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.
“Part of the problem in this area among Native Americans is the mistrust of organized religion because of what religion has done in the past,” said Derrick Rainbow, a member of the Fort Yuma Quechuan Indian Tribe and the California-Nevada Annual Conference CONAM chairperson. He described how Native American spirituality was taught by faith groups to be demonic or paganistic. He says that historic trauma is still impacting relationships today.
“We tried to contact a Native tribe to have local representation at our meeting, but they were reluctant to participate and passed on the opportunity,” he said.
Nearly 388,000 Native Americans live in California and Nevada combined. Los Angeles County in California has the highest number of Native Americans in the country with 233,000, according to the World Population Review.
“We acknowledge that there is an important ministry to be done through the four Native American congregations in Northern California and Northern Nevada,” said Jorge Domingues, executive director of Connectional Ministries in the California-Nevada Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
“The role of the CONAM is to advocate and educate United Methodists about the Act of Repentance and the harm that has been done historically to Native Americans in this country, including harm done by the church,” said Domingues.
The 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church held an Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Since then, approximately 26 of the 54 annual conferences, including the California-Nevada conference, have made efforts to either hold similar acts of repentance or to connect with Native ministries in some way, according to the Native American Snapshot report produced by the Native American Comprehensive Plan in 2018.
The four Native ministries in the California-Nevada conference include Schurz United Methodist Church in Schurz, Nev., Round Valley United Methodist Church in Covelo, Calif., the United Methodist Church of the Redwoods in Klamath, Calif., and Ukiah United Methodist Church in Ukiah, Calif. None of the pastors at the churches are paid.
“The first step in reconciliation or rebuilding a presence in Native communities is that you have to acknowledge what has happened,” said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, a member of the Seminole Nation and executive director of the denomination’s national Native American Comprehensive Plan. “We have very few venues where we can articulate our experience and begin to rebuild what it is we want to make out of our spiritual lives.”
Kernell says the relationship that is growing between Native American ministries and the annual conference is a good model for the entire denomination.
“I would expect our United Methodist ministries to support the survival, presence, culture and identity of Native peoples in society in general. We need the support.”
He noted serious issues facing Native communities such as the loss of language and culture, and violence against Native women as opportunities for United Methodists to become allies to create positive change.
During the three-day meeting, the CONAM participants discussed everything from infrastructure, needed resources, to the potential impact of the 2020 General Conference. The CONAM’s immediate goals are to work on community building in the conference; to empower indigenous voices; and to engage in social justice and mission work.
“Our plan as a committee is to try to develop relationships with the larger church as well as formulating ourselves so we can create opportunities for our Native American churches to grow,” said Nathan Whistler, a member of the Walker River Paiute tribe and CONAM member.
The California-Nevada conference is part of an effort to create a jurisdictional-wide CONAM which would include: the California-Nevada annual conference; the Alaska Annual Conference; the California-Pacific Annual Conference; the Desert Southwest Annual Conference; the Mountain Sky Annual Conference; the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference; and the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. The group will hold its second meeting in October 2019.