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.”
Dear Friends and Relations,
We join with you in mourning the passing of a dear sister, the Rev. Cynthia Abrams.
We have all looked with pride for many years upon the service of Cynthia at one of our United Methodist agencies, the General Board of Church and Society. As a senior staff member there, she looked out for the interests of Native American and Indigenous Peoples, as well as the general church.
Cynthia served as a board member of the Native American Comprehensive Plan (NACP) in its formative years in the early 1990s. Her contributions helped to shape the NACP into what it has become today. One of the many ways she gave back to our Native Nations and Peoples was through her willingness to share her gifts of leadership and experience. During my tenure as Executive Director for the Native American Comprehensive Plan, we called upon her many times to lead workshops and serve on panel discussions for topics of great importance to our communities. Cynthia was also a key resource person in the area of health and addiction issues. She was always willing to serve as an advisor and resource person for NACP projects.
I remember with gratitude her consultation on legislation and resolutions relating to Native Americans for the 2016 General Conference. She gave many, many hours of writing and editing of critical material for the Native American International Caucus, NACP and other Indigenous entities.
It was a blessing to me to know her and to call her friend. On so many levels we will miss her as we continue our own journeys in this life, but we will be with her again when the time is right.
“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” -- Matthew 25:21 (NIV)
The Rev. Anita Phillips
Native American Comprehensive Plan
ATLANTA – The Atlanta-based General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church is dedicating its Oct. 12-14, 2018, board meeting to educating the 37 members about issues impacting Native peoples. The focus stems from the denomination’s 2012 Act of Repentance service, which called on all United Methodists to take steps toward healing relationships with indigenous peoples.
“The Act of Repentance has helped to awaken United Methodists to Native American ministries and encouraged them to take indigenous people seriously,” said Thomas Kemper, top executive of Global Ministries. “We want to deepen this movement with a visible acknowledgement of Native Americans and their concerns.”
When the board relocated from New York to Atlanta in 2016, the issue of Native mascots naturally arose, according to Kemper. Atlanta is the home of the Braves major league baseball team, and the name offends many Native Americans. The United Methodist Church has long supported resolutions to change such usage for sports teams, including a resolution asking that United Methodist meetings not be held in mascot cities; that resolution was adopted in 2004 but changed to remove the language in 2016.
Building a healthy relationship and educating the local community on Native issues has been a priority for Global Ministries leadership, said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, who oversees Native American and Indigenous Ministries at the board. He recently led a daylong meeting with the second-largest school system in Georgia.
“Many school systems do not have curriculum on Native Americans,” said Kernell. “We are working with the DeKalb Public Schools teachers and administrators to encourage them to enhance their curriculum about Native Americans.” A 2014 study on academic standards showed that 87 percent of history books in the U.S. portray Native Americans as a population existing before 1900. Because of this, the research found, many Americans don’t know or understand contemporary Native issues.
“While some people mistakenly believe that Native mascots are harmless or even respectful, the mascots actually represent a continued dehumanization of Native peoples and do real psychological harm to Native children,” said the Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director of the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan. “It’s good to see [Global Ministries] take seriously its responsibility to indigenous peoples.”
Another important issue is the invisibility of Native peoples and their contributions in the larger society, according to Kernell. He said the city of Atlanta sits on the traditional homelands of the Creek Indians. The Creek Peachtree village was located near the Chattahoochee River and served as an important Native trading post.
“Part of normalizing our silence is pushing Native history to the wayside,” said Kernell. “We have to dig to find where our sites exist.” By 1823, the Creeks were forced from their territory, and the area became the property of the state of Georgia and home to white settlers.
Global Ministries board members will visit the Standing Peachtree village as part of their meeting to commemorate the site and to learn more about the role of Native people in this area of the country. Board members will also view a documentary on the Washington, D.C., football team and a presentation from the producer. A panel with Native scholars is also planned to discuss other contemporary Native issues.
Global Ministries added two Native Americans to its board for the 2016-20 quadrennium.
“This commitment and action by [Global Ministries] to include Native people and our issues in their board meeting is important, and it matters,” said Phillips. “We are six years after the Act of Repentance service, and only half of the annual conferences have taken steps to hold an Act of Repentance service. I don’t want The United Methodist Church consciousness to forget about us or the commitments that were made to us.”
By Raggatha Rain Calentine*
Prayers are important; yet, God calls us to action.
