Written by Emily Mullins
The Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ unanimously passed a resolution at its annual meeting June 14, pressuring the National Football League and the Washington Redskins franchise to change the team name and refrain from the use of any images, mascots, or behaviors that are, or could be, deemed harmful or demeaning to Native American cultures or peoples.
The conference is also urging it's 40,000 members from 180 congregations in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and parts of Virginia and West Virginia, to join a boycott of the team's games and gear until the name changes. The Central Atlantic Conference plans to bring the resolution to General Synod 2015 for a vote by the entire denomination.
"The resolution's passage was the high point of our annual meeting," said the Rev. John Deckenback, conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference. "As we wrestle with how best to affirm the dignity of all God's children, the fact that the vote was unanimous speaks for itself."
The Central Atlantic Conference's resolution was supported by the Oneida Indian Nation, the federally-recognized tribe of the Oneida people headquartered in central New York, and the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization representing more than 80 Native American tribes throughout the United States. Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter attended the Conference's annual meeting and delivered a statement in support of the resolution, which Deckenback called "a truly spiritual moment."
"Team and league officials claim that denigrating Native Americans is actually a way to honor us – at best that is woefully ignorant and, more likely, is woefully insulting to our intelligence," Halbritter said. "Calling me, my family and native people everywhere the 'R' word does not honor us. It is a way to dehumanize us.
"The UCC is truly one of the key partners in this greater effort," he continued. "With your help, we can not only end this ongoing offense against my heritage, but we can win a major victory for a more inclusive society. This is our chance to usher in an era where mutual respect finally becomes the norm, rather than the exception, and relegate this language and iconography to the historical scrapheap."
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., has campaigned to change the Washington NFL team's name for the past 20 years and sees the Central Atlantic Conference's resolution as a positive step in the right direction. Hagler and other advocates plan to work in solidarity with the Native American communities and to use the vote of the Central Atlantic Conference to legitimize the discussion in other communions as well.
"The most powerful thing to see was that the Central Atlantic Conference's delegates operated with one voice, voting unanimously to urge a boycott of the Washington professional football team until it changes its racially-demeaning name," Hagler said. "This is an important message to members of our congregations who greatly support the team, demonstrating that racially-demeaning names are not acceptable. It has opened debate and thought, so that those who thought of the name in neutral terms are challenged to evaluate their perspective again.
"The most important thing is that the church listened to the voices of Native Americans," Hagler continued. "When people claim that something is hurtful, harmful or demeaning, it is not up to the perpetrator to claim that it doesn't hurt, harm or demean. People of color have always had to struggle to control their own narrative and this issue is one more example."