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.