When our Native youth group, the Peg-Leg Flamingos, heard about immigrant children being taken from their families here in the United States, they got angry. In the news media, the youth witnessed children alone in caged cells. Their hearts hurt. You see, this group of youth has a unique understanding of what is taking place.
For several years, our ministry, has worked to educate our Native children and youth from the Northeast and North Central jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church about our history. In October 2014, we visited Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. From 1879 to 1918, more than 10,000 children from over 141 tribes attended this boarding school. Native students as young as 4 years old were forced to attend. The children were separated from their families and stripped of their culture and identity.
This government practice impacted generations and still has negative effects today. Our Native youth wept when they visited the children’s cemetery at the school. They held a special ceremony honoring those who died there. The youth promised to go back to their communities and tell the boarding school story. They promised to make some kind of difference in the world to honor children they never met.
They lived up to it.
Wearing ribbon skirts and tribal regalia, on one of the hottest days this summer, the youth marched. They joined the march in Dover, Delaware, to recognize the current travesty unfolding along our borders. They wanted to be seen standing in solidarity with children of the past and the present.
When you place people in a category such as “immigrant,” they change from human beings to something else. When this happens, it becomes easier to overlook their needs and their rights. It was a beautiful experience to watch our Native children remind the world that the children who have been separated from their families are not statistics. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are human beings who deserve better.
I fear we will continue to face challenging times. As a people who have survived some of the worst attacks on our culture by the U.S. government, we need to stand up and say, “Enough!” If you can’t march, donate money. If you can’t call your elected officials, send a letter. The point is to do something. Raise your voice and help stop history from repeating itself.
When children are ripped from their mothers and fathers, prayers are important, but so is action.
*Ragghi Rain Calentine is a member of the Indian Mission United Methodist Church, Millsboro, DE. She is a co-founder of the Peg-Leg Flamingo ministry. She is also a board member of the Native American Comprehensive Plan of The United Methodist Church.
By Bethany Printup-Davis*
U.S. government practices to separate families was wrong historically, and it is wrong today.
Beginning in the late 1800s, and for more than a century, federal and state governments forced tens of thousands of Native American children into Indian boarding schools. Children were taken from their families and forcibly assimilated into dominant white-American culture. This practice and policy left many children psychologically battered for the rest of their lives. We know from our Native communities today that a deep-seated, embedded trauma such as this leaves a people and culture devastated.
As part of my studies as a Master of Divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary, I recently spent 10 days in the borderlands of Tucson, Arizona, including the border towns of Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta and Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora. I witnessed our courtrooms shuffle in and out people who entered the United States in search of safety and a means of survival. They came in hopes of building and, ultimately, praying for the chance at a better life. Upon hearing and seeing breaking news of migrating families separating children and parents at the border, adults pleading in courtrooms not to be deported or sentenced without knowing the whereabouts of their child, all I could do was sit and listen to stories and try not to seep into a sense of re-traumatization.
America continues to repeat its history.
After my visit to the borderlands, I return to my life with more questions than I had when I left. How can we live in a society and participate in a government that separates families – literally ripping children from parents’ arms? America continues to repeat its history. We are all children of Creator God. As Native peoples, I especially think this current concern of family separation is one of several for which I urge us to fight – to stand for mercy and justice and to promote solidarity and support for others who are impacted by current happenings at the border.
Many of us have heard the term “seventh generation.” I am familiar with this concept from my own social context as a descendant of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nations and our Great Binding Law, the Iroquois Constitution: “We must consider the impact of the seventh generation … even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” Many Native American nations and tribes and other indigenous people around the world have lived and still live by similar philosophies as well: “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
We care for one another. We are conscious of how our choices today influence or set the stage for future generations. But just as important are the acknowledgement and lessons learned from generations that have come before us. How are we learning from the past? I believe one cannot simply forget it because, in my observation, we live in a country that has not learned. America continues to repeat its history. Let’s continue sharing our stories, our support and our love for others.
*Bethany Printup-Davis is a member of the Tuscarora Indian Nation located outside of Niagara Falls, New York. She is a Master of Divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary and a member of the board of the Native American Comprehensive Plan.
During morning worship of the Minnesota Annual Conference session on June1, 2018, the Rev. Guy Sederski, co-chair of the Minnesota Conference Committee on Native American Ministries, shared how Native Americans can be Christian and still have their traditions.
The Minnesota Conference has been on a journey for several years to seek reconciliation with the Native American people of Minnesota. Part of this journey is to return the sacred Red Rock to the Dakotas people.