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Church to focus on ‘healing relationships’


7:00 A.M. ET October 26, 2011

Retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert (left) helps plan for a mandated act of “Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons” to be held during the 2012 General Conference. At right is the Rev. Anita Phillips, who leads the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan. UMNS photos by Ginny Underwood.
Retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert (left) helps plan for a mandated act of “Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons” to be held during the 2012 General Conference. At right is the Rev. Anita Phillips, who leads the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan. UMNS photos by Ginny Underwood. View in Photo Gallery

Is an official expression of repentance by United Methodists for the church’s treatment of indigenous people a waste of time?

That question was posed early on by retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert as an advisory group began to plan for a mandated act of “Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons” at the 2012 General Conference.

The denomination’s top legislative body of nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world will meet April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla. The Act of Repentance presentation is scheduled for April 27.

During the earliest meetings of the advisory council — organized by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns — Talbert expressed concern that an Act of Repentance might be an unproductive use of time, based on his past experiences.

“I participated in Acts of Repentance in 2000 and 2004 dealing with African Americans and racism,” he explained. “I felt like the experience was just a show. When the General Conferences were over, the issue was put on the shelf and it was business as usual.”

However, as plans have progressed, Talbert has concluded that such an event for indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, should not be delayed. “I came to the realization that maybe this is the right time,” he said. “We can’t simply wait until we are all ready. We could be waiting a long time. Our Native brothers and sisters deserve better.”

The Rev. Stephen Sidorak, the commission’s top executive, agreed that now is the time for the healing process to begin.

“The United Methodist Church is being called to confession,” he said. “We need to own up to our part in history and work toward a demonstrable denominational contrition for our collective responsibility.  It’s the only way to move forward.”

Sand Creek connection

Sidorak pointed to denominational support of the Sand Creek Massacre National Site Research and Learning Center in Colorado as one example of how an Act of Repentance can move from words to action. “The United Methodist Church has a shocking connection to Sand Creek,” he said.

Denver Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky in September 2010 walks a path at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado.
Denver Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky in September 2010
walks a path at the Sand Creek Massacre National
Historic Site in Colorado. View in Photo Gallery

On Nov. 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington, a Methodist clergyman, led the attack on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment along the banks of Sand Creek. At least 165 people were killed, mostly women, children and the elderly.

The United Methodist Church has committed $125,000 to the center, which will be matched, resulting in $250,000 in seed money. The donation will go toward research materials as well as tools needed to set up “virtual” connections between the center and other institutions, including United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology, tribal colleges in Oklahoma, Montana and Wyoming and the extensive archives, libraries and museums that house the Sand Creek Massacre research materials.

With Talbert’s concern at the forefront of the planning process, the Commission on Christian Unity is taking a resolution to the 2012 General Conference titled, “Trail of Repentance and Healing.”

The resolution includes a request for $325,000 to ensure credible churchwide follow-up. The United Methodist Council of Bishops will be asked to direct the implementation of the resolution.

One provision in the proposal asks that land and property be transferred to “an indigenous community,” as described in Paragraph 2547.2 of the church’s Book of Discipline. The paragraph currently gives guidance to deeding church property to other denominations represented in the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union or to another evangelical denomination.

‘Tangible results’

“The goal of the proposed resolution is to make sure the Act of Repentance will be followed with tangible results,” Sidorak said. 

Talbert said he hopes that when the Tampa conference concludes the bishops of the church will be committed to giving visible leadership to the Act of Repentance in their respective areas.  “I also hope the delegates will carry that commitment with them and begin the process of healing in their own communities.”

In preparation for the Act of Repentance event in Tampa, the commission has held nearly two dozen listening sessions with indigenous people in the United States and two in regional conferences outside the United States.

To help prepare church members, the commission will publish commentaries, stories and a study guide in the months leading up to General Conference.

*Underwood is a former staff member of United Methodist Communications.

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


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  • dmackey 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    It would have been helpful to hear what the Native folks have been saying in those listening sessions and to know what they think of this - Clearly something that is long overdue, but will it be accomplished in a fashion that means anything to those that are being asked to accept it? 

