Consultation on Native American Ministry Takes Place in Albuquerque
By June Lorenzo
Themes such as collaboration, partnership and accountability emerged over the weekend of April 22-24, 2005 as over 100 gathered in Albuquerque for a consultation on Native American ministries. Over the day and a half event, Native American clergy and lay leaders spanning four generations, from Alaska to New York, met to envision the future of Native American ministry in the PC(USA) with representatives from the General Assembly and middle governing bodies.
The consultation was the follow-up on a recommendation made to the General Assembly in 2002 by the Special Task Force on Native American Ministries. In 2000, after five years of work, the task force submitted a report entitled "A Comprehensive Strategy for Ministries with Native Americans" to the General Assembly. The report reviewed the history of the Presbyterian Church's relationship with Native peoples and recommended strategies for Native American ministries in the PC(USA). In 2002, the task force recommended that the General Assembly "encourage every presbytery and synod with Native American congregations to evaluate the potential for revitalizing and expanding Native American ministry. ..." Thus, participants in the consultation were given two primary tasks:
- review and evaluate churchwide policy and developments in Native American ministries, and
- foster better dialogue between Native American Presbyterians and middle governing bodies.
In 1979, the Presbyterian Church adopted a Native American Churchwide Policy Statement, in response to the urging of Native American Presbyterians who insisted on a greater role in decision-making on Native American ministry. In doing so, the Church declared its commitment to "the continuance and strengthening of ministry with Native Americans through institutional or governing board projects and programs within the church that Native Americans themselves have had the opportunity to plan and implement." The policy statement contains commitments in areas such as Mutuality in Mission, Preparation for Native American Ministry, Leadership, Continuing Education and Pastoral Support. In 2000 the Special Task Force proposed strategies to implement these and other areas of Native American Ministry such as urban and youth ministry.
Conveners for the consultation centered on the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 for the consultation. At the opening worship at Menaul School on Friday night, the Rev. Buddy Monahan compared the older son in the story to many Native congregations, most of whom are over 100 years old, and often feel that their loyalty to the Church has gone unappreciated.
The community was challenged to appreciate and share the richness of Native cultures, faith, songs and gifts within and beyond their churches, and to let this be the mark of the church, rather than resentment.
On Saturday morning, Dr. Charles Marks, facilitator for the consultation, focused on the prodigal son, the one who left the community squandered his resources and returned home a failure, but whom did his father not reject. He challenged Native congregations to be a community able to receive and love those who leave home and return.
Conscious that more and more Native Americans live in urban areas away from Native communities, he also urged participants to think about the need to establish and support urban Native ministries for "prodigal sons and daughters" who need support and a caring community when they leave Native communities. This is a ministry which Native people are called to do on their own, rather than the old model of being objects of mission by others.
A central question during the consultation was whether the 1979 Policy Statement has withstood changes that have taken place both in Native American communities and in the PC(USA) itself. In 1979, the eight synods that contained Native American congregations had many programmatic functions. Since at least 2002 this has not been the case. Gary Torrens, coordinator, Governing Body Relations, PC(USA) addressed the group on the changing roles of middle governing bodies, especially synods.
Rev. Jan DeVries, Synod Exec for Synod of the Southwest, shared her reflections, saying that those engaged in Native American ministry "live more in the shadow of the 1979 [Policy Statement] - one which was shaped out of the immediate cessation of the Board of National Missions, before reunion in 1983, and certainly before synods or presbyteries had any idea what they could or would do in partnership with Indian churches and ministries."
Until the early 1970's, the Board of National Missions funded Native American ministry in the Presbyterian Church nationally. Most Native American congregations did not have working relationships with middle governing bodies. Thus, when the Board of National Missions transferred Native American congregations to the care of presbyteries, with little or no consultation, these congregations were thrust into new relationships with little preparation or assistance. This major change has presented the greatest challenge for Native American congregations in the last three decades. Of the 107 Native American churches in the PC(USA), less than five have reached a self-supporting status, and as the Task Force reported in 2000, there remains a great need to develop working relationships with middle governing bodies.
By Saturday afternoon, participants from Native American ministries began to share their vision for Native American ministry in the PC(USA) at its highest potential. Many participants first acknowledged that visioning and goal setting does not come easily. While there is a genuine desire to partner with middle governing bodies, there is little or no precedent for doing so, given histories in which Native people were viewed and treated as objects of mission and not equal partners. Even so, many acknowledged the need for accountability in a church with less and less resources available for national ministry programs.
Moreover, many of the institutions originally established by the church (such as schools and health care centers) in Native communities are now the province of Native governments. Participants stressed the need for native churches to reexamine outdated mission statements, as well as that of developing relationships with secular institutions in their communities. Related to this is the need to bridge gaps that exist between rural or reservation communities and urban Native communities. Often those most affected by this physical, cultural and spiritual gap are native youth who struggle with issues of identity.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges offered to participants was that of leading the way for other racial ethnic groups in the PC(USA) in modeling how to maintain cultural identity despite a legacy of attempts at assimilation by the Church, how to bridge the gap the world has imposed between Christian identity and Native identity.