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.
“I think this event was important for its visual representation of unification and its symbolism of the body of Christ,” said Bethany Printup-Davis, 31, young adult board representative for the Native American Comprehensive Plan and member of the Tuscarora Indian Nation. “I’ve experienced a sense of solidarity in this event like never before and it encouraged my sense of self-confidence to speak up and share my ideas among my relatives.”
Raising the visibility of indigenous people is a challenge in everyday life, which included the groups experience at the Young Adult event, according to the Rev. Glen “Chebon” Kernell, executive director of the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan. Due to a series of events from travel difficulties, errors on the name tags, no dorm room assignments and being overlooked when talking about ethnic groups in attendance, the Native young adult delegates felt compelled to make a statement.
“Our representatives made a profound difference when numerous challenges existed to embrace our presence,” said Kernell. He describes how the Native young adults used their assigned devotional time to create awareness. “They chose to lead their centering devotional for the entire body from the back of the room,” he said. The move was a physical illustration of how Native peoples are often excluded. “I was very happy with what they did, people won’t forget it.”
Avery Underwood, 20, a member of the Comanche Nation and student at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, shared the challenges of identity, culture and spirituality from his perspective as a Native transgender man. He described an ice breaker at the Young Adult event where the group was asked to give their pronoun preferences as part of their self-introductions.
“Many people didn’t take the pronoun ice breaker seriously until a member of the Black Church community stood up and said, ‘this is important,’” said Underwood. “I really felt validated in that moment and I appreciated the support beyond my own community.”
Underwood said culture is an essential part of healing for Native people whom are living with historic trauma. Native churches are important because they offer opportunities to celebrate identity and create a sense of community, he said.
Alex Sankey, 19, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and student at Rose State College near Oklahoma City, led the centering moment with a tribal prayer song. He shared that he comes from a long line of preachers.
“The biggest challenges I see in my community is alcohol and drug problems,” said Sankey. He described how alcohol had claimed the lives of close relatives and crippled one of his brothers from a drinking and driving accident. “I also have an aunt who abused alcohol and now she has turned her life around, that gives me hope that our people still have a chance.”
Sankey said he enjoyed making connections with young adults from different ethnic communities. “I hope even more young adults will participate in the event in the future.”
Overall, the Native representatives said they enjoyed the experience and the connections that were made across ethnic lines.
“It was really great to see that we all have similar struggles and we can work together to address the issue,” said Underwood. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel when issues arise, and we can lean on each other for support.”
Young Adult leaders from each ethnic group are now in the process of planning how to nurture their new connections and move forward in ministry together, said Printup-Davis who has been a part of the design team for the event.