Across the UCC: American Indian congregations blend old, new traditions

Across the UCC: American Indian congregations blend old, new traditions

August 31, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

Carol L. Pavlik

On Sunday, October 5th, churches across the UCC will be contributing to the Neighbors in Need (NIN) special mission offering. One-third of the funds collected will benefit CAIM, the UCC's Council for American Indian Ministry. For the past 30 years, CAIM has provided primary salary support for all pastors serving American Indian churches in the UCC, as well as scholarships and travel assistance for American Indian youth, ministerial students and lay leaders. A theological education program is now being established through the Learning Center at Eagle Butte, S.D., making it possible for more American Indians to enter the ministry.

A group from Boulder, Colo., installing tresses on Ponca Creek UCC's new youth center in Bonesteel, S.D. Heather McDuffee photo.
In Ponca Creek, faith is more than a set of blueprints

Ponca Creek UCC near Bonesteel, S.D., knows a lot about faith. This year, the congregation is constructing a 30-foot by 70-foot youth center adjacent to their church building. The Rev. Hampton Andrews chuckles when he divulges that the structure, including a large all-purpose room, a bathroom and small kitchen, is being built without blueprints. "We went right ahead and did it," laughs Andrews.

But Andrews has faith. "When we first started," he says, "some of the members said, 'Where are we going to get our money? How are we going to do this?'"

With some donated funds to get the project going, Ponca Creek is witnessing the power of the faith community. Countless volunteers and UCC church groups from South Dakota and other other states have come to Bonesteel to help with the materi- als and labor. Now that the siding is on and the windows are in place, Andrews is hoping to finish up the building so it can be used this winter.

It has troubled Andrews, who's pastored at Ponca Creek for the past 30 years, that the youth in the community don't have a place to go for entertainment and fellowship. "The only place they can play pool is at places where they sell liquor," he says.

The building will be used for games and gatherings for the community's youth, as well as for wedding receptions and wakes. Andrews also hopes to develop an after- school program where children can get tutoring at the youth center.

In the future, Andrews hopes the building might be an opportunity for recruiting young American Indians into the ministry. "With the new building, we can connect with them and teach them to have a little service or prayer before they get together," says Andrews. "That may stay in somebody's mind, that they want to be a minister, or at least some kind of church worker."

Andrews will invite other nearby churches to stop by and see what's happening at the youth center. "We're hoping this could spread to other churches, too. If they all had something like this, we could do more, more than what just the pastors are doing."

Cultural differences left 'at the door'

New Town (N.D.) UCC has a multicultural history dating back to 1954, when Herbert J. Wilson, a non- Indian, started New Town Church, then as an Episcopal Church. Wilson was always active in the Indian community working for public health on the reservation, so the church had both Indian and non-Indian members.

Today, New Town UCC sits two miles inside the northern border of the Fort Berthold Reservation. The Rev. Lynn Paulson is not American Indian, but has worked on the reservation on and off for 20 years, and has served as New Town's part-time pastor for the past six years.

The parish maintains its diversity, even though the official membership hovers at only nine members: half Native, half non-Native. Paulson says average weekly attendance is more like 22, but here, church members often stay on the rosters of their home churches, even if they attend elsewhere.

The church receives monetary support from CAIM, but Paulson says that the congregation is small but generous. Plans are in the works for building on an annex.

This year's Vacation Bible School attracted scores of children, and Paulson has a list of 50 children who want to sign up for Sunday School or confirmation class this fall.

While the congregation's cultural differences sometimes result in flareups, Paulson has found that his congregation thrives at mending and forgiving so that the work of the church can go on.

As an example, Paulson tells of his job years ago, when he worked on the reservation in law enforcement. "Some of the people I visit and have coffee with regularly I've had the misfortune of taking to jail years ago," he says. "And that's the one thing I admire deeply in the Indian people. If something like that has happened in the past, they respect me for doing my job, and I respect them for not holding it against me. It really is quite something to see."

"Here," says Paulson, referring to New Town UCC, "it doesn't matter whether you're Indian or white. We've learned to leave most of that stuff at the door. That's the biggest thing." He continues: "We certainly recognize that within America there are many different cultures, and we honor that, but when we come in the church doors, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. And that's what we celebrate."

Ho-Chunk congregation celebrates 125th anniversary, looks to future

In Black River Falls, Wisc., the members of Ho-Chunk UCC are quietly celebrating their 125th anniversary as a congregation. Still meeting in their original one-room church building, the congregation maintains a balance between a modern- day UCC congregation with a respectful nod to the traditions of the past.

Some Sundays, the New Testament lesson is read in Winnebago (Ho-Chunk Nation is the new name for the Winnebago tribe). "We're just like any other church," says Bernice Blackdeer, consistory president. "We use our Bible and Sunday school material, but we also believe in what our ancestors taught us. We're not set in our ways, but we try to practice and live as our elders taught us."

Without a pastor for a year now, the Ho-Chunk congregation has had to rely on itself to keep the church's ministries going and the pulpit filled. Two Sundays a month, a guest pastor fills the pulpit; the remaining Sun- days are led by lay leaders. Blackdeer says the worshiping group is small right now, but she is confident that will change once more permanent leadership is found.

"We want to go back to a full schedule of things," says Blackdeer, who dreams of a church building buzzing with activities like Christian education, women's groups, a youth group, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. "We know we've had it before," says Blackdeer. "It can happen again."

Each week, Ho-Chunk UCC gets as many as 10 to 15 prayer requests during worship. Some lift up the joy of a new grandchild, or ask for a safe journey for travelers. "I feel like when we're doing that, we're covering the community," says Blackdeer. And each week, someone prays out loud that the congregation will always stay together and take care of each other.

"We've gotten stronger because we know we have to work together," says Blackdeer. "We're bound together. We can't let go."

Youth corralled by 'draw of the horse'

Gary Dickens says he just wants to be involved and change things for the better in White Shield, N.D., a small town on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Through the White Shield Spirit Riders, Dickens and some other members of Arickara UCC in Roseglen, N.D., are doing just that, one child at a time.

Anywhere from 35 to 50 children, ranging in age from 5 to 16 years of age, join Dickens and other church members at a member's horse corral for trail rides throughout the year and a camp during the summer. Dickens explains that this ministry is about more than just riding horses.

"We forget about the horse," says Dickens, who says the horse holds a sacred place in the American Indian tradition. "[If] you took care of your horse, it would take care of you. Just like the Native American tradition - you take care of Mother Earth, she'll take care of you."

Dickens says the draw of the horse brings the children to Spirit Riders, where the adult leaders can then talk to the children about staying away from drugs and alcohol, and being good citizens in their community.

Since many children come from single parent families or foster families, Dickens has found the Spirit Riders group is a good vehicle to encourage parents not to care just for their own children, but for all the kids in the community. "Sometimes you see kids standing on the sidelines, not partaking because there's nobody there for him or her," says Dickens. "Even if you don't know them, but you praise them for what they do, they remember that and they turn around and start to be better little citizens. Instead of always looking for a handout, they're trying to give something back."

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