Reflections from Discipleship Group members

This year’s Discipleship Group has been reading and discussing Sarah Augustine’s book The Land is not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. This Discipleship Group planned on Indigenous Peoples’ Day Service on October 9, and what follows are two reflections offered by members of our Discipleship Group during that service.

From Kylie McCarthy:

The Land is Not Empty has challenged my worldview and cosmology. It has helped me see from a different perspective and paradigm. I find myself asking many questions, sitting with intense sadness and feeling despair at the atrocities that have been inflicted upon a beautiful people and sacred land. I feel the burning fire for restorative justice. Questions arise: What is the collective path forward? What individual steps can be taken?

Having lived off grid in the forest this past year, I have begun a personal and sacred relationship with land, with place, with the natural world and at the same time connected more deeply with my true and authentic self. I am not separate from land. The land I are connected in an interdependent web of life and reciprocity. As Sarah Augustine says “Humility is acknowledging I am not separate from creation.” I am neither above it or below it, I am within it. I am beginning to have an embodied knowing of what it means to belong to a place. My heart has begun to understand a sliver of what it would be like to be ripped away from this sacred connection. I’ve begun to understand the individual and collective devastation and trauma that has been intentionally caused to Indigenous people for the gain of white colonizers. 

I see how the life supports of earth are failing. How our consumption and frantic need for more is killing the very life support we all depend on to live. How the dominant culture’s messages of fierce independence, patriarchy, capitalism, consumption and extraction are destroying our ability to live within a healthy thriving ecosystem full of love, reciprocity and mutual nourishment. Sarah speaks to private property being what is held most sacred by the United States legal system and this being treated as more sacred than creation and even human lives. I see this as the antithesis of the universal Christ. An example of how the global church and especially the American church have married the ways of empire. 

Where do we need to shed, burn and heal from our cultural allegiance to security? How do we turn? How do we repent from our involvement in the dominant culture which is married to systems of death and destruction? How do we trust the source of Life to provide for us? What does life look like when we trust Creator and one another for provision? What are we being asked to sacrifice, to let go of, to surrender? What comforts are we being called to lay down? 

For me I feel a call to live on the edge of the dominant culture, to live in intimate relationship with nature, to purge myself of many of my possessions, to trust that I will be provided for when I don’t know where I will live or how I will make consistent money. I’m learning how to trust that the web of life has my back, that my community, and Creator will provide. 

May we listen for the call and have the courage to act. 

From Wil Ressler:

A few weeks ago I was asked if I might consider giving a reflection this morning. I was reluctant to do so since I’ve done little public speaking and am quite uncomfortable doing so. During this time frame my wife and I wanted to get away for a short break and ended up spending a few days in Carmel-By-The-Sea. It was while walking amidst the small stores on those lovely streets that I decided that I would share some thoughts with you. For at one point I turned the corner to see on the façade of one building a large beautiful mural depicting a historic scene of what I understood to be a catholic priest baptizing individuals as part of the conquest of Native Americans in this region. At the sight of this mural it seemed important to join the growing number of voices that are questioning the church’s role in abusing, exploiting, and ultimately decimating the Native American population. And if you’ve been paying attention at all to Sheri’s sermons over the past couple of years you know that this was all done legally due to the Doctrine of Discovery. 

Over the past number of months as our group read through the book, “This Land Is Not Empty,” it was clear that people were touched deeply in various ways. The discussions reflected individual pain, frustrations and in some cases outrage. I, too, experienced a wide range of feelings and emotions. Among those were feelings of shame that the country to which I claim citizenship could be responsible for so much pain and heartache among Native Americans. While some of what we read wasn’t necessarily new, individual stories of personal loss could be gut-wrenching. And while we might have only heard a few stories, we knew that many more people were being represented. 

I felt disbelief that even as we broadly recognize and accept that much of the treatment of Native Americans was abhorrent and cruel, we continue the behavior, as demonstrated by our actions at Oak Flat in Arizona, the challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act which the Supreme Court is hearing, and as Sarah so aptly points out in the book, in Suriname, where there is less visibility, regulation and activism, making it easier for us to live our lives of affluence, as if ignorance is bliss. 

