Twenty years ago, the number of Yuchi language speakers could be counted on one hand. Decades of government policy, including forced removals from tribal lands and stripping Native Americans of their language, culture and identity, had led to a pivotal moment for tribal member Richard Grounds.
“It became pretty clear that as we began to lose elders, the fire that was the language was about to go out,” said Grounds, research professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa and member of the Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma. He is also a member of Pickett Chapel United Methodist Church in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. “We needed to take pretty direct steps to try to intervene and save the language.”
The Maskoke Seminole language is among the 7,000-plus Indigenous languages globally that are on the brink of extinction. According to United Nation experts, one language dies every 14 days around the world. From across Oklahoma to east of the Mississippi, only about 350 fluent Maskoke speakers remain. Marcus Briggs-Cloud is racing against time to revive the language he considers key to his tribe’s culture, history and identity.
Texas Christian University (TCU), a private institution with just under 10,000 students, is becoming a model school on how to engage Native American and Indigenous people on campus. Just five years ago, the only connection TCU had to Native Americans was a class taught by Dr. Scott Langston, a professor in the Religion department. The class focused on the role Christianity played in the colonization of the Americas.
“I was looking for ways to bring Native voices into the classroom and to interact with them when I read an article about The United Methodist Church’s Act of Repentance,” said Langston. The denomination held an Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples service at its 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Since then, twenty-six Acts of Repentance services have been held across the denomination as a show of commitment to heal relationships with Native and Indigenous peoples.
Langston contacted the Rev. Chebon Kernell, member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, who led an Acts of Repentance service for the Council of Bishops meeting in November 7, 2014, in Oklahoma City. Soon after, Kernell made several visits to the TCU campus as a guest speaker.
Building a bridge of understanding to better serve Native Americans is a top priority for the California-Nevada Annual Conference’s Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM). The 13-member committee held a “Healing the Circle” retreat Aug. 23-25, 2019 at the Ukiah United Methodist Church in Ukiah, Calif.
The purpose of the meeting was to provide an opportunity for Native American United Methodists from both states to meet in person; share their stories and personal histories; and, to connect nationally with the work of the Native American Comprehensive Plan.
Native young adults spoke about cultural identity and became a testament for the need of inclusiveness during the first-ever Ethnic Young Adult Gathering held Aug. 21- 24, 2019 in Evanston, Illinois. The event, which brought together 63 young adults from diverse backgrounds, was a collaboration between the six ethnic ministry plans of The United Methodist Church. The purpose was to engage the young adults on a wide range of issues so they can help guide the church in the coming years.
Preparing a long-term strategy to support and protect Indigenous spirituality and rights around the world was the center of discussion for members of the Ecumenical Indigenous Peoples’ Networks Reference Group meeting June 24-27, 2019 in Hualien, Taiwan. The group is a subcommittee of the World Council of Churches (WCC). The Rev. Chebon Kernell, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan, participated on behalf of the denomination and served as one of two North America representatives.
“Our goal as a committee is to create a strategy that will allow work with Indigenous communities to flourish and thrive through collaborative support from the World Council of Churches and ecumenical communities globally,” said Kernell.
For the first time, the Indigenous Peoples group met in a joint session with the WCC’s Working Group on Climate Change during the three-day meeting. In many cases, catastrophic climate events globally such as rising sea levels often impact Indigenous peoples first.
Kernell referenced the challenges facing members of the United Houma Nation who live on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. The island is sinking due to a combination of subsidence and rising sea levels. State officials are now working with residence of the island to leave their ancestral home and relocate an hour north to a new town. This will mark the first climate resettlement of its kind in the United States, according to state officials.
“Our Indigenous societies have been in existence for thousands of years without creating the trauma we are seeing today, so something must have worked,” said Kernell. “As the world learns to heed voices of Indigenous communities hopefully climate trauma can be avoided in the future.”
Learning to live in a healthy relationship with mother earth is key and the premise for guiding future work for the Reference Group.
