Healing relations with indigenous people

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

Melvin Talbert

Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert helps plan for a mandated act of “Healing Relationships with Indigenous Persons” to be held during the 2012 General Conference. (UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood)

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 April 27.

During the earliest meetings of the advisory council, organized by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity & Interreligious Concerns, Talbert questioned whether 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,” Talbert 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.”

As plans have progressed for 2012, however, Talbert has decided 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 & Learning Center in Colorado as an 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.

We need to own up to our part in history.

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 & 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 ¶2547.2 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The paragraph gives guidance to deeding church property to other denominations represented in the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation & 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.

I also hope the delegates will carry that commitment with them.

Talbert said he hopes that when the Tampa conference concludes United Methodist bishops 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,” he said.

In preparation for the Act of Repentance event in Tampa, the commission has held nearly two dozen listening sessions with U.S. indigenous people 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.

Editor’s note: Ginny Underwood is a former staff member of United Methodist Communications.


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