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Oct 15, 2018

Lisa Dellinger, of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Area of the United Methodist Church, draws parallels between the children of Israel, who lived in forced exile under the Babylonian Empire, and Native Christians, whose ancestors who endured a forced, genocidal removal in the Trail of Tears. Both groups learned how hard it is to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Psalm 137:4). Native Christians are rebuilding their own Temple today by claiming their Indigenous cultures and identities in light of Christ Jesus.



00:02     When women come together, there's nothing we cannot do. Welcome to the Well Springs Journey podcast, where you will hear from women who have been called by God into lives that speak grace and compassion, that share pain and anger, and that dance life's joys and laughter. Inspiration to call forth your creative spirit awaits. Listen now.

00:35     Reflections on Native Christian identity and the longing for coming home, written by Lisa A. Dellinger, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Haggai speaks to a generation of people who returned to Jerusalem after a forced removal. Many of these returning citizen's live their whole lives in exile under the Babylonian empire. These are the descendants of those who had to learn how to sing YHWH’s song, while in a foreign land. Most returning Judeans were not alive during the height of the temple's glory. The exiles were raised with stories from their elders of a time when they had their own lands, culture, and self-determination.

01:13     This returning group, the descendants of the once elite of their society, had to learn to live immersed in the socio-religious milieu of their oppressors, and not lose their identity as the children of God. When they arrived home, the temple was in ruins, and here was politician tension with those who were not forced out of Jerusalem. The Judeans that were allowed to stay and the Persian kings loyalist. The people put their energies into rebuilding a life for themselves. This rebuilding did not begin with the temple, the center of traditional life and community wholeness.

01:48     Decades passed with the house of God remaining a tent and the people struggling to find the abundance that the elders had told them they would find back in the homeland. As a Chickasaw woman, and a Christian, there is much for me to related to in this story. My own family began its life in Oklahoma after a forced removal. I am a descendant of Ibbahmehatubby, who was born in 1740, in what is now known as Pontotoc County, Mississippi. This is our homeland given to us by Ababinili, the one dwelling above.

02:22     For the Chickasaw Nation, the genocidal removal, often called the Trail of Tears, began in 1837 and continued through 1850. My great, great-grandfather, Colbert Ahshalatubby Burris, left Mississippi as a child with his mother. My grandfather was named after Colbert Ahshalatubby Burris and he told me stories of the hardships that my families faced, as they tried to survive the trek. They also shared with me how his grandfather became an attorney, and a Chickasaw representative during the 1887 International Council, called by the five civilized tribes, to oppose the federal government's attempts to organize a unified government for Indian territory.

03:06     Many Chickasaw families retain their cultural stories and native religious practices, despite pressures to assimilate, both before and after the United States governments removal. Prior to removal, a significant number of my family, also practiced Christianity for decades, even becoming pastors. Despite prejudice and racism, navigated western attempts at indoctrination without completely abandoning their unique Chickasaw identity. It is not easy to learn to sing God's song in a new land, especially after being moved out from prosperity, and thriving community, by death march.

03:45     Many United Methodist's are not aware that the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference was an established before the Oklahoma Conference. It began with Native Christians ministering to one another. Native clergy pastored the peoples, but in true colonial fashion, the supervising bishops of the conference remained white, Ameri-European. Even today, the bishop of the Oklahoma conference oversees the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. And the United Methodist Church has yet to elect a Native American bishop in any conference.

04:20     Native pastors continue to minister with passion and devotion, despite the obstacles faced by US settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is the displacement and destruction of indigenous populations, and histories, in order to establish a nation that would make the settler the unquestioned native citizen. This violence is often cloaked in the language of being divinely inspired and providentially destined to combat the atheistically and diabolical savages that are in league with the biblical forces of evil. Settler colonialism is specific, in that it requires the indigenous peoples to live in a state of occupation, controlled by the invaders.

05:04     Settler colonialism seeks to make the original occupants invisible, powerless, and unable to practice individual or corporate cultural, and political self-determination. Like the Judean's longing to return home, Native Christians have not forgotten all that was taken from them by the subjugating force. Somehow, despite the racist nationalism that clocked itself in the language of Christianity, Native Christians interpret the gospel in the spirit of God's liberation. There is a living memory of American Indian Native religious traditions that endures, despite the criminalization of ceremonies and the abduction of Native American Indian children sent to abusive Christian boarding schools.

05:50     The land is holy for all Native peoples. Whether practicing Christianity, or traditional Native religions, each original ancestral site, is sacred, and the source of all life for Native America peoples, just as the temple was the heart of communal life, spiritual, and cultural wellbeing, and the foundation of all meaning, making for the Israelites. In the scripture selection from Haggai, there is a sense of nostalgia for a home laced with a trauma that lingers from exile. We see a people struggling with the impact of colonialism, and the memory of a former glory they have only heard of in stories.

06:29     There is a profound sense of struggling for survival in a disorienting experience of the continual alien nation or being a stranger in your own home. The Judean's are living with the memories of a former grandeur, and wholeness, along with the overwhelming task of reclaiming, and naming that wholeness in the midst of the ruins. Native American peoples continue to experience the chaos of trying to maintain their spiritual practices in a new millennium, complicated by the destruction of that, which you need for your ceremonial practice.

07:04     One indigenous interpretation of this particular biblical text is not to see the failure to quickly finish the temple, as misplaced priorities, but the result of historical trauma. Nostalgia, a longing for what once was, may complicate the ability to move past simply surviving, to living fully, without the ongoing burden of literal, and cultural genocide. Coming home to rebuild the sacred is a concept fraught with longing and apprehension for Native American Indians. Our temple is not a structure in one location. Our temple is creation itself, with literally thousands of sites consecrated and given by God.

07:47     These sites are exploited by ecological degradation for profit or overrun after Indian removal by settler-colonist. An Ameri-European Christian reading of this text might see this lack of progress and the rebuilding of the temple, ask motivated by a lack of faith in God to provide all that is needed for individuals in the community. Restoration for the people is a condition tied to providing a home for God. God blesses those who glorify and magnify YHWH's name. The command to look at the ruins of the temple can be read as an admonishment for not putting God's house first.

08:26     In this understanding, the Judean's have the entire agency in this situation but behave selfishly. God's spirit is with them and will continue to be with them as they correct this egocentric transgression. Then, there will be nothing to fear and the flourishing of the people can begin. The conquered Judean's are not fazed by the decades of exile but are using their free will to dishonor YHWH. Native Christians, as a result of settler colonialism, know what it is to have limited choices and fewer resources to practice the kind of agency that many US Euro-American's take for granted.

09:08     One has only to look at the treatment of Native Water Protectors, who peacefully protested the Dakota access pipelines abuse of land and water, to see how free will and agency are assaulted with water cannons in sub-zero temperatures, tear gas, and sound weapons by an accompanying force. While the will to restore both traditional, and Christian Native communities is strong, the repercussions of settler colonial violence are hundreds of years in the making. The return home to rebuild our own temple is not a homecoming easily accomplished. Native Christians in their own way, have resisted assimilation but made steps to practice as self-determined acculturation.

09:52     The restoration that Native Christians seek, is not for individual personal gain, or even just for the sake of human beings alone, but for all of creation. These interconnections make the restoration of the world to wholeness are mizpah, or our understanding of the divine commandment. This is accomplished for Native Christians by claiming our indigenous cultures and identities in light of Christ Jesus. Alongside Jesus, indigenous Christians seek the promise spirit to bring justice, peace, and love into an imbalanced creation that bears the scars of brokenness.

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