A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert and Linda Bloom*
3:00 P.M. ET April 12, 2012
Historically, the treatment of indigenous people by Christian churches ‚ÄĒincluding Methodists ‚ÄĒ has been good, bad and ugly.
As The United Methodist Church gathers for its worldwide legislative session
April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., the denomination will recognize that
history and take steps toward healing with Native Americans and other
indigenous people around the world.
The Rev. Anita Phillips, director of the church‚Äôs Native American
Comprehensive Plan, is praying her fellow United Methodists will make a
‚Äúspiritual investment‚ÄĚ during the service that will bear fruit for years
‚ÄúI will pray for my brothers and sisters in the church to be able to
draw on a sense of courage of Christ to be able to make themselves
vulnerable to hear our story,‚ÄĚ she said.
An ‚ÄúAct of Repentance for Indigenous People‚ÄĚ worship service is
planned April 27 during the 2012 General Conference, as part of a charge to the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns by church legislators four years ago.
Since then, the commission has held nearly two dozen listening
sessions with indigenous people in the United States as well as two
sessions outside the United States. The agency also has submitted a resolution
asking the denomination to continue the process of healing
relationships with indigenous persons. The legislation calls on annual
(regional) conferences to be in dialogue and to hold their own Act of
The Rev. George E. ‚ÄúTink‚ÄĚ Tinker, a citizen of the Osage Nation and
an indigenous advocate and theologian, will be the worship service‚Äôs
keynote speaker. Tinker is on the faculty at United Methodist-related
Iliff School of Theology in Denver and an ordained pastor in the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Tinker said churches have a long history of being a part of European
colonization in which native people were killed and had their land taken
and put in the hands of white people.
Those things call for repentance, he said.
‚ÄúThe United Methodist Church is the first national denomination in
the U.S. to take this sense of culpability, sense of corporate sin,
seriously and to make a statement about it,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI have such great
respect for Methodists who are actually intending to do something about
this history of violence that most Americans just ignore.‚ÄĚ
Originally, the 2012 General Conference had been scheduled to meet in Richmond, Va., but the location was moved to Tampa in 2006 because of a church policy regarding meeting in cities that are home to professional sports teams with Native American names.
The site selection team initially was unaware that Richmond was home
to the Richmond Braves, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the
Atlanta Braves. Church members had raised concerns about team mascots when the 2000 United Methodist General Conference met in Cleveland, home to the Cleveland Indians baseball team.
Tampa, it turns out, has its own dark history regarding the treatment
of indigenous people, said the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., top
executive of the Commission on Christian Unity.
He noted that the city‚Äôs connection to the Trail of Tears ‚ÄĒ the
forced relocation of Native Americans from the southeastern United
States after passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 ‚ÄĒ ‚Äúis not widely
But the history is being acknowledged locally. A ‚Äútweet‚ÄĚ on April 11
from the Tampa Bay History Center, for example, said, ‚ÄúToday in 1836,
407 Seminoles were ‚Äėdeported‚Äô from Fort Brooke, Tampa, to New Orleans
and forced to walk to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).‚ÄĚ
The area surrounding the Tampa Convention Center, where General
Conference will meet, holds other acknowledgements of the vanished
Native American culture.
Under a highway overpass directly behind the center, a historical
marker commemorates the former site of the 50-foot-high Timuquan Temple
Mound thought to date back before the time of Christ. Spanning a city
block, its flat summit held temples and the homes of chiefs. Ladies of
Fort Brooke post held ice cream parties on the summit. In 1882, the
mound was razed ‚Äúto fill the Jackson Street ditch.‚ÄĚ
On the Tampa Riverwalk, a memorial near the Tampa Bay History Center
with a series of bronze plaques detailing the city‚Äôs history with native
tribes was commissioned by the City of Tampa in 2007.
‚ÄúThe venue itself is illustrative of all the problems that confront
any perceptive American United Methodist,‚ÄĚ Sidorak said. ‚ÄúYou can run,
but you can‚Äôt hide. Everywhere you turn, there‚Äôs no escape of the tragic
history that underscores the need for the Act of Repentance.‚ÄĚ
Indigenous around the world
Another example of that tragic history is what became known as the
Sand Creek Massacre. On Nov. 29, 1864, U.S. troops led by Col. John
Chivington, a Methodist pastor,
brutally slaughtered occupants of a Native American village in Colorado
that was largely comprised of women, children and the elderly.
The Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site, 160 miles southeast
of Denver, opened to the public in June 2007. The 2008 General
Conference voted to contribute $50,000 to the development of a research
and learning center for the historic site.
Indigenous people have been mistreated in many other nations, Tinker pointed out.
Under the leadership of a ‚Äústaunch‚ÄĚ Methodist ‚ÄĒ President William
McKinley ‚ÄĒ more than 1 million indigenous Filipinos were killed during
the Philippine-American war, 1899-1902. That‚Äôs just a piece of the
history of the victimization suffered by native people around the world,
Today, many indigenous Filipinos who once made their living fishing
are now scavenging in garbage heaps for anything that can be recycled.
What was once a small seaside village is now the infamous ‚ÄúSmokey
Mountain,‚ÄĚ a smothering, stinking lagoon on the edge of bustling Manila.
Inside the capital city, street children beg while their families
make their homes around the edges of garbage heaps and in the city‚Äôs
cemeteries. Gilead Center, a shelter founded in part by the Women‚Äôs
Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, gives the
children a safe place to sleep, food and an education. The church has
also established a school and housing units for families who live around
Feeling the suffering of others
How will United Methodists respond to the Act of Repentance? Phillips
describes herself as a realist but also as an optimist. She knows not
everyone will be open to hearing the stories of how indigenous people
have been victimized and not every native person will be healed.
She is praying people won‚Äôt turn away and let their defense
mechanisms keep them from being open to feeling the suffering of others.
‚ÄúIt is so easy to turn from that, to say, ‚ÄėThat wasn‚Äôt me ‚Ä¶ I am not
an oppressor. I am a good person,‚Äô‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúWhen we do that, when we
turn away, it is to the detriment of ourselves but also to the worldwide
Tinker said a simple apology is not enough; actions will have to follow repentance.
‚ÄúThat is the question that comes before the General Conference, what
are you all going to do as a result of voicing this act of repentance?
There are many possibilities; Methodists could take a whole new attitude
toward indigenous people.‚ÄĚ
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at
United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Bloom is a United
Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or