The only way to find some catharsis and hope for healing is to share painful experiences.
By Rev. Tim McClendon
My father, who had an eighth grade education and came from a multiracial background, spent most of his life trying to present himself as–and succeed as–a white man. I had heard the stories of his grandmother Lucinda Sharpton and her Native American family–how she became the “ward” of a white family as her parents were removed to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears–from other family members. I also know that my father tried to “out-marry” himself in terms of race and privilege, and my mother’s father wouldn’t give him the time of day. When they finally eloped, my mother’s family sent out wedding announcements and in the announcement, my dad’s name was spelled incorrectly.
The ironic thing is that in the trying to pass off oneself as the majority race you easily exhibit your own prejudice. Daddy never talked about being related to Rev. Al Sharpton, but we are. The Chickasaw were brought from Mississippi in 1727 to be a buffer between the Creek and the Cherokee in the western part of Edgefield County, S.C., above Augusta, Ga. This “Dark Corner” was named as such due to its isolation and the skin color of its inhabitants, and, as usual, through betrayal and broken treaties.
Native Americans have been pushed around, red-schooled, and mistreated in other ways ever since first contact with Europeans. Smallpox and other foreign diseases decimated tribes; lands were confiscated. No wonder my dad wanted to forget about a lot of the past.
As a result, I take it personally when I see prejudice. Whenever people ask me if I play golf because I have a ruddy complexion, I remember my family history. I am this color or darker year-round, and it’s not from being in the sun. My own mom, who I know loved me beyond description, used to tell me when the doctors brought me to her after my birth that she said to them, “Take him away. He’s too red. He’s an Indian.” We can try and try to pick our skin color, but it is what it is.
I also remember the hurt that I felt when in 2012 I was almost elected as a bishop in the United Methodist Church. I was 30 votes shy of the requisite number when a young white woman got up and asked that people vote for a “person of color.” She assumed I was white. Yes, through assimilation, I am mostly white, but if she had read my bio and noted that the Southeastern Native American Caucus had endorsed me along with the South Carolina Conference, maybe things would have turned out differently.
I do know this: the United Methodist Church has elected every other ethnicity as a bishop except a Native American. Maybe this is part of the reason that our C.O.N.A.M. (Committee on Native American Ministries) has as its motto, “Making the Invisible, Visible.”
Some things just aren’t forgotten. They need to be forgiven, sure, but we need to do better. We had a reconciliation service with Native American members of the UMC at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, but the main speaker wasn’t even United Methodist. Rev. George “Tink” Tinker was good, but he is an ordained Lutheran pastor. On top of that slight, every day as I walked to the convention center I noticed a small plaque under a bridge as I crossed the street. The plaque was about a huge Indian holy place and mound that had been leveled to make way for Tampa’s progress. That’s not progress in my book.
We have officially repented of Methodist Lay Preacher Col. John Chivington’s leadership of the Sand Creek Massacre on Nov. 29, 1864, where he butchered old men, women, and children and then paraded their body parts in downtown Denver, but almost 150 years later we still have a lot of work to do. While I am grateful for the historical marker that has been placed at the site by Bishop Elaine Stanovsky and the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference for their work toward repentance, on the sesquicentennial of that massacre we all must reconcile with Native Americans throughout the country. We must hear their stories in order to heal.
The Rev. Dr. Tim McClendon is the Senior Pastor at St. John’s UMC in Aiken, SC. and is a member of GCORR’s Board of Directors.