The Rev. Anita Phillips explains the meaning of the medicine wheel during a worship service that established a new Native American Fellowship at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.
INDIANAPOLIS – The beat of a tribal drum punctuated a long weekend for more than 50 United Methodist Native American leaders from 17 states to expand their ministry across the United States. They learned and celebrated Oct. 9-12 at a hotel near the Indianapolis International Airport and at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church on the city’s southeast side.
Participants were greeted by Miami Nation of Indiana Chief Brian Buchanan and Vice Chief John Dunnagan, who shared the history and culture of their tribe which were in Indiana centuries before European explores wrote about them beginning in the 1540s. They were joined by other leaders of the tribe who sang, drummed and prayed at the beginning of the conference.
“We live two lives – Indiana life and American society life,” said Buchanan, an aerospace engineer. “We live by faith – native faith. What we do is for our fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. We’ve been in many schools, nursing homes and camps – all in the name of the Creator.”
Dunnagan explained the only thing we know about the origin of the Miami is “we came out of the water after a storm. A woman came out of the water first, near the mouth of (what is today) the St. Joseph River near South Bend, Ind.” From then until the mid-1800s, he said 13 treaties have whittled away all their land. Today, the Miami are two tribes – the Indiana Miami and the Western Miami who live in Oklahoma having been moved there in the 1850s.
There are an estimated 60,000 American Indians who live in Indiana, including 4,000 who live in Greater Indianapolis. Most are Miami and Potawatomi.
The Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director of the United Methodist Native American Comprehensive Plan (NACP), led the four-day conference. NACP directs and aids Native American ministries nationwide.
In her greeting, Phillips said that this conference was a new effort of NACP to provide education for local church efforts in ministering to the needs of American Indians in congregations across the county. She also said the conference was an attempt to define Indian culture rather than letting institutions define who we are. She said native people have a history of “letting others define us rather than claim what our Creator God claimed us to be.”
She continued, “We are called by a God who offers us abundance – claim it – to celebrate God who has called our many people… This is about being the beloved people of God.” She also challenged each participant to “make your mark in a world that doesn’t give us recognition.”
The conference was hosted by the Indiana Conference Native American Committee, led by Linda Madagame of Indianapolis – an Ottawa, and the Rev. Ron Haun, pastor of St. Andrew’s UMC, and his wife, Marilyn Haun, a Cherokee, both of Indianapolis.
Through workshops and plenary sessions, the conference concentrated its efforts to enhance local church ministries to American Indians including small church ministries, leadership within tribal communities, youth ministries and in other leadership issues unique to Native American ministries.
Worship included flute, drums and the singing of familiar hymns in English and native languages.
During closing moments of the conference, Susanne Ware-Diaz, a Wesley Foundation minister at the Native American UMC of Anaheim, Calif., challenged participants to continue the connections formed during the weekend. “When you are called, have perseverance. God will walk with us… Look at one gift you can bring. Look at goals you set during this conference.”
She also pointed out the lack of Native American representation in executive positions in The United Methodist Church, including the Council of Bishops. “The church needs us at many levels. We bring resilience and (our) heritage.”
New fellowship established
The conference culminated Sunday morning, Oct. 12, with the establishment of a Native American Fellowship at St. Andrew’s UMC, the first United Methodist Native American congregation in Indiana, during a 90-minute worship service.
“We are going to join in a new journey with the United Methodists,” said Marilyn Haun at the beginning of the service that committed the congregation to a ministry of Native Americans living in Indiana.
In his remarks, Chief Buchanan said, “I can’t tell you how special it is to have God-sent angels to us. The United Methodist Church has done much in establishing this relationship.”
Addressing the congregation in establishing this new fellowship (a congregation within an existing congregation), Phillips said, “You have taken a major step in the life story of St. Andrews. I am thankful that I am here at the very beginning of this new journey.”
After outlining the history and plight of native people in the United States even today, she said, “St. Andrew’s, you will make a safe place for native people to come and just be (themselves). To those in prison, those suffering from alcohol and other addictions, who need someone to walk with them, you can truly be a sanctuary – a safe place. I lay before you my hope, my claim to our Creator God, who has showed us the way through Jesus Christ to lift us out of a valley of grief. Our God does not abandon His children.”
Pastor Haun called on his congregation to walk with him. He said this was his destiny. “As the Native American Fellowship, we claim the journey.”
Daniel R. Gangler serves as a retired United Methodist communicator and lives in Indianapolis.
A photo gallery from the event is available here.