Kernell says he also hopes the ideology becomes a part of United Methodist culture.
“I hope leaders with the denomination will begin to recognize the wisdom of our Indigenous communities and move toward aligning our policies within the Church more closely with the views of Native American and Indigenous peoples when it comes to protecting mother earth,” he said.
Kernell says the NACP has the opportunity to support this ideology by identifying critical areas of need for Indigenous peoples across the United States and North America.
The Indigenous Reference Group meets annually and will focus on crafting a comprehensive strategy to guide WCC work through 2029. The WCC has a longstanding commitment to work in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples with the priority of healing and transformation.
The Native American Comprehensive Plan is seeking Native young adults to attend a leadership gathering hosted by the six Ethnic Plans of The United Methodist Church. The event, Ethnic Plans Joint Young Adults Leadership Gathering (#EmbraceDiversity_umc) will take place in Evanston, Illinois on Aug. 21-24.
“We would like to identify up to 15 Native young adults to represent our communities at the event,” said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan (NACP). The age range for young adults is 18 to 35 years of age. “This is a great opportunity and we look forward to assisting interested Native young adults with their travel and expenses for the conference.”
During the three-day event, participants will focus on unity and diversity with worship, community service, panel discussions and group sharing about struggles in their communities.
“The United Methodist Church Ethnic National Plans and its young people are the current generation of leaders,” said Bethany Printup-Davis, NACP board representative to the event and a Master of Divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary. She says young adults are key to making sure equal justice prevails for all people. “We want to work together, rather than separately, on having discourse and fellowship around how we embrace our diversity.”
Please send referrals and inquiries to the NACP office at email@example.com.
Open Letter to Native and United Methodist Churches: We survived the worst humanity can hurl at us, we still possess the greatest treasure
By the Rev. Anita Phillips*
Sometimes, what seems to be a random series of circumstances can lead us to encounter what we would have otherwise avoided. We accidentally stumble onto paths which lead to amazing realizations -- sometimes soul shaking realizations -- and we look back with amazement at the unlikely twists and turns which brought us there.
Such was the series of events which led me to be in St. Louis last month for the 2019 Special General Conference.
I began talking about plans for my retirement about three years ago and had originally planned to retire at the end of 2018. I did formally retire at the end of January, then agreed to serve as Interim Executive Director until March because I love this ministry. Thus, I found myself in St. Louis when I had never planned to go to the Special General Conference.
Since becoming a United Methodist thirty years ago, this was the saddest and most disturbing UM event I have ever attended.
I have my own identity, values and beliefs which guide and shape my behavior in the world. I hope my actions reflect these. During my time with NACP I have tried to spend the majority of my time listening to the stories of others and searching for common ground upon which to build relationships. As a Native Christian, I have found the following to be my guiding principles,
In the two years which led up to St. Louis, I experienced, along with other United Methodists, a steady acceleration of emotion, anxiety and adrenaline…anticipating, and then responding to the proposals presented by the Commission on a Way Forward. So many of our Native American churches, communities and Committees on Native American Ministries have asked me, what does all this mean for us? United Methodists wasted so much time arguing about whether or not to be in relationship and communion with the LGBTQ community! As a community of Indigenous Peoples, we know how it feels to be targeted, exploited and dehumanized by institutional religion masquerading as Christianity.
My words here are not intended to lead us back into the deadly quicksand which filled that St. Louis arena. My words are intended to lead us to recognition of where we are in our journey as Native American Christians.
Denominations and churches have formed, reformed, split, shifted and disappeared since the earliest Christian community. We have celebrated Christ and lived within various versions of church across two thousand years. Have we come to a new place of schism and separation as United Methodists? Possibly.
But remember, Native Americans have seen the very worst the church can be across the centuries since Europeans arrived in this land. We have survived for a reason. Creator God sees us as holy people called for a holy purpose. I believe we are possessors of wisdom which our UM brothers and sisters and the world needs.
