By Rev. Larry E. Siikanen, Co-Chair, Committee on Native American Ministries and Deb Steransky
The purpose of the Act of Repentance service was to repent for actions that the United Methodist Church, its predecessors, and members have participated in against the indigenous peoples of this country.
It was also a service in which we, as The Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church, promised that we will never again stand by and allow this to happen to any group of people just because they are different from us.
We understand that you yourself may never have mistreated Native Peoples, and in fact may be very supportive of Native Peoples. This was not a service to fix blame, it was a service to repent for what has been done and move forward in positive directions.
The service included an Act of Centering, using the four directions and colors of the Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel is a symbol for native peoples that reminds them that everything is related to each other because we are all formed by the same Creator.
The need for us as United Methodists to seek new beginnings and enter into repentance for acts of atrocities inflicted on Native Peoples in the past was the focus of the poignant Friday morning service at Annual Conference. While we in present day America did not participate in the crimes committed against the Native Peoples, we do have a dubious history. Rev. Mike Bealla talked about the Sand Creek Massacre, which took place in Colorado on November 29, 1864. The governor at the time of the attack and the colonel who led the attack were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The colonel had served as a minister before moving to Colorado.
Rev. Larry Siikanen, Co-Chair of the Conference Committee on Native American Ministries, introduced special guests Otto and Barbara Braidedhair of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. Both Otto and Barbara are descendants of people who were killed at the Sand Creek Massacre. Barbara Braidedhair also had an aunt who went to Carlisle Indian School. When her aunt, Beth Redneck, was four years old in 1916, she was taken from her family in Montana. The family was told that she was being sent to Carlisle Indian School to be “educated.” Beth was never heard from again.
Ruby Olson compared the ravished and bloodied man left along the road to die in Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan to the way Native Peoples have been treated. There is an institutionalized acceptance of oppression that pervades our culture, and for that we need to repent and find a new view.
To that end the service moved us through the ways we may currently think of Native Peoples to accept a more accurate picture. After singing the first verse of “Amazing Grace” in Cherokee and then in English, we prepared our hearts in an Act of Centering, during which we used the colors and directions of the Medicine Wheel to recognize our God as pure and as the provider of all things. We are all part of His family.
A dialogue between a white person, as represented by Rev. Jim House, and a Native American person, as represented by Rev. Larry Siikanen, revealed where some of the prejudices originate and how the Native Peoples are still being repressed today. Slowly, the white person understood and realized the need to acknowledge our historical role and present role. He recognized the need to repent. Native and white then pray together with the congregation a prayer for peace and love among all peoples of all cultures and colors.
Cyndi Kent, chairperson of the Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Native American Ministries, shared a brief message with us. She reminded us that repentance means turning away, and read 2 Corinthians 7:9-13. Paul writes in that passage that he rejoices not that we were made sorrowful, but that we were made sorrowful to the point of repentance. Ms. Kent said that we struggle when we repent. We examine what went wrong and contemplate how to fix it. Figuring that out requires doing what her grandmother taught her, and that is listening to each other, and listening builds respect. Listening will correct the misconceptions that still surround Native Peoples, and we will discover or rediscover that we are all much the same. The challenges that the Native Peoples struggle to overcome are not just Native issues. They are human issues. We must work together to solve them. We all have the same God. We need to clear a path for His presence.
With drums playing in the background, we prayed a confession of a broken circle of love and asked for forgiveness for our sins of exclusion and discourse. As a symbol of our turning away we tied a grey ribbon on each other’s wrist to remind us and others that never again will we stand by when we witness oppression and exclusion.
Bishop Jeremiah J. Park expressed his gratitude for the work of this committee. He said that the service is not the end but a beginning of the healing. It’s difficult to deal with our personal sins, let alone the collective sins of our history. The church has denied Native Peoples their own history. But we must reconcile with our past and identify where we are still lacking. Repentance is more than guilt and shame. It’s moving toward living hope and a better way. Bishop Park celebrated the gifts and graces of Native Peoples.
The service closed with the hymn “This Is a Day of New Beginnings.” The last verse seems to sum up the goal of the service: “Christ is alive and goes before us to show and share what love can do.”