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COVER STORY: Empowering ministries: Helping Native Americans meet own needs Bill Fentum, Apr 13, 2007
UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE
Chebon Kernell serves Pawnee (Okla.) Indian UMC while attending Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. He is featured on posters and church-offering envelopes supporting Native American Ministries Sunday.
By Bill Fentum Associate Editor
Anglo Christians have attempted to bring the gospel to Native American communities for hundreds of years. For the most part, they have failed.
Of the more than 2 million American Indians living within the UMC's 63 U.S. conferences, no more than 6 percent -- about 120,000 -- identify themselves as Christians.
"That's a mind-blowing thought to me, the failure of hundreds of years of mission to Native people," said the Rev. Alvin Deer, executive director of the Native American International Caucus, a United Methodist advocacy group.
An annual United Methodist offering collected on April 22 will aid this part of the church unseen by most members.
Approved by General Conference in 1988, the Native American Ministries Sunday offering drew $363,078 last year. Half of the funds stay in annual conferences to develop and strengthen local Native ministries; the rest are split between scholarships for Native students attending UM-related seminaries, and new and existing urban missions.
But in order for those funds to make a difference, experts say, ministry must seek to empower Native Americans. Effective witness means developing relationships with Indian communities, said Cynthia Kent, a General Board of Global Ministries staff executive who monitors the urban ministries helped by the offering.
"When we look at a ministry," Ms. Kent said, "we have to ask, what are the needs of the people in that community? Where are their hurts? What are their gifts? The answers might be very different from what you find in an Anglo church."
Mr. Deer attributes the ineffectiveness of Christian ministries partly to a history that bred mistrust. In the late 1800s, the U.S. government began moving the country's 554 Native tribes to rural reservations, making economic infrastructure unfeasible. A century later, unemployment at some reservations is as high as 75 percent; nationally, 26 percent of Native Americans live below the poverty line. In mission schools run by mainline denominations until the 1960s, children learned to read by reading the Bible. Use of tribal languages was forbidden and Native religions were outlawed.
"Christianity was used by the government to civilize the people for purposes of gaining land and natural resources," said Mr. Deer, a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma.
Obviously, that is changing. In 1992, a resolution passed at General Conference stated that the UMC and its predecessors had "participated in the destruction of Native American people, culture and religious practices." The resolution pledged denominational support for upholding the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, and affirmed the rights of Native people to practice traditional ceremonies and rituals.
But the effects linger. A former pastor in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, Mr. Deer said he felt a sense of spiritual grief among his parishioners. Alcoholism and drug abuse was common, and some teens in his youth groups expressed thoughts of suicide.
"Suicide rates reached epidemic levels a few years ago on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota," he added. "One nondenominational group's solution was to bring 18-wheeler truckloads of food and clothes, and preach to them. That's not going to get rid of suicide."
"Empowering" ministries allow Native Americans to work with the gifts and needs of the community and may not mirror typical approaches in Anglo churches. For instance, Native fellowships often decide against building permanent church homes. About 63 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas, but many are students or workers relocating for transient jobs.
"A core group stays around because maybe they're retired or made that city their home, but the ministry is always ebb-and-flow," Ms. Kent said. "New people, new talents, new leadership. They don't plan 10 years down the road, and most members can't afford to put money into a church."
Some succeed at it, though. In 2004, First American UMC in Norman, Okla., launched a three-year building project. A sanctuary will be opened this summer and the church is raising money to add more classroom space. Dayspring Native American Fellowship, outside Peoria, Ill., plans to break ground on a log-house church later this year.
The Native American Comprehensive Plan (NACP), a program administered by the Board of Global Ministries, trains United Methodists in 15 conferences to serve the needs of tribal communities. One of NACP's major goals in the 2005-2008 quadrennium is to boost involvement of youth and young adults in Native church life, with activities that include lay-speaking seminars and a Native American writers workshop, Oct. 26-28 in Tulsa, Okla.
Empowerment is key to helping Native Americans of any generation start their own ministries, says the Rev. Anita Phillips, a Cherokee and NACP executive director. Two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, she led a team of volunteers from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference to Ground Zero, where they comforted National Guard members, firefighters and others at the site.
"That was a wonderful, life-changing opportunity for all of us," Ms. Phillips said. "The situation was so demanding, so intense that it compelled people to put aside a lot of stereotypes and personal baggage. It's critical for others in the church to not see us as recipients, and for us not to see ourselves that way."
NACP leaders hope to meet with the United Methodist Council of Bishops during their fall 2007 meeting, to discuss ways of growing the more than 200 Native churches, ministries and fellowships in the denomination. Economic issues still stand in the way, according to NACP chairman, the Rev. David Wilson, who is also superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.
"Only three of the churches in our conference are large enough to support full-time pastors," he said. "Seminary grads can't afford to work for our part-time base salary, about $21,000, so they're usually appointed to non-Indian churches in other conferences. That's great for the greater church, but it's not helping out where we need it most."
Casey Church, a Native American doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., knew he'd likely end up in this jam if he sought ordination. So instead, his vocational energies went into Soaring Eagle Ministry, a leadership development program he started in 2000 at Mesa View UMC in Albuquerque, N.M.
Through Soaring Eagle, he promotes the mixing of some Indian rituals and ceremonies with traditional Christian worship. Called "contextual ministry," the practice isn't embraced by all Native people. "It took my own family six years to accept something so different from Euro-American Christian expression," Mr. Church said.
But he and Mr. Deer, the caucus leader, both believe it's time for creative evangelism in Native communities, reaching out as the Apostle Paul did to Gentiles in the first century.
"I just don't believe that if Paul were in America today, he would set up missions," Mr. Deer said. "I think he would teach and train the Native people to evangelize other Native people, giving the gospel to them not in a condescending or hierarchical way, but by meeting people where they are."
Ms. Kent, a member of the Southern Ute tribe of Colorado, said she knew when she became a Christian that converting others wouldn't be easy.
"We have to be very delicate with the Indian heart and spirit," she said. "Just because I'm Native doesn't mean I can go into any Indian community and they're going to accept me. As a Christian, part of the history I carry is not a good one.
"We have to be ready to sit with Indian people, hear their stories, hear their anger. That's why it takes a long time."