NEW YORK CITY — Harry Askin is taking part in a monumental journey to seek repentance for horrific crimes against indigenous peoples. He is a board member of the United Methodist General Commission on Christian Unity & Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC). The agency is planning an Act of Repentance to Indigenous Peoples at the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-making body which will meet in Tampa, Fla.
Askin, a Caucasian layperson from the East Ohio Conference, says he started his journey three years ago with an intellectual idea of repentance. According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, repentance means to regret, to be sorry, to apologize, to ask forgiveness, and to be remorseful.
Askin thought he understood all these emotions, until he met and heard the stories told by two Northern Cheyenne descendants of 1864 Sand Creek Massacre survivors.
"As these two men told their stories, I could see the pain and the anguish that still exists nearly 150 years later," said Askin. "It was something I hadn't thought about before. At that moment, the idea of repentance began to go from my mind to my heart. My entire perspective changed."
The Sand Creek Massacre has a direct connection to The United Methodist Church. A Methodist minister, Col. John Chivington, led the charge on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment. More than 165 were killed, mostly women and children.
"We need to understand our history in this country regarding indigenous persons as well as the ongoing things that are being done around the world," said Askin. "A single Act of Repentance is not nough."
History shapes tension
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, episcopal leader of the Rocky Mountain Conference and former GCCUIC board member, agreed. She said the history of the Sand Creek Massacre still shapes the tension between the Native communities and the predominantly Anglo majority there.
We have to really come to grips with … the harm that it continues to do.
"We have to really come to grips with that particular history and what it means and the harm that it continues to do, to cause, in the human family," said Stanovsky.
The Sand Creek Massacre is a microcosm of the injustices against indigenous people who for generations have experienced collective removal from their homelands, violation of human rights and cultural genocide. These historical traumas have left many skeptical that an Act of Repentance by The United Methodist Church will make a difference in attitudes or actions.
Lupe Gooday, an Apache elder and member of the Little Washita United Methodist Church in Fletcher, Okla., questioned how sincere an apology from The United Methodist Church can be.
"People are going to have to change,” said Gooday during an August 2010 listening session in Anadarko, Okla. “They forced our people to change. They took away the language; they took away the land. So, what can they apologize for?"
2 dozen listening sessions
GCCUIC held nearly two-dozen listening sessions with indigenous people in the United States and two in the regional conferences outside the United States. The dialogues were a starting point to understand what it will take to create an experience for the denomination that will have integrity and be authentic and credible. It became clear: A single act will not be enough.
We have to face our collective past.
"We have to face our collective past and make a commitment to indigenous persons that we will do everything in our power to never let 'it' — what the church has done and left undone regarding indigenous peoples — happen again or be allowed to continue," said the Rev. Stephen Sidorak, GCCUIC chief executive. "Only with this commitment will we reach a level of understanding where healing can begin."
In addition to the Act of Repentance service, scheduled for April 27, 2012, GCCUIC will bring legislation to the General Conference asking that a process of healing relationships with indigenous persons continue for the next four years and beyond. The General Conference meets every four years.
>The Council of Bishops would monitor the process. The resolution also calls on annual conferences to be in dialogue with indigenous peoples and to hold an Act of Repentance Service in each annual conference.
"We can't change things just by being educated," said Askin. "It really has to come from the mind to the heart. It isn't going to work if it is just an educational learning experience, although that is critical. We must recognize how important this is to the people we have hurt."
To help prepare United Methodists for the Act of Repentance service, GCCUIC will be publishing commentaries and stories in the months leading up to the General Conference. A study resource will also be made available. For more information, visit Act of Repentance.
Editor’s note: Ginny Underwood is a communications consultant in Nashville, Tenn. This article is reprinted with permission from the General Commission on Christian Unity & Interreligious Concerns Web site: “A personal journey leads to the 2012 Act of Repentance to Indigenous Peoples.”
The General Commission on Christian Unity & Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC) is the part of The United Methodist Church that engages with and talks to other Christian denominations to work toward unity and peace. GCCUIC also helps interpret the denomination’s role as it encounters “other living faith communities, cultures and ideologies.”