Written by Rev. John Thomas
Memorial Church sits in disrepair on the Great Plains, far from the population center of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation where the Hidatsa, Arikawa, and Mandan nations live. In the adjacent cemetery rest some of the first Christians from these tribes, along with the early missionaries, evoking thoughts of faith and persistence, but also of loss, because Memorial Church and its cemetery originally were located far down the long slope toward the Missouri River, now obscured by a reservoir created in the 1950s with the construction of Garrison Dam by the Corps of Engineers. The dam dislocated communities, inundating the rich land used for farming and hunting, separating neighbors with miles of waterfront.
In May, I visited our American Indian congregations in North and South Dakota with the Rev. Kim Mammedaty, then-executive director of the UCC's Council for American Indian Ministry (CAIM); Sammy Toineeta, minister for Native American relations; and the Rev. Winston Baldwin, chair of the UCC's Executive Council. We were hosted at Fort Berthold by Reba Walker, vice chair of the Executive Council, and in South Dakota by Winifred Boub of the UCC's Dakota Association and the Rev. Rosemary McCombs Maxey, director of the Learning Center in Eagle Butte, a new effort in community-based theological education. Conference Ministers—the Rev. Wade Schemmel and the Rev. Gene Miller—also joined me for parts of the visit.
The problems on the reservations are profound: poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, high teenage suicide rates and the loss of young leaders to urban centers. Our churches are fragile, many with inadequate buildings and aging leaders. While there, we met gifted young community leaders, deeply spiritual, respectful of the church, but not part of its life. We noted the physical isolation of many of the churches from the centers of population, hinting at a certain distance between congregations and their communities. How will the renewal of God's mission come to these places?
More will be required than annual leadership grants for pastoral salaries, or annual work camp visits from distant UCC congregations to repair decrepit buildings, though both are important. Projects like the Learning Center offer promise, as do initiatives with youth and young adults by CAIM, eager to bring a new generation into leadership. Partnerships with Conference- based theological education, supported by seminaries, need to be strengthened or renewed. A new discerning of how to effectively engage congregations in the affairs of reservation communities is crucial. Christians trained by the missionaries to be hostile toward traditional spiritual practices need to find ways to interact more positively with the rich spirituality that may not be so alien to the gospel and which many younger people find profoundly meaningful.
UCC leaders rightfully look to American Indian colleagues for guidance in these questions. But fears of an old paternalism should not lead to an exaggerated distance or, even worse, to indifference. In spite of a painful history and deeply wounded memories, we remain church together, and together we will determine whether Memorial Church is to be a decaying reminder of the past, or a renewed harbinger of hope for the future.
One-third of contributions to the UCC's Neighbors in Need special mission offering support the work of the UCC's Council for American Indian Ministry.
The Rev. John H. Thomas is the UCC's general minister and president and is a member of the five-person Collegium of Officers.