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Native American dialogue points to issues of trust

 Delores Twohatchet and her husband, Ron, participated in a Native American Dialogue sponsored by Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University.
UMNS photos by Boyce Bowdon.

By Boyce Bowdon*
August 13, 2009 | OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS)

Churches and seminaries must acknowledge centuries of abuses against Native Americans before they can work effectively with Indians, a church leader said.

“Don’t say what happened then is ancient history,” said the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, former head of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. “Those issues are not resolved. We need to deal with the resentment, anger and distrust that Native Americans feel.”

The Rev. Thom White
Wolf Fassett

Fassett spoke as part of an Aug. 8 Native American Dialogue sponsored by St. Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University and the United Methodist Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. The Kansas City, Mo.,-based seminary is starting its second year on the Oklahoma City campus.

“Most seminaries do a good job preparing men and women as clergy in the classical English tradition,” he declared, “but the classic English manner of preaching, teaching and functioning as a pastor does not necessarily succeed out in Indian country anywhere in the United States.”

Fassett said church leaders in today’s world need training in conflict resolution, mediation, economic development, congregational leadership and transformation that will enhance their ability to relate to people and to minister more effectively.

Commitment to the ministry

Ministry to Native Americans has always been a focus at Saint Paul, according to its president, the Rev. Myron McCoy. “We have been preparing persons for Native American ministry since our school began in Kansas City,” he told about 100 people who participated in the event. “Our first graduating class, the class of 1962, included a Native American.”

McCoy said the dialogue provided “extremely valuable information and insights that will help us sharpen our focus on preparing persons for Native American ministry.”

In small-group discussions, participants shared their experiences with Native American churches and communities.

The Rev. Sharon Gomez, part-time pastor of the United Methodist church in Apache, Okla., said her group agreed with Fassett that ministry must be culturally relevant.

“All Indians are not alike,” she said. “In the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, we are several tribes with different histories, cultures, traditions and ways of worshipping.

“If you listen to our elderly people, especially those who were in boarding schools way back in history, you will hear them say they were taught to speak, dress, worship, sing and think like white people,” Gomez continued. “Our elders have been deceived and abused. We have been taught that we cannot trust white people.”

Be aware of distrust

She said it is vital that seminaries be aware of this distrust, and not be surprised if some Native Americans are apprehensive about what the school offers.

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“If representatives from Saint Paul were to come to our annual conference sessions that would help,” added Gomez, who said she is thankful for the seminary’s presence in Oklahoma City. “Our churches would welcome them. But if they are going to stand on the outside and say in a patronizing way, ‘What can we do for you?’ that will not help them win our trust.”

Delores Twohatchet, the daughter of a Methodist minister and a former high school counselor and English teacher, now directs higher education for the Comanche Nation. Her small group agreed that the dialogue event was “a good start” in building trust, she said. But it was only a start.

“I want to be able to refer students to come here who are interested in becoming United Methodist pastors,” she said. “But to offer a good solid education, the school will have to be committed to having native professors with doctorates in the fields they teach. They must show us they care about us and have a real commitment to Native American theological education.”

Elaine Robinson, academic dean of Saint Paul’s program at Oklahoma City University, noted that when persons of a dominant culture decide what someone else needs, what is created won’t meet the real needs.

“That’s why this dialogue helps us,” she said. “What we heard will have an impact on what we teach and how we teach. It will help us develop the kind of theological education that does something good for God’s people and God’s reign on earth.”

*Bowdon is a freelance writer in Oklahoma City and former director of communications for the Oklahoma Conference.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.   

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