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GC2012 Q&A: Planning the Act of Repentance Mary Jacobs, Mar 16, 2012
Stephen Sidorak Jr.
History has not been kind to the 32 million indigenous peoples in the world, according to the Rev. Stephen Sidorak Jr., but he hopes that United Methodists can begin a process that helps create change for the future at General Conference 2012 in Tampa.
As general secretary of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC), Dr. Sidorak is responsible for the Act of Repentance Service for the Healing of Relationships with Indigenous Persons, which takes place on the evening of Friday, April 27 at General Conference.
He spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.
What will the Act of Repentance entail? It will be a worship service, and we think a meaningful one. The act will be directed to God—and that’s no small matter, because a lot of people are confusing the purpose of the service, thinking that we’re going to apologize to indigenous peoples. That might be appropriate, and that might even be advisable, but that’s not what the purpose of the Act of Repentance worship service will be. “Turning around” is the root meaning of repentance.
How did this service come about? The Act of Repentance was mandated in Resolution 3323 at General Conference 2008. This is the third in a series of three acts of repentance and it focuses on indigenous peoples. That means not only Native Americans in the U.S., but indigenous peoples wherever the church has spread its blanket across the land.
Resolution 3323 is not to be confused with the first Act of Repentance at General Conference in 2000, which was for those who left the church—namely, African Americans who left the Methodist church to form their own churches. Then, in 2004, there was a second Act of Repentance for those who stayed—because United Methodist African Americans said, “What about us? We didn’t leave.”
Was there a particular historical impetus behind this, such as the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, in which a Methodist minister, Col. John Chivington, led an attack that killed 200 Native Americans, mostly women and children? Or is it broader than that? I don’t think Sand Creek was pivotal at all to the resolution. However, there was a resolution adopted at the 1992 General Conference, an apology to Native Americans, which is a precursor to this current Act of Repentance.
At the pre-conference briefing, GCUICC executive staff discovered that, in Tampa, there’s a lamentable history locally speaking. We knew about the Indian Removal Act and President Jackson’s forced removal of Indians from their homelands, particularly in the southern states. But we discovered, a block or two from the convention center, a historical marker that indicates that, near that site, was a temple mound that dates before the time of Christ. It was razed and the dirt was used as landfill to extend Jackson Street in downtown Tampa to the river. There you have the destruction and desecration of a sacred place to Native American people.
Likewise, when you walk down the Riverwalk in Tampa, in front of the Historical Society building, there’s a series of bronze plaques that talk about the Seminole Wars, and in point of fact, Tampa became a deportation center for Native American peoples out of Florida who were then sent to New Orleans across the Gulf of Mexico and from there they were put on the Trail of Tears and forcibly removed to Oklahoma. So we will have that haunting specter in front of us at General Conference as well. The very site brings home what we are trying to accomplish in the Act of Repentance.
Some have expressed skepticism about how meaningful an Act of Repentance will really be and whether it can really make a difference. Your response? I was on the panel at the preconference briefing with Anita Phillips, who served on my general secretary’s advisory council on the Act of Repentance, and she was just communicating what’s on the minds and in the hearts of native peoples everywhere, I think, which is, “What if your biggest hope was also your greatest fear?” The hope is that the United Methodist Church would turn around in its relationships with indigenous peoples. But what if they just put on a show at General Conference and there’s no tangible follow-up, so that it lacks any credibility in the future? I share that concern myself.
Is there anything concrete that you hope will come out of this Act of Repentance? I hope there would be outreach in a very concerted way for evangelization of indigenous peoples wherever we are, particularly in the U.S., and the renewal and revitalization of existing Native American congregations or new church starts for them; the enhancement of Native American and indigenous peoples’ ministries wherever the UMC is present. That the Act of Repentance Service, either the template that we’ll provide the General Conference or annual conference and central conference would develop their own liturgy—that those would occur everywhere we are. That we would as a church—internally—look to indigenous peoples for greater degrees of leadership involvement in the common life of the UMC. We’ve never had a Native American bishop, for example. Hopefully this will open the eyes of some people so that in the future that might happen.
I would hope that funding would continue for the Native American Comprehensive Plan—that we don’t lose sight of the Native American Offering. What would it be like to have an Act of Repentance and then do away with Native American Sunday? People need to be thinking these things through, and I trust the delegates will. There are glaring needs in ministries to indigenous peoples across the U.S. and around the world. If you go to any Indian reservation, the unmet human needs are palpable. We could be doing so much more to meet those needs as a church. Not only as United Methodists, but we could be engaged in this ecumenically as well. We could be a catalyst for greater ecumenical engagement in Native American ministries and indigenous peoples’ ministries.
Have you had input from indigenous people in planning the Act of Repentance? Informally, we were told by some Native Americans, not all, that indigenous people shouldn’t be telling white people what they should repent for, that the “white man,” so to speak, should be doing his own homework on what needs repented of. So there were different schools of thought, particularly within the Native American community, about whether or not they should be involved. But, of course, I consulted with Native Americans and indigenous peoples. We held scores of listening sessions across the U.S., and with indigenous Filipinos in Manila, with the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway, and others. We will also have an African perspective as part of the Act of Repentance service.
I’ve had the benefit of a number of indigenous people serving on the General Secretary’s advisory council, on purpose—I recruited them—and this advisory council was instrumental in the conceptualization of the worship service itself—so yes, there was an intentionality in involving indigenous peoples in conceiving what the worship service might look like.
The hope is that, whatever we do, it will be meaningful and faithful to the intent of Resolution 3323, and pleasing in God’s sight. If we can do that much, I’ll be gratified.