     For those commenting that do not see the point - perhaps if you recognized what all Christian churches, as well as the U.S. government actually did to Native Americans for 200+ years you would understand.  The actions of Europeans and their descendants were nothing short of genocide and ethnic cleansing - perhaps the most successful history has ever known.  In 1492 there were probably 20 million Native Americans - perhaps that many just in North America - by the early 1900s it was done to less than 245,000 (1920 Census).  This is not something most of us learn in school, but the entire concept of Manifest Destiny (God supported conquering of the Continent) that we do so proudly learn about - has a flip side - to accomplish this meant that Native Americans were seen as inferior and it was okay to destroy their culture.  Bounties offered on proof of death, intentional infection with diseases, stealing of land in direct disregard for Congressionally approved treaties, attacks by an Army that was supposed to be protecting them, . . .  etc.  Official US policy at various times was known as Assimilation (forced) and Termination.  It was not until 1968 that the US government stopped trying to end Native cultures.  The Church was no better, sending missionaries to change not only religious understanding, but entire cultures, forcing people to give up their language and history in exchange for needed supplies, establishing schools were they could "teach the Indian out of the children" - schools that were often far from home, isolating the children, schools were children could be punished with beatings and further isolation for speaking their own language, or for attempting to hold onto their culture and religion.  I believe it was the early 1970's when Methodist run schools were finally given over to Natives to administer and  Native cultures allowed to flourish in the schools.  

    Regarding the comment that the UMC has only been around since 1968 and therefore should not be responsible for anything that happened earlier - really - so are you suggesting that we have no connection to anything that happened before 1968 - good or bad?  Unfortunately that is not how things work.  We are clearly the descendants of those earlier church folk who, no matter how much they thought their actions were for love and betterment of Native peoples, played a role in poor treatment that Native Americans were accorded for well over 200 years.  Col. Chivington is only the most notable Methodist that "did Natives Wrong".  Many more were involved in many aspects of their treatment and we should certainly be working toward repentance.  I pray that we do a good job, listen to the hearts of those injured and that the  Native Americans are gracious enough to accept whatever is done, and allowed to speak their thoughts on the issue.
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  • sisterjaneen 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    This movement is important to me as a part of my faith journey.  I feel deep remorse as a generations later Euro-American of German and Scottish roots.  I would like to receive the forgiveness of the Native Americans that my ancestors displaced.  I would like to work toward reconciliation.  After viewing the DVD For The Next 7 Generations which features 13 indigenous grandmothers I have learned that by asking the question I have taken the first step.
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  • NMex 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    This is crazy.  Instead of dwelling in the past the UMC leadership better focus on the future as there are dire consequences ahead and it isn't going to be healed with apologies.  There are all kinds of bad things that have happened to all kinds of peoples over the centuries.  We can't waste time with this stuff - it is done, finished, complete - let's move on.
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  • bwherring99 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Col. Chivington was appointed as commander of the 3rd Colorado Cal, a fighting unit. He was not a chaplain, though he had been offered a chaplain position, he refused because he wanted to fight. Some history records say he was kicked out of the Methodist Church. He was court martial for the Sand Creek massare but was officially out of the military by this time so was exempt from prosecution because of the rules of Civil War immunities. The General Conference has already offered an apology for the massacre in the 90s showing they had not done research to show that in no way was the Methodist Church responsible or had any connection with it. Let's take responsibility for what's deserved not what isn't. Money and land, come on now, what does that sound like?
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  • bwherring99 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Just a reminder that the United Methodist Church was not formed until 1968 and the Colonel was not a representive of the United Methodist Church.
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  • CRHouse 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Top photo--right next to Bishop Talbert is the Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan, a pastor of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.  Maybe a good way to start our repentance as a denomination would be Step 1. to recognize our Native American leaders, name them, and give credit where credit is due in a photo caption. Step 2, ask Anita what she thinks of the opening question, which Talbert seems to have answered for her. Would have loved to hear what the Native American community has to say about this question, but, curiously, that perspective does not appear in the article.
    Christie R. House
    Editor, New World Outlook
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  • Jeffrey P 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    I'm just curious...has any group brought a specific grievance to the United Methodist Church?  If they have, are we addressing them specifically or are we just trying to do a blanket statement/act and hope they will accept it.  If no one is saying we done anything wrong, our apologetic act/statement seems self-seeking...like we're trying to call attention to ourselves at the expense of these minority groups who aren't seeking attention in this manner.
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