A Walk to Remember

                                                                                                    wellsprings_editorialcircle

Anita Philips, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference

INTRODUCTION

I am a Native American clergywoman—a member of the Keetoowah Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. For nearly forty years I have worked among my Native American people, first as a social worker and later as a clergyperson. The place from whence I speak is a crossroads of the many layered circles of who I am. One of these circles is the Editorial Circle for the Wellsprings journal. It is my honor to be writing this essay, knowing that many of my clergy sisters will read what I have written. May our Creator bless both the writing and the reading.

What does the Lord require of us? According to Micah 6:8, we are required to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. The Editorial Circle of Wellsprings, in considering issues of importance to United Methodist clergywomen, chose this scripture to be the focus of the current issue. Our discussions and discernments of what it means to be faithful and responsive to what God requires of us led us to consider four aspects of this simple scripture that seem to have special application to us as clergywomen. These four are: effectiveness, inclusiveness, accountability, and support. You will find these concepts woven throughout the many pieces of this Wellsprings issue as our writers consider Micah’s vital question.

I bring to this discussion (in the context of our Brother John Wesley) the experience, tradition, reason, and scriptural interpretation of a Native American woman. I am a citizen of a nation which was among the tribes targeted for what is now known as the Trail of Tears. These forced marches were one of many genocidal actions faced by indigenous peoples of the U.S. since first contact with European immigrants many centuries ago. This history impacts who I am as a United Methodist clergyperson and how I strive to be an effective follower of Jesus Christ.

TO DO JUSTICE

Justice is about fairness, equality, and balance. These actions and attitudes reflective of justice evolve out of our worldviews—how we see the elements of the world in relationship with one another and as a whole.

As a Native American, three of the essential truths of my worldview are the interrelatednessinterdependence, and inherent value of all creation. They are in a sense lenses through which I view the world. Interrelatednessmeans that everything created by God is related. In the case of human beings, this means we live in a world full of our relations. These relations are all the other beings, both living and life-supporting, that inhabit the created world.

Because all that God has created is of value and is related to me, I am called to treat God’s world with respect. This means not only the human elements of creation, but all life forms and all the life-supporting forms of our world.

Interdependence means we are affected by what happens in the lives of our relatives within creation. Like an intricate spider’s web, when there is a break anywhere in the web of creation, all parts of the web experience the loss. When we live within an interdependent system, we rely on other parts of the system for our survival. Some of our most essential lessons involve learning to appreciate what the rest of creation does for us.

 

And, finally, all of creation is inherently valuable to the Creator. All that God made was indeed good and is worthwhile.

Because all that God has created is of value and is related to me, I am called to treat God’s world with respect. This means not only the human elements of creation, but all life forms and all the life-supporting forms of our world. When we speak of ourselves asimago Dei, I believe we are claiming not only an intimate relationship with the Creator, but with all the Creator has brought about. This means justice belongs not only to human beings, but also to animal beings, flying and creeping beings, and all parts of life-supporting creation, like soil, water, and air. Micah the prophet spoke to this in the Hebrew Bible book that bears his name: “Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1–2 nrsv). In this passage, the hills and mountains serve as jury to hear the charges God makes against Israel—charges of wrongdoing and injustice. Clearly God considers the life-supporting mountains and hills as worthy parts of creation.

In my own life, this sense of being intimately connected to all of creation sets the context for the doing of justice. As a great-, great-grandchild of Cherokee women and men who were part of the death march to Oklahoma Territory in the 1830s, I, too, have felt the hills and mountains cry out against injustice. I live on five acres of wooded valley, which are the remnant of the land allotted to my family as a result of the Trail of Tears. With the help of Creator God, my family has managed to hold on to this small scrap of earth that represents reparations for all the injustice my people suffered during this tragic period. Every part of our “home place,” every rock, tree, and blade of grass, stands as a witness against injustice to God’s creation.

TO LOVE KINDNESS

The word kindness as used by Micah, has no exact English equivalent. However, it may be thought of as the key element within the deepest and most meaningful of relationships. It is an interweaving of love, loyalty, and faithfulness.

When considering what it means to love kindness, I am drawn to a truth which I have experienced as a Native American, a social worker, and a United Methodist minister—that relationship is the medium needed by all beings in order that they truly live and do not merely exist. The necessary precursor to being in relationship is simply being acknowledged as part of the created world. Perhaps our effectiveness with loving-kindness begins with what and who we choose to ignore.

