An Act of Repentance
The United Methodist Church takes the pivotal step of repentance to forge new relationships with indigenous peoples.
Delegates to General Conference observed “An Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People” during the April 28 evening plenary session. The service was prompted in part by the 1864 massacre of 168 unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho near Sand Creek, Colo., an atrocity of special significance for Methodists because the army officer leading the raid, John Chivington, was an ordained Methodist pastor, and the commanding officer who approved the raid was Methodist also. However, the service emphasized the continuing impact of genocidal policies and actions against indigenous people in the Americas and around the world and repentance as a journey toward healing.
To prepare for this journey, each General Conference delegate received a copy of Giving Our Hearts Away: Native American Survival by Thom White Wolf Fassett, United Methodist Women’s 2008-2009 mission study text used in its annual Schools of Christian Mission. The Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin, pastor of Rantoul First United Methodist Church in Rantoul, Ill., also gave the book away in the Act of Repentance booth in the General Conference exhibit hall.
“Last quadrennium we were mandated to plan an Act of Repentance, which would launch a process of healing relationships between the people called United Methodist and indigenous peoples, wherever they are,” explained Ms. Eastin, co-chair of the Act of Repentance Task Force convened by the United Methodist General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. “Some people said, ‘How can we do this? People are not ready.’ But I said, ‘This is the perfect time: United Methodist Women has been studying this since 2008. And what better resource for this task than the book Thom wrote for the United Methodist Women mission study on Native American survival?’ We can do this now because United Methodist Women has prepared so many women.”
The task force reprinted the mission study book as a resource for the church’s repentance work. United Methodist Women’s Voices of Native American Women, another resource for the mission study, was also available in the Act of Repentance booth.
The litany for the repentance service named the wrongs committed by European ancestors and colonial powers against indigenous people — massacres, policies to destroy their cultures, confiscation of their lands — and acknowledged the role of the U.S. government, economy and the church in these actions.
Many indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, still suffer under the effects of this history, and so the wounds have not healed, Ms. Eastin said. Part of the ongoing work of repentance begins with knowing this history, hearing and believing the often-painful stories of native peoples and reaching out to indigenous communities, she said.
“In the United States, there may be a reservation nearby or a community in the city,” she said. “In some places, people will say, ‘We already have a relationship with the Native American community,’ while in other places people will say, ‘We didn’t know they were here.’ Still in other places, people will say, ‘They’re not here anymore.’ That’s when people must ask, ‘What happened to them?’
“This is hard work, servant work. You may meet with indigenous people who are hard and resistant because of what’s happened — and that’s ok if they choose not to be in conversation with the church.”
The Rev. George Tinker, who teaches at United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo., gave the sermon for the service of repentance and spoke at a press conference earlier in the day. A member of the Osage Nation and a Lutheran clergyman, Mr. Tinker said he deeply respected United Methodists for starting the process of repentance, which he said is complex and dangerous.
“The major impediment is that white Christian Americans have been shielded from the truth for so long,” he said. “The truth is that white settlement in America was actually a military invasion, a conquest to kill indigenous people to take away land. Racism was involved. Religion was involved. That in no way is how most Christians would want to envision themselves.”
Mr. Tinker said many of the crimes committed against indigenous peoples are again underway today — particularly relating to the confiscation of land, water and minerals — because of corporate globalization.
“What we have today is a new kind of colonialism that no longer functions by sending armies for a country; instead, you send armies of MBAs, lawyers and business people to wrest the last remaining lands from indigenous peoples,” he said. “It hasn’t stopped. It’s still going on, and most Americans are oblivious to the fact that indigenous peoples exist.”
Mr. Tinker said the repentance service is an important step toward healing, but it does not complete the task.
“Repentance is not a one-time incident,” he said. “Repentance must be repeated, every day. Jesus said to keep on repenting. Repentance must become a way of life.”
Blenda Smith, also co-chair of the Act of Repentance Task Force, said United Methodist Women could offer leadership as the church lives repentance and reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
“Without the United Methodist Women mission study, we wouldn’t have pockets of women around the country ready to lead,” said Ms. Smith, a member of Fairview United Methodist Church in Binghamton, N.Y. “Indigenous peoples are watching, which is why what we do when we get back home is essential to this act of repentance.”
The service in Tampa was the denomination’s third act of repentance, said the Rev. Stephen Sidorak, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. The previous occasions, at the General Conferences of 2000 and 2004, related to Methodist treatment of African Americans.
Yvette Moore is editor of response. This article includes reporting by Elliott Wright, former public relations officer for the General Board of Global Ministries and a long-time reporter on United Methodist news.