the 1960s, the U.S. government, in collaboration with Christian denominations, systematically removed as many as 100,000 Native American children from their families and sent them far from home to government- or church-run boarding schools.

The National Congress of American Indians, a civil rights organization, said the boarding-school policy served the purpose of “cultural genocide.”

At these schools — some of which were Methodist — youngsters were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen to represent traditional practices and stripped of personal belongings. In some cases, school staff members — who were primarily non-Native — abused the students. White Bison, a Native American charity that works in addiction recovery and prevention, has put together a documentary on the intergenerational trauma of these boarding schools.

Native American leaders write in their letter that The United Methodist Church “must acknowledge and respond to the real and recurring trauma experienced by Native American communities, honoring the continued hope we maintain in our People, in our call and in our Creator.”

Addressing present struggles

The letter also notes that Native Americans still face a variety of challenges in the church today.

“In recent years we have witnessed demanding and destructive burdens placed upon Native American churches, fellowships and ministries which threaten the survival of a Native American presence within the UMC,” the letter says.

Kernell, one of the letter signers, said many impoverished Native American communities don’t meet the criteria the denomination uses to determine church vitality — such as average worship attendance, professions of faith, baptisms and financial giving.

“If conferences and the denomination are looking for numbers then they may as well stop; if they are looking for larger churches they may as well stop too,” Kernell told UMNS. “This is the same burden that is placed on pastors and clergy in Native American settings all across the country.  And when the expectations are not met, the ministry is defined as a failure, leaving everyone lost and dejected.”

He suggests a Native American ministry be measured by the responsibilities it has for the wellbeing of its community.

“Are we feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty?” he said. “Are there people asking for use of our facilities for prayer meetings, family gatherings, language classes, community meals and other Native forms of worship? …  We as a church do not acknowledge the responsibilities we should have to all people in regards to their personal and community wellbeing.”

Kent urged longer appointments for pastors working effectively in Native American communities.

“We need for them to be there at least seven years so that they build up the trust (and) get people to understand The United Methodist Church and to begin to seek out leadership in the church,” she said. When that pastor leaves, she added, the church then will have lay people who can keep their congregation going.

She told UMNS that more United Methodists also need to recognize that “a person can be a native and Christian at the same time.” If someone says differently, the effect can be to drive Native Americans from the church, she said.

The letter expresses the yearning that the process of repentance will lead to tangible changes in the denomination.

For Kent, those include conferences working more closely with their Committees on Native American Ministries and native ministries being on the conference agenda, “rather than an afterthought.”

She also would like to see churchgoers give more to the Native American Ministries Sunday fund, which supports Native American outreach in conferences and provides seminary scholarships for Native Americans.

Kernell said he hopes for the security of Native American churches and ministries.

“Beyond that,” he said, “I can only hope that conferences, cabinet meetings, church worship services, agency board meetings, will be welcoming places for indigenous people.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Alex Davis of the Greater New Jersey Conference contributed to this story. Contact Hahn at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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