One of my personal heroes has always been Mother Teresa. I recall her being interviewed by a television reporter who engaged her in conversation about the work she did with the sick and dying in Calcutta as well as with infants and children with AIDS. She was asked to share what she considered to be the disease that posed the greatest threat to humanity today. She did not hesitate. Her answer was loneliness. The greatest gift her ministry offered was not medicines or food or a bed in which to die. Rather, it was the offering of a relationship with someone who recognized the sufferer’s humanity and intrinsic value.

In serving as pastor to Native American churches, I have had the privilege of serving in the midst of those who love kindness. Native Americans are among the poorest of citizens within the U.S., yet I have been witness to (and sometimes the recipient of) extravagant and radical hospitality from these churches. I have learned about the spiritual power of people whose wealth is measured by the number of relatives they have.

WALK HUMBLY WITH YOUR GOD

Micah’s proclamation calls us to step away from self-centeredness and to match our step with God’s. Humility grows more easily within human beings when we do not see ourselves as the culmination of creation, but rather see ourselves as a part of the whole of creation.

During the time I served as a district superintendent, I had a district of primarily small, rural Native American churches. Several were unable to support even a part-time clergyperson and were led by lay missioners. I spent many Sundays serving Holy Communion and doing baptisms in these churches. One woman I met, whom I’ll call Mary, was the lay missioner in one such church located within the boundaries of the Choctaw Nation. She worked as a Head Start classroom aide in the community, where she advocated for preschool children and their families. Her husband was disabled. Mary exemplified Micah’s call to humility. She did not see herself as anything more than a simple servant of God, cultivating loving relationships throughout the community and treating others as if they were the very embodiment of Jesus. Mary called me to come to her church for the baptism of an infant one Sunday several years ago. I made the drive into the rural countryside of southeastern Oklahoma to arrive at her church. Mary let me know that she thought there might be a few others who wanted to be baptized. When the time came for the invitation, I waited for the family to bring the baby to the altar. Much to my surprise and joy, the baby and her family were joined by a group of others who responded to the altar call that day. A total of ten adults professed their faith in Christ, were baptized, and became members of that small church. The power of Mary’s loving-kindness and humility made her one of the most effective leaders in my district.

LIVING INTO MICAH 6:8

The simplicity of Micah’s pronouncement on what God requires of us as mortal beings is what draws us to this scripture. We hear the ring of ageless wisdom in these words. In fact, the very message of this scripture text has been lived by Native American elders I have known.

As a young woman, I was very active with civil rights for Native Americans. I often participated in demonstrations and marches to the state capitol in Oklahoma City. At one such demonstration, which was in protest to the state’s unwillingness to prosecute the killer of a sixteen-year-old Native American, we prayed and round-danced on the capitol steps. A well-respected elder from the Ponca Nation joined the gathering. This woman was close to eighty. We asked who had driven her to Oklahoma City. She replied that no one in her family had been available to drive her for the two-hour trip. She called friends and neighbors, everyone she could think of, but no one was able to bring her to the demonstration. So she hitchhiked. She told us that she knew the Creator was calling her to stand up for the injustice suffered by this young man and his family. She was about four foot ten inches tall, but I believe she was the tallest Native American I saw that day. She was the embodiment of Micah’s call to justice, and she taught me that an effective servant of God will do whatever it takes to stand up for others.

One of my dearest friends is a retired United Methodist elder. She just had her eightieth birthday celebration. Like me, she is a member of the Cherokee Nation. My friend understands that our annual conference has very few elders available to do the things that elders do. So she offers herself in a sacrificial way to those who need her. She serves as a mentor to several local pastors, giving herself away in the spirit of loving-kindness. This precious saint teaches me that an effective servant of God knows no limits when it comes to loving others.

Henri is a member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Nation. Her daughter recently took her to Las Vegas for her seventy-seventh birthday. She is a leading scholar in the area of Native American studies. She is presently on leave from Montana State University and is serving as president of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College in Oklahoma. Tribal colleges are institutions of higher learning located on reservations and close to Native American grassroots communities. Henri says this work is the culmination of her years of service as a Native American educator and author. She has a vitae full of honors and accomplishments, but you would never guess this from spending time with her. Henri is one of the most humble persons I have ever met. She is a ceremonial woman who takes part in the annual Southern Cheyenne sundance. If anyone walks humbly with God, it is my friend Henri.

As you read the articles in this issue of Wellsprings, I invite you to reflect on the women you have known who exemplify the characteristics outlined in Micah 6:8. As clergywomen, we need every role model, every clergy sister, and all of our relations with us as we make this journey.

The Editorial Circle of Wellsprings hopes this issue enlightens, enlivens, and uplifts you.

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2012