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Native American women hear call to be role models

Native American women dance as part of a music workshop held during the United Methodist Native American Women in Ministry Conference in Albuquerque, N.M.
UMNS photos by Karla Abernethy-Thetford.

By Karla Abernethy-Thetford*
Sept. 25, 2008 | ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (UMNS)

Native American women in The United Methodist Church must follow God’s call on their lives while remembering that they are role models for future generations, says an indigenous bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Worshipers raise their hands in
praise of God.

The Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher encouraged some 150 Native American women to continue moving forward, sharing their history and traditions, and persevering despite obstacles. One of those obstacles is discrimination, but persistence and continued education are weakening the barriers, she said.

"Stand your ground and do what God is calling you to do," said Gallagher, a member of the Cherokee nation. "Find ways to celebrate the uniqueness that you are."

Gallagher was the keynote speaker at the Native American Women in Ministry Conference, held Sept. 18-20 by the United Methodist Native American Comprehensive Plan. She is the first indigenous woman bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

"Each of you here has done what you could do," Gallagher said. "Some of us have felt we have not done enough. Some have felt there isn’t enough time in the day. Some think 'I’m just a woman.' Jesus says to each of us 'you have done what you can do. You have shared what you have.' God needs us to do and offer what we have. Make sure that we offer to those coming behind us and do what we can do."

Fellowship and ideas

Women from more than 20 tribes attended the event, held every four years.

"We don’t get to be with a group like this often, and we need this," said Corine Paulk of the Houma Tribe of Louisiana. "We need fellowship with women, with other tribal groups. The fellowship is wonderful. And I will be able to go back home and bring new ideas to share with women and the congregation."

Meeting under the theme "Stick a Fork in Me—Am I Done Yet?", the conference was designed to serve as "a time to come together in joy and celebration," said the Rev. Anita Phillips, an Oklahoma Cherokee and executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan. "We celebrate the coming together of nations, the sharing of languages and the joy of bringing generations of our people together."

The participants included a group of young women from Prospect, N.C. "Our church encouraged the younger women to come to this event to develop leadership skills and become more involved in the church," said Rachel Moore of the Lumbee tribe. "It’s an exciting opportunity."

Healing journey

The conference included three plenary sessions centered on the conference theme. Anne Marshall, a Muscogee Creek and interim executive secretary of Native American and Indigenous Ministries, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, presented "Healing: When you Come to the Fork in the Road." She shared her story of healing, which began with the death of her husband in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The Apache Chorus sings
during worship.

"My healing journey began April 19, 1995," Marshall said. "That was the day my husband died."

She spoke of the days waiting for her husband’s body to be found in the rubble, the anger she felt and the experience of viewing the execution of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh. She told how people ridiculed and condemned her for accepting the invitation to witness such an event.

At the execution, Marshall found herself praying for the man responsible for her husband’s death and later she found herself comforting a survivor.

"She was saying, 'I don’t know why I live.' She was a survivor. I told her that I lost 14 friends and my husband...," Marshall recalled. "I said, 'I know why you lived. You live because long after the reporters are gone and the newspapers forget, you and I will keep that memory alive.' I realized then that I wasn’t there to view the execution; I was there to witness to her.

"I got through those days. ... I realized there was nothing anyone can do to you. ... I learned that healing is a journey, not a destination."

'Roll up our sleeves'

The Rev. Shirley Montoya of Arizona spoke on "Nurturing: Stick a Fork in the Monster." Montoya, of the Dine' Nation, shared that once the healing journey has begun, the lessons learned should be used to nurture others.

"Too often we keep information that would be helpful to others to ourselves. We must roll up our sleeves and jump in," Montoya said.

She described her struggle to be ordained and the conflict that existed as she was asked to leave her "Indian self outside." As a result, she moved away from her home and was ordained in another conference. Now, she has returned to her community and hopes to use what she has learned to nurture others.

In the final plenary, the Rev. Tweedy Sombrero of Arizona addressed the issue of "Wholeness: Hold on to Your Fork."

"I had heard that you could not be a Navajo and a Christian at the same time," Sombrero said. "I later realized that it’s OK to believe in Indian ways. In fact, I found that the Christian ways enhanced the traditional Indian ways, and the traditional ways enhanced the Christian ways."

New eyes

One way Native American women can educate people in their congregations is through the United Methodist Women Mission Study on Native Americans. Suanne Ware-Diaz, a staff executive with the Commission on Religion and Race, met with several who had taught the study to find ways to improve it and learn how it was being received.

Some concerns expressed included the high number of non-Native Americans teaching the study. The teacher and those taking the class need to understand and respect the sanctity of the various Indian cultures, Ware-Diaz said.

"Also, we need to teach that 'Native American' is a label put on us. There are many different tribes made up of distinct people with their own traditions. It is a complex history," she said. "We just want people to stand back and look from a different viewpoint, to look back at history with new eyes."

Through the UMW study, Ware-Diaz said she hoped people will gain new insight about Native Americans and continue to break down stereotypes, and that they will realize it is possible to be both Indian and Christian.

*Abernethy-Thetford is director of communications for the United Methodist Northwest Texas and New Mexico Conferences.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or lgreen@umcom.org.

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