I felt guilt knowing that by my investments and my silence I am an accomplice to the ongoing attack on Native Americans in the US and indigenous peoples around the world. 

I felt embarrassed at my lack of awareness of issues. For instance, recently I read that for the roughly 4.5 million recognized Native Americans, (the real number is much higher of course,) the US government holds 56 million acres of land in trust. And while this figure is only one third of what it once was, to me it sounds like a big number. But as I read I saw a different perspective for I learned that 40 million acres in the US are owned by just 100 families. 40 million acres owned by 100 families, while 56 million acres are spread among over 4.5 million Native Americans. So, no, the land held in trust for Native Americans is not much at all. 

I felt confusion as I search for balance; balance between financial security for my family on one hand, and on the other, the need to respond to the recognition that a truly just response for what has been taken from Native Americans ultimately likely means less security and less power for me. 

I felt disgust that the suffering of Native Americans came largely in the name of Christianity, a faith that, despite it’s considerable history of hateful and selfish behavior, I still believe offers an example, in the person of Jesus, of what it means to live in a just world; of what it means to live in right relationships with one another and with the earth. 

Even so I admit to some confusion and even disappointment when reading and hearing Sarah and Mark Charles, a man of Navajo and Dutch descent, who spoke at First Mennonite not along ago, reference Christianity as a source of spiritual inspiration. I can only conclude that just as we find inspiration in Native American spirituality to compliment our Christianity, they find inspiration in Christianity that compliments Native American spirituality. In fact, I can’t help but think that having experienced so much pain due to a corrupted Christianity, they might actually have a far deeper understanding of Jesus’ true message of love than I do. 

But while Sarah offered considerable challenges in her book that one can’t, nor should, dismiss, what maybe stands out to me most of all in the book and the stories that are told are the acts of courage. It is in the courage to take on risk, courage to step into the unknown, courage to keep going in spite of horrible experiences that I find inspiring. 

Some weeks ago Mark Charles spoke here at First Mennonite. As complex as his presence and presentation was, in his book, “Unsettling Truths,” he tells a story that I found inspiring. He talks of stumbling upon a Columbus Day celebration in front of Union Station in Washington, D.C. complete with a large statute of Christopher Columbus. The intent of the annual event is to honor Columbus as the discoverer of America. Suddenly as he approached a group of men dressed as Spanish sailors he blurted out, “you cannot discover lands already inhabited.” Needless to say, he was not welcome there but he continued to address the group and repeat his statement. Only after being threatened with arrest did he leave. To me this was an example of courage. 

I think of the courage frequently demonstrated by Sarah as she confronts those in power, be they company executives, or leaders of large powerful institutions. But I think Sarah would express an even more profound inspiration in the courage of the Wayana people of Suriname, and Dina, the woman who challenged Sarah to do more than just talk about how the Wayana people’s lives were being destroyed. 

I think of the courage of Sheri, Sarah and Anita as they started the coalition, challenging the Mennonite church in uncomfortable ways. 

More broadly, I found inspiration in the courage shown by Sacheen Littlefeather, the apache actress who died last Sunday. At the 1973 Oscar presentations Littlefeather stood in for Marlon Brando to refuse his award for best actor to protest the depiction of Native Americans in movies and TV, as well as the ongoing occupation at Wounded Knee. For her statement she was booed and ultimately blacklisted. It took the Academy 50 years to reconcile with Ms. Littlefeather. 

And speaking of courage? What an inspiration the women and young girls of Iran have been lately, courageously taking to the streets to protest degrading, demeaning and harmful treatment at the hands of those in power. 

And so as I’ve reflected on the book we read, and the discussions that we had, I’m challenged by people in our group and by Sarah to live life more courageously. In a country and world that seems more hateful by the day, the opportunities to show courage by doing what is right and just is endless. May we boldly embrace those opportunities. Amen