In my home growing up, we had discussions of Keetoowah spirituality, Christianity and how we are called to live in relationship with all creation. When I told my parents I had experienced a calling to become an ordained minister within the UMC, I recall so clearly my father’s response. My parents wanted me to be happy, healthy and to live a good life. But, his greatest concern for me was how would I know which way to go when every missionizing group he had ever encountered said something different and many times contradictory about “the Book” which I told him would be a light for my life?
Well, I have arrived at the place my father dreaded for me. The church which has taught me, claimed me, and ordained me arrived in St. Louis last month. The cries of unity faded and the enemy which would separate us from the love of God and one another celebrated. In the midst of our tears and triumph, our relief and despair, our accusations and self-righteousness, the enemy celebrated.
This was the last UM gathering I would attend before my official retirement.
My dear sisters and brothers in Christ! My dear Tribal Peoples! Remember who Creator God has made us to be. We have survived the very worst which humanity can hurl. And we still possess the greatest of all treasures:
We are made beautifully in the image of our Creator as Native American Peoples, and
We have as our brother, Jesus the Christ, the one who gave his life for us.
Regardless of the shape and form the UMC might take in the future, whether it might split or splinter, we have the goodness of Creator God to look forward to. We will face the future together. I am convinced that I was led to be in St. Louis not to witness the tragic end of the church to which I gave my life for thirty years, but rather to find again the bedrock of my existence…..To walk with other Native Christians who look around us and say, “We have lived through worse than this! We have survived holocaust! We can indeed do all things through Christ who strengthens us!”
Alongside you, I will watch what happens to the UMC which we love. As we watch, learn, and discern how this painful conflict is resolved, let us keep our options open to new possibilities for our Indigenous/Native American Christian community. Is the Creator calling us to a new thing?
We will go forward together and I am joyful to be alongside you for this journey. I offer my love and prayers and look forward to the good things Creator God will do.
Your sister in Christ.
* The Rev. Phillips is an ordained elder in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and has served the past 14 years as the executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan. Anita retired in March 2019.
The board for the Native American Comprehensive Plan (NACP) has selected the Rev. Chebon Kernell as executive director of The United Methodist Church plan which seeks to support and serve Native ministries.
“Chebon comes to us with a strong background in the mission of The United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Fred Shaw, NACP board chair and director of the Native American Course of Study program. “He also has a firm advocacy for, and articulation of, Indigenous treaty rights and cultural integrity, and an often-witnessed personal risk-taking in working within and for Indigenous communities for justice and inclusion.”
The Rev. Kernell, an ordained Elder in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, is currently the executive secretary of Native American and Indigenous Ministries for the denomination’s General Board of Global Ministries. In this role, he has worked with the World Council of Churches, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops assisting in a denominationally mandated effort to improve relationships with Indigenous communities through dialogue, study and local or regional acts of repentance acknowledging harms inflicted upon Indigenous communities.
He is an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and is of Muscogee Creek heritage. In 2016 he was honored by receiving the Religious Literacy Award sponsored by the Westar Institute “for his tireless efforts to educate the general public, including not only mainstream American Christians but also native peoples themselves, about the ‘deep and broad religious riches’ of Indigenous peoples in the context of reconciliation work and the recovery of native practices. “
He received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Oklahoma City University and a Master of Divinity from Phillips Theological Seminary. He is a cultural practitioner and member of the Helvpe Ceremonial grounds. He has been married to Sara for 18 years and has five children Kaycee, Josiah, Raylen, and Solomon and niece Cali.
Kernell will assume his role in mid-March following the retirement of the Rev. Anita Phillips. Phillips has served as executive director since 2006.
“The United Methodist Church is indebted to Anita for the rich ministries of presence, inclusion, and education she has instilled within its mission,” said Shaw. “All of us who have served with her over these many years on NACP are grateful for her care, spiritual leadership, and ability to communicate across cultures.”