By Sara Dingman
In October, I spent a sacred week visiting Presbyterians of the Navajo, Apache, Laguna Pueblo, Pima, Maricopa, Ak Chin, and Hopi Nations and Communities. On behalf of the Synod of Lincoln Trails, PC(USA) I joined other synod execs seeking to “turn around and walk in the other direction” from the Doctrine of Discovery. (You can read more about that on the PC(USA) website here.)
Hats off to our host, the Synod of the Southwest. Their staff, Conrad Rocha and Sharon Yates, are strong and loving humans who model servant leadership.
Double hats off to the synod’s Native American Ministries Coordinating Committee members (all indigenous and many of whom are pictured below) who spent months and months planning this epic trip — on top of purchasing and distributing over $400,000 of food during the COVID-19 pandemic, AND paying Native churches’ electricity and heating bills, AND covering pastoral salaries during much of that time. You can imagine what we heard about Covid decimating and devastating our siblings’ communities of loved ones.
Triple hats off to the commissioned lay pastors and church people in the 27 Presbyterian congregations and chapels that dwell on tribal lands in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.
We received warm hospitality from the 17 churches we were able to visit. People were so kind to host us, feed us, ask and answer questions, and pray for us and with us.
One evening highlight was participating in the 115th annual camp meeting (yes — 115th!), a wonderful multiday intertribal revival-like outdoor gathering that was filled with worship, study, recreation, and food for all generations.
And the daytime highlights were quieter than the camp meeting: moments of clarity, understanding, disgrace and awe as we sat with our Presbyterian siblings in their churches. The states of disrepair of these buildings – often blatantly evident but sometimes more hidden behind painted facades – mirrored the states of disrepair in relationships between the larger Presbyterian Church and these local ones.
Like the toxic uranium mines we drove past on the Navajo Nation (mines that were abandoned by corporate owners once the land was stripped), in a quieter way church buildings stand as a symbol of white neglect.
To be clear, the Presbyterians who lovingly care for these buildings that spiritually shelter and host their communities, are incredible Presbyterian servants. In fact, they remind me of rural churches I served in Nebraska — churches without full-time paid pastors who know that the Church truly is the people. We heard countless stories of Presbyterians quietly doing mission in their communities. Led by Norma, Melinda, Gwen, Clarissa, and many others, they somehow multiply the resources they’re given for the sake of others around them — many unchurched, many living far below the poverty line.
So, promises and perpetuity.
Simply put, when white Presbyterian missionaries established churches on reservations, they got permission from tribal councils to build churches on tribal land by making promises that they (the Presbyterians) would care for these buildings in perpetuity for the purpose of serving God and others. “Perpetuity” means without end. But they broke their promises, and we continue to break our promises today.
Did synod leaders make promises to our Native siblings while we were on this trip? No.
Do synod leaders, and the Presbyterians we represent, have a moral obligation to do better in tangible, physical ways? Absolutely.