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Native congregation celebrates new church

Native Americans from across the country attended a four-day celebration on the grounds of the new Native American Fellowship Dayspring United Methodist Church in East Peoria, Ill. A UMNS photo by Leonid Kozintsev.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green and Patti Erwin*
May 30, 2008

The prayers of a district superintendent and a clergywoman became reality on Memorial Day weekend with the dedication of a Native American church, set amid 43 acres of forest in Illinois.

More than 300 Native Americans and others from across the United States came to witness the May 23-26 dedication of the Native American Fellowship Dayspring United Methodist Church in East Peoria.

Five years earlier, the Rev. Melva Graham England, Illinois River District superintendent, and the Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin had walked along the wooded area. They had prayed for a church on that spot and began making plans.

During the dedication weekend, Eastin, Dayspring’s pastor, knew the prayer had been answered as she stood on the porch of the new cabin church. She "saw our people as a village," she said. "There were children playing, men keeping the fire, families in their tents and tepees. Two horses grazed in the meadow beyond. I thought, 'This is a bit of heaven here. We have a family here.'"

During the four-day celebration, people worshiped, camped, saw old friends, walked trails, meditated and held prayer services. They participated in Bible studies and covenant groups, held baptisms, told stories, and shared time with one another in pipe ceremonies, drum circles and healing services. They also participated in traditional games, crafts and planting.

"It is traditional for native people to pray for four days, keeping a sacred fire for important spiritual occasions," Eastin said. The church was dedicated on Memorial Day weekend "to acknowledge the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and to invite their presence with us," she said.

Construction from oaks

Volunteers built the church from white oak trees on the site and white pine trees from Pennsylvania. They used the ancient art of timber-framing, which uses no metal. It is the same style of construction as that used in early American barns and European cathedrals. The church also has porches at its entrances.

The name "Dayspring" is significant because "it is a biblical name for Jesus, the one true light and living water bringing justice and new life," Eastin said.

The church's property is mostly forest with a bubbling freshwater spring that is used for baptisms. A large picnic shelter is used for worship and as a medicine wheel meditation area. Church members turned some of the acres into a wildlife habitat.

Before the dedication of the building, 70 Native Americans and others had been meeting as a congregation and fellowship since 1993. The fellowship was chartered as a church by the Illinois Great Rivers Annual (regional) Conference in 2005.

"Today, when I came and saw all the cars in the parking lot and all the people at the service, I felt the church come alive," said Dominic Irrera, building project manager. He prayed daily at the church site before building plans were designed. "I am glad to play a part in this wonderful opportunity. Glory to God, who has made it happen."

During the May 25 ceremony, Eastin consecrated the sanctuary "to be a house of prayer."

"We are empowered with the Creator and will sing your praise," she said. She asked "the Creator to send the people out to be his servants and share the blessing of Christ."

The Rev. Kirby Varrett of the Houma tribe in Louisiana told the congregation to stand firm. "God is calling you to be a servant," he said. "The earth is crying out for help. Native Americans have a connection to the Creator and the earth, which will help lead people."

The theme of service and leadership was echoed by the Rev. Anita Phillips, the keynote dedication speaker. She spoke of the rising up and equipping of Native American leaders in the church. Phillips is the executive director of the denomination's Native American Comprehensive Plan.

Karen Hudelson does not have any Native American blood, but she became a member of the Dayspring congregation May 24. The Peoria native first attended the church with a friend but kept returning because she felt at home. "I have found where I should be," she said. "The people accept me for who I am. At my baptism, it was amazing. Jesus Christ took over my whole body and warmed my heart.”

Giving of gifts

Gift-giving was a significant part of the four-day celebration. "Gifting is a strong tradition with our people," Eastin said. The church presented "honor" gifts to volunteers who helped build the church and to church leaders. The church gave blankets, vests, traditional woven baskets, pottery, artwork and clothing. Crosses made from leftover lumber were also given to volunteers.

Church members and families also gave gifts to the church. The youth contributed a woven tapestry titled, "Coming to Church." A family gave a quilt with the inscription: "The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth, with the responsibility of being the caretaker."

The church features a room for remembering the congregation's history and friends who have died. The room was built in honor of Joan Resetich, the daughter of the donors of the quilt. Resetich, who died in 2005, was a missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and led Prayer Rivers Intercultural Ministries, a part of the church's outreach.

Some families donated items from their own homes, making significant sacrifices for the occasion, Eastin said. One man gave away regalia, a drum, a pipe and beadwork to encourage younger people to keep the giveaway tradition.

“I love the gift-giving and the personalizing of the ceremony. It is wonderful to see the volunteers and strengthen our relationship," said Kent Strietmater, one of the church's builders.

During the service, Suanne Ware-Diaz of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race spoke of how connected she is to Dayspring. "Prayers are powerful. I can feel them. Dream big and reach high. The Creator will provide. Now is the time for God to do new things," she said.

The Rev. Michelle Oberwise Lacock, chairperson of the Northern Illinois Committee on Native American Ministries and a board member of the American Indian Center in Chicago, planted a cedar tree where people can pray.

Nicholas George, founder/director of Second Chance Ministries, gave a handmade cross completed from logs used to build the church. It was named the "Cross of Nations." The Lowpoint/Washburn Methodist Church donated many items, including a pulpit and a communion table consecrated during the dedication service

"The circle of sharing shows the mutual love and respect we have for one another," Eastin said. "All of the items were beautifully made. It is important that we honor the Creator with beautiful things in the church. This church will be a place of beauty to remind people of the Creator."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Erwin is the director of communications for Native American Fellowship Dayspring United Methodist Church in East Peoria, Ill.

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

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