Bethany Printup-Davis, a member of the Tuscarora Nation of New York, is taking a road only 63 Native American United Methodist women have ever chosen in the history of The United Methodist Church. The path to ordination within the denomination is a calling she says has been filled with unique challenges forcing her to balance a fine line between cultures.
“I really feel the spiritual tension,” said Printup-Davis referencing her Christian existence on her home reservation. She says she grew up attending church on the small reservation where preachers taught Native traditions were not of God. “When Jesus has been presented to us … where we can’t claim ourselves wholly and authentically as Native people and be welcomed, accepted, and supported it’s a real struggle.”
She says the first 20 years of her life she had a distaste for the church which caused her to doubt her own self-worth. However, in college it was a United Methodist campus ministry that kept her from giving up.
“For so long, my identity has come from others telling me who I was, who I couldn’t be, what I had to do to fit others’ expectations for me,” said Printup-Davis. “God led me to The United Methodist Church and toward baptism.”
During her time at Wesley Theological Seminary, Printup-Davis became a vocal young adult leader speaking out about historic trauma and injustices against Indigenous peoples. She admits her participation has been exhausting work spiritually and mentally because it seems, so little has changed.
In a poem she drafted during seminary, she shares more of her internal struggle:
Creator God, I know you are always with me, and You know the benefit of community – where two or more are gathered in Your name. It always feels like it’s just you and me. I value our time but how do we move forward when community is fractured, like cracked bark on a tree?
She referenced the historic trauma caused by early American missionaries and boarding schools. She says the mistrust of the church among tribal members is very real on the reservation today.
Upon graduating seminary in 2019, Printup-Davis moved back to the New York reservation and is currently substitute teaching in grades K-12. She says she’s taking time for self-care and trying to discern her next move.
“I don’t want to hang up the towel, I don’t want to give up,” she said. “I have realized by jumping in both feet first in seminary that I have been retraumatized in my efforts to educate others about historic trauma and injustices to Indigenous Peoples.”
Reflecting on the ordination process, Printup-Davis says it’s hard to see herself navigate the current church system as a deacon or elder because she feels like the current system is not built for her.
“I feel the process right now is not true to who I am as a human being. God made us a certain way and I ask why do I need to conform to a system that was created by a group of people that didn’t have us in mind?” she said.
Starting a dialogue about contextualizing the ordination process to specifically include Native culture is something she hopes the Native American Comprehensive Plan and other Native leaders will do in the future. She also said building a strong support system across the denomination for Native seminary students is critical for their success.
“I realize amidst the struggle, pain, and hurt the institutional church has caused people, including myself, I still see hope and support through my experience.”