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Native American events planned with new leader

Native American Comprehensive Plan Collage
Photo collage courtesy of the NACP

A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*

March 9, 2007

A Cherokee Indian who worked 20 years as a social worker in Native American communities and tribes, the Rev. Anita Phillips says her calling always has been “to work and be with my people, with native people.”

Today, she continues that calling as the new executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan, an initiative that emphasizes Native American spirituality, congregational and leadership development, and involvement in the life of The United Methodist Church.

Anita Phillips Headshot
The Rev. Anita Phillips

Phillips took the job last August and believes she “is in the right spot.”

“It all fits together,” she said. “The work is challenging, but there is nothing (that) can beat the satisfaction of feeling like you are in the place God has called you to.”

The work focuses on helping Native Americans affirm and reclaim their spiritual heritage, which is the foundation for two events mapped out during a Feb. 23-24 meeting of the plan’s board of directors in Tulsa.

The Native American Writers Gathering will take place this fall, while a Native American Women in Ministry Conference is being developed for 2008.

Partners in ministry

The United Methodist Church has more than 18,000 known Native Americans among its 8.2 million U.S. members. While many are part of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, Native American ministries exist throughout the country.

The Native American Comprehensive Plan and its 19-member task force were created under a mandate by the 1992 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, to help United Methodists view Native Americans as partners in ministry and no longer as a mission of the church.

Specifically, the plan’s mandate is to develop and strengthen native congregations, ministries and fellowships; train and develop native leaders; and encourage their contributions to the life of the church. Key to each area is contributions that Native American cultures and spiritual expression bring to the mission of the whole church, with Native American spirituality woven throughout the plan.

The task force serves as the plan’s board of directors and comprises Native American representatives from the church’s five U.S. jurisdictions, Alaska Missionary Conference, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, Native American International Caucus and National United Methodist Native American Center, as well as a youth and a young adult.

Writing our story

Native Americans are traditionally an oral people, which means that "a lot of our best work is inside our best people," said Phillips.

The intent of the upcoming Native American Writers Gathering is to “build a conduit to enable those good words to flow out on paper.”

Native American Comprehensive Plan LogoThe retreat, scheduled for Oct. 26-28 at the Post Oak Lodge in Tulsa, will involve 30 native people from across the country as the beginning of a cadre of writers to describe effective ministries, practices and approaches for placement on the plan’s Web site at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/plan/nativeamerican. Modeled after the denomination’s ministry magazine, this online “mini-Interpreter” will focus on the native community, Phillips said, and responds to the plan’s priority of “finding and helping to set free native voices.”

Organizers are working to identify active writers or those experiencing a call to write “who are dedicated to producing materials that can be used here and now for Native American ministries and churches, for the active doing of ministry as well as the telling of our story,” said Phillips.

Women in ministry

Herself a female clergywoman, Phillips is excited about next year’s Native American Women in Ministry Conference to bring together women for strengthening, learning and celebrating the journey that “we have all been on.”

“This conference comes because of the uniqueness of women in Native American culture and history and because The United Methodist Church recognizes gender as an important part of making disciples,” said Phillips. “I find within the native community that, among women, the clergy and lay distinctions can just melt away” as a result of the “inheritance from the women who came before us.”

Phillips credits United Methodist Women for involving Native Americans. The organization is where many native clergywomen, both ordained and lay supply, began their ministry. “Our first learnings about the church, our calls to ministry, came within that context,” she said.

The date and conference details of the women’s conference are still being developed.

Important tasks

Much of the board’s spring meeting focused on tasks that should be completed by the end of the quadrennium in 2008, including a Native American School of Evangelism being planned for sometime in 2008.

In 2007, a native leadership development training is scheduled for Sept. 28-30 in Reno, Nev., for those involved with Conference Committees on Native American Ministries (CONAM). At least 50 people are expected at the event to set their annual conference agendas for reaching and impacting Native Americans within conference boundaries.

“We hear different responses from across the different parts of country of either the general church is unaware of where Native Americans are living within their annual conference or are perhaps unable to make those contacts,” Phillips said.

The Native American Sunday offering, scheduled this year for April 22, supports CONAM and “we hope to help those funds have a more productive and fruitful life,” said Phillips.

Culture clash

The Native American Comprehensive Plan is the church’s vehicle for examining Native American life, communities, spirituality and culture in “the most honest, searching way we can,” said Phillips.

“We are wrestling with the inheritance that has come from culture clash, cultural misunderstanding and the sense of depression that comes about in a people that are regarded as persons of conquest.” –The Rev. Anita Phillips

While the Native American “faith inheritance” is filled with many good and noble things, it also includes challenges that include high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse and poverty and low levels of education, Phillips said.

“We are wrestling with the inheritance that has come from culture clash, cultural misunderstanding and the sense of depression that comes about in a people that are regarded as persons of conquest,” she said, citing the mascot issue in which many sport teams use nicknames and images of Native Americans that degrade their culture.

Within the native community, she said, it is increasingly challenging to “unwrap Jesus Christ from that European or Western coding that has been so bitter to Native people.” In history, people under the “guise of the Christian flag and proclaiming the Bible” came to natives with the message that “if you don’t look like us, talk like us, live like us, accept all of our values, then you are not fit to come to Christ.” The challenge has been to “unwrap and offer Jesus Christ to native people as embracing, celebrating and walking within our own culture.”

With guidance from the plan on Native American issues, the hope is that all churches can proclaim Christ so that “people are able to celebrate who they are without feeling ashamed of any part of how God created them,” Phillips said.

The Native American Comprehensive Plan receives donations as an Advance special (#982615).

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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

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