I am sitting in my apartment in Skokie, Illinois, after watching the Act of Repentance service toward healing with indigenous peoples, and my mind is going back to 1998. I was 15 years old, and had just been baptized into The United Methodist Church. I sat in a large tipi with my dad for a meeting of the Native American Church. I am a Native American, and it was my first time attending a meeting of the NAC.
As the songs were sung, and night turned into day (NAC meetings are 12 hours long), I remember feeling curiously pulled by the conviction that I was worshiping other gods. We were singing in Native tongues that I didn't understand. I heard “Jesus” a few times in some of the songs, but not in all of them. I was pretty sure that if I told any of my church friends about my experience, they would wonder if I was being faithful to Christ. I thought that I might be going to hell, and that maybe I had no place in either the NAC or the Christian church. I was certainly wondering, and spent the next 10 years of my life trying to make peace with that uneasy feeling that came from participating in traditional Native American ceremonies and Christian worship.
Our culture seems to forget (or perhaps may not realize) that it wasn't that long ago that Native Americans didn't have religious rights for our ceremonies. The traditional ceremonies of Native Americans were illegal and seen as a threat to the implicit, established order of worship of the United States. These ceremonies were not bringing harm to anyone; in fact, they were about balance and restoration. In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was first passed in an effort to protect the traditional ceremonial practices of Native Americans. In the years following, there were numerous court cases that resulted from this act not being upheld or taken seriously by the U.S. Government. A similar act was passed in 1993 (the Religious Freedom Resotration Act), followed by several amendments that were put into public law in 1994.
This is only some of the context for the continuing difficult conversations between Christianity and Native America. As we have just seen, the United Methodist Church has committed to make progress in recognizing these realities and in working toward creating a safe space for us to express our beliefs as a part of the fabric of God's creation. We speak in generalities, and not specifics, because – as Rev. Dr. George Tinker so poignantly reminded us in his sermon – we are not yet ready for reconciliation. What we need most now is repentance – not as individuals, but as community: as church. This service was prefaced earlier in the week by the opening of General Conference with the traditional way of blessing the space (“smudging”) by two Native leaders from the Oklahoma Missionary Conference.
As powerful as that opening was – and as hopeful as the Act of Repentance was – my mind keeps returning to one of Bishop Hayes' comments in the statement of the bishops: “We want to learn from your spiritual practices…to help in times of spiritual emergencies.” Unfortunately, I'm not able to look at a transcript to see his exact words, but it is evident that even our bishops are still speaking in a language of appropriation. Rev. Dr. Tinker reminded us tonight, however, that “the only agreement open to us right now is to be reconciled to conquest.” Standing before the world and saying that the spirituality of a people will be helpful “in times of emergency” is to speak in language of commodity and conquest.
My heart is conflicted for my church. I so badly want to celebrate this positive step forward – knowing that it is a first step and not a last – and yet we continue to see so many signs of conquest in other aspects of our life together as a denomination. There is an almost defeaning contrast between the space given to indigenous people tonight and the space denied to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters last night. With this service of Repentance, we have found the beginning of a way to include the voices of those who have been long silenced by power and privilege. Native Americans are now able to stand and have their voices be heard; we hear liturgy that recognizes our hurts, and yet we see that grace denied to the others to whom we are also related.
Earlier this week, the church created a space for dialogue, and the space in which that dialogue happened was not safe for all. Last night, we witnessed a faithful and gentle man stand up with a shaking voice and the call of God and say that he has not experienced the holiness to which many of us credit ourselves with obtaining. He spoke no harm, and only wanted to share a part of his story with us. The only adequate response to this expression would have been to hear him and repent for the harm done. Instead, he was told – as was the entire LGBTQ community – that he was “out of line,” and that the time was not appropriate for him to share in that way. Instead of the gospel, he received the language of conquest.
Brothers and sisters: there is no time but now. We are standing on the brink of a kairos moment in which the step of repentance is not only for one specific group of people, but a way of life for us all.
It is a thin promise for those of us who believe in resurrection if we are willing to have conversations about repentance and walking the journey together if we do not extend that same grace and relationship to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
I am reminded of a Laguna Pueblo prayer. It is my prayer for all the members of this church, whom I love so dearly, and whom I consider my relatives: "I add my breath to your breath that our days be long on the Earth, that the days of our people may be long, that we shall be as one person, that we may finish our road together.”
Adrienne Trevathan is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and is a Christian Educator. As a Native American of the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe, she has struggled with her identity and often feel as though she lives in two worlds because many are not aware that she is Native. Consequently, she feel a strong connection between herself and all who fall within the category of “Other.”