United Methodist Act of Repentance


The Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett led an advisory council for the denomination’s 2012 Act of Repentance. He is shown during his visit in fall 2010 to the San Creek Massacre site. (UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood)

Those of us who come from Native American communities in the United States are well aware of the general invisibility of Native people in the life of our nation. One might argue that with a population of fewer than 10 million it is difficult for Native people to have a noticeable presence in numbers that would command “air time” as citizens or participants in the body politic.


Act of Repentance

General Conference delegates will participate in “An Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People.” The service is intended to begin the process of spiritual healing between The United Methodist Church and indigenous peoples. It will take place Friday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m.

The act of repentance and plans for continued healing in the months following General Conference stem from atrocities and injustices committed against Native Americans and other indigenous peoples around the world.

The service specifically grew out of an incident in the United States known as the Sand Creek Massacre. Col. John Chivington was an ordained clergyman who led the early Methodist mission to the Rocky Mountain district of the Kansas Conference. He abandoned ministry for a military career and, while an elder on location, led troops in attacking an encampment of Cheyenne women, children and elderly people, killing at least 165 of them. Those slaughtered had been relocated to a designated plot of land under the protection of the U.S. government.

Chivington never left the ordained ministry, and, though he was denounced by the U.S. Congress for the massacre, he was never disciplined by the church.

United Methodists offered an initial apology as the 1996 General Conference meeting in Denver adopted a resolution to support government restitutions to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes for wrongs against humanity. General Conference 2008 authorized a resolution charging the General Commission on Christian Unity & Interreligious Concerns with preparing resources to help bring about spiritual healing. A resolution submitted by the commission to the 2012 assembly outlines additional actions for the church.


While some Americans have a warm and sometimes romantic feeling about Native Americans and their wisdom stories or what they know of their spirituality or their artistic accomplishments, most have little knowledge of Native history or the struggles currently faced by Native people to stave off disease, hunger, unemployment and poverty.

In fact, large numbers of Americans still believe that Native peoples have long vanished. That perception continues to be reinforced as our education systems neglect teaching about the role of America’s first people in the history of the United States.

UMC doing homework

Fortunately, in recent years, The United Methodist Church has been doing its homework regarding Native Americans and worldwide indigenous peoples. Schools of Mission have raised consciousness around critical issues. Studies have been written commanding attention to justice issues.

General Conference, our denomination’s highest policy-making body, has adopted legislation along with resolutions related to the survival of Native Americans. They have been incorporated into our Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions.

Attempts have also been made by the denomination to recognize its role in the painful, destructive history of Native Americans resulting in their present condition.

In all of this, however, there has been no apology that has powerfully and effectively entered the consciousness of The United Methodist Church. There has been no repentance prompting the denomination to change its relationship with Native people and become partners in healing the destructive forces of history.

There has been little acknowledgement of the denomination’s complicity in the historic physical and cultural extermination policies of the United States directed at its first people.

Act of Repentance


Attempts have also been made … to recognize its role in the painful, destructive history of Native Americans.

The Act of Repentance scheduled for the General Conference of 2012 in Tampa, Fla., was created to change all of this. Some members in the Native United Methodist communities believe the act is premature. They believe the church has not sufficiently prepared itself to understand the profound nature of this act, nor has it planned programs and actions that would carry it out.

Others who love The United Methodist Church are skeptical. Too many promises have been made that never materialized.

Once the Act of Repentance service is over, what happens when everybody goes home? What difference will it make to the Native American tribes, communities and families who still suffer historic trauma that is as real and fresh to them as this morning’s coffee?

How will the high expectations of repentance, forgiveness and atonement rest upon the shoulders of a great denomination that finds itself in the middle of restless change itself? And what impact will all of this have on other indigenous peoples around the earth in Asian, African and Nordic nations who also have been the inheritors of this history?

The Act of Repentance not only addresses the communities and tribal nations of Native Americans in the United States. It encompasses the indigenous communities and tribal/nation entities of the various countries around the world where The United Methodist Church has spread its blanket.

Taken together, the similarities are real and palpable. They reflect issues of self-determination, sovereignty, cultural integrity and how Native and indigenous peoples embrace The United Methodist Church as truth carriers of the Good News, declaring the Gospel of Jesus Christ with no other allegiances. 

Editor's note: The Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett is a member of the Seneca Nation and General Secretary Emeritus of the United Methodist General Board Of Church & Society. He has also served as a chair of the 2012 Act of Repentance General Secretary’s Advisory Council of the General Commission on Christian Unity & Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC).

The commission 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 United Methodist Church's role as it encounters other living faith communities, cultures and ideologies.


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