Jennifer L. Battiest, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Annual Conference
For me, speaking the truth with grace about identity is a tremendous struggle. I struggle to define what being Choctaw means, what being a Christian is, and what being a missionary and a pastor means. I struggle with whether I can and want to be all that, for I do not speak the language of my people, and I am a church and community worker (a missionary). I am also en route to become an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church; yet I am still a little uncertain about why God thinks it is a good idea.
My mother chose not to rear my brother and me on the reservation in Mississippi. My older brother’s and her first language is Choctaw. When she saw some non-Native women laughing at him as he spoke when he was still a toddler, she made English my first language because she decided that speaking Choctaw and having a Choctaw accent were deterrents. She later regretted her decision and tried to teach me the language, but I have never been able to learn it, except for a couple of phrases and hymns. Because I do not speak Choctaw, because I cannot make traditional Choctaw food, sew any clothing, weave baskets, or heal with herbs, and because I am quite suspicious of nature, I make a terrible stereotypical Native person.
I also make a terrible stereotypical missionary and pastor. I am a Native, a missionary, and a pastor. Oxymoron, paradox, and most likely disaster were among the thoughts that entered my mind when I began to understand where God was leading me. I had grown up in a small, nurturing Choctaw United Methodist Church in Oklahoma. Everyone spoke Choctaw, the services were held in Choctaw, and the songs were sung in Choctaw. Since I do not speak Choctaw and I learned about the Church and Christianity by watching how people live their lives, I have always thought of the Church as community. While I was quite young, I decided I wanted to be a missionary when I became older. I thought a missionary was just someone who worked with the Church, and I wanted to do that.
Later, when I learned the history of Native people, my Church, and my government, I was embarrassed by my desire to serve the Church in this way. After two semesters of church history at seminary, I was embarrassed but also angry and sick when I learned about the Church’s bloody history. I told God that I was not going to go back home to Oklahoma. I told God I would not serve in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference as an agent of the institutional church, which, to this day, does not seem to want to understand or study racism, yet tells Native folks to forgive the Church. How was I supposed to tell them to forgive when I could not? I would not forgive what the Church had done; but every time I said I would not forgive, I felt a stiffness, a hardness. Yet I still refused to forgive.
On the ordination track, I ended up with two churches in Oklahoma. The first appointment offered to me was a church that had dwindled down to two young girls. At first I declined it, but then I remembered how I loved going to church and accepted it. As I started serving, I began thinking of the things the Church had gotten wrong with Native people. I decided this church will never tell these children that they are not welcome. They will learn about a God who loves every cultural bit of them. They will hear that their culture, their language, and their brown skin are gifts from God. The Church is not perfect, but I am part of the Church, too, and can change what the Church means in these Native children’s lives. The number of children attending the church grew from two to about twenty, all of whom are eager to come to church.
I like to think that what is going on in the church with these young people—the fact they know of a God who thinks they are special and extraordinary—is helping undo some of the past. I would not have thought it possible to change the past, but now I think it is possible to undo the past or to break the hold the past can have on a person. By breaking the hold of the past, people are able to change the trajectory in which they are headed—to some place different. Working with the children helped change the trajectory of where that church was headed, which was to be closed down. It is now a church and community center. I like to think it is helping to change the trajectory of where the children were headed, but it certainly has helped me change the trajectory of where I was headed.
I also forgave the Church. To be honest, I was disappointed when I realized I had because I had not intended to do that. But the hardness, the stiffness, is gone. I think what helped it go was the thought, I am the Church, too, and I will do something different.
Even so, I still struggle because forgiving is an ongoing battle. In November 2007, I asked the children at Clinton what they had learned about Thanksgiving at school. They told me that they had learned that the Pilgrims saved the Indians because the Indians were hungry and could not get food. I was horrified at their response and furious. In October 2008, I began talking about how people had come from another country and did not know how to cultivate the land to grow food here. The Native people knew the land, so they had food. I asked the children, “What do you think the Native people did when they saw that people were hungry and had no food?” One ten-year-old boy said, “The Native people gave them their food, but they should not have done it. Look how we get treated today.”
The entire dilemma of being Native and being Christian can be summed up in a single question, a question that I have wrestled with my entire life. Knowing what I know now, would I have chosen to help that group of hungry people? Most Native Christians have to deal with or figure out how to ignore this question every Thanksgiving. Knowing the horrendous things that have happened to Native people, Native Christian pastors also have to figure out how to preach about giving thanks. My initial response to the question has been the same as that ten-year-old boy’s. I would not have shared my food. That response, however, goes against both my Native and my Christian upbringing, so I usually grumble and say I would have given them the food I do not like. In this instance, the child’s eyes were so bitter that I knew I could not give him a flip answer. I prayed very hard as I answered him. I told him, “Those Native people long ago knew that there is a good way to live and that there is a way that is not good. Despite everything that happened later, they chose the good way to live. This is how God expects us to live our lives.”
These words were difficult to say. If that child’s need had not been so great, I am not sure I would have pushed myself to draw that conclusion and to mean it. Working with the children in Clinton has made me better in all I do because they are honest with me and expect the same in return. Realizing that children should not have to carry the bitterness of the past has pushed me to take greater responsibility to see that they will not continue to carry it and to encourage others to take responsibility as well.
When I went to Student Forum 2009, I again could not make a flip response. A steering committee member greeted our group with hugs and said, “I need you to do something. The local Native people canceled on us, and I need you to give the Native welcome to the area tonight at 7:00.” Since I dislike doing anything cultural to entertain people, this request felt circus-like to me. It was legitimate for me to give the welcome because of my family ties, but I did not want to welcome them there.
I was still struggling with my feelings concerning the Church and with being forgiving; yet he was pushing me to take another step and feel good about it in the space of four hours. I could not decline the request, for I knew that some at Student Forum questioned why they even had to ask local Native people to take part, and I knew how hard that steering committee member had worked to get it and keep it included.
I gave the welcome. I talked about the children at Clinton and about Thanksgiving, bitterness, and choosing the good way to live to help them understand why it is important to continue to do this seemingly insignificant practice. Including local Native people, this small act, is really a momentous step because Native people have come to expect nothing but bitterness, especially from the larger church. Giving the welcome was my leap of faith because I am reluctant to hope. I am reluctant to have hope in human decency, compassion, and love in the larger church, but I do not hesitate to place hope in a God who is able to change people and situations in spite of human limitations. I took an even further leap of faith for that steering committee member, for the children in Clinton, and for all who are reluctant to hope in the Church, and ended with this statement: “Despite what happened in the past and what will happen in the future, we still choose the good way to live. We welcome you to the land of our ancestors.”
Each day as I become older, I worry less and less about stereotypes and tell myself I am Choctaw and so must remember that to choose the good way to live is what honors my people. I am reluctant to hope in the Church, but I have faith in our God, who is beyond us. I imagine God knows what God is doing. As long as God keeps calling, I will continue to struggle to leap in faith.