Promoting Healing Relationships


United Methodist Native Americans and others unite to promote healing, reconciliation

By M. Garlinda Burton

As we remember this month the heritage and contributions of Native Americans to our church and society, United Methodists across the United States are engaged in tangible acts of repentance, hope and reconciliation regarding Native people. Their ministries—lead by Native and non-Native church members—call each of us to engage in healing and bridge building, especially with those harmed by the church.

In Colorado, United Methodists have spent much of the year reflecting on the 150th anniversary the massacre of Arapaho and Cheyenne people by U.S. cavalrymen who were led by Methodist preacher John Chivington. Trustees and others in the Rocky Mountain annual conference—led by Bishop Elaine Stanovsky—are considering ways to make tangible amends, such as sharing the proceeds of church property sales with Native people and offering scholarships to Native students.

On Oct. 4, students from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke volunteered from as part of the federal national Day of Service campaign along with Sacred Pathways, Inc. staff, to plant fall vegetables in all of the garden beds. Photo Courtesy of Ruth Woods.


Across the nation, in Pembroke, N.C., Native Americans United Methodists lead an interfaith ministry of support and self-help for indigent people—Native and non-Native—called Sacred Pathways. Supported by North Carolina Conference United Methodists through their gifts on Native American Awareness Sunday (April), Sacred Pathways provides food, shelter and social services for low-income families of all races in their heavily Lumbee community.

Project director Ruth Dial Woods, herself a Lumbee, says the project started as an invitation to serve people living on the streets. It quickly expanded to encompass partnerships with local churches and social service agencies, offering everything from substance abuse counseling to buying groceries for hungry families to praying with people in tears because they have nothing.

Known as “the little cottage with the big heart”–a reference to the headquarters located in a white-frame house—Sacred Pathways literally saves lives, their clients say.

“We deal with so many things on the streets, that we have to have this place,” says Dexter, who lives most times on the streets of Pembroke. Currently the center is working with churches to build raised gardens in local housing projects, particularly for elderly residents.

The North Carolina Conference Committee on Native American Ministries, which includes Sacred Pathways, is one of the most active in the U.S. United Methodist Church, with one of the most extensive networks of churches and ministries with Native Americans in the Southeast Jurisdiction.

Congregations like Prospect United Methodist Church in Maxton, N.C. view their roles as providing both spiritual and practical help for the pressing social concerns of people around them. Poverty, substance abuse, despair and disconnected among Native Americans are met with love and support. Last May, Prospect members brought together 340 for a substance abuse awareness workshop under the theme “Stop the Pain.” The training included worship, wisdom from older, traditional Native leaders and resources from local agencies.

The 2012 General Conference urged United Methodist bishops and congregation to engage in tangible acts of repentance for the church’s historic role in displacing and destroying the culture and homeland of Native American, and to seek ways to make amend. Local congregation, annual conferences and church-related agencies of all races and cultures are slowly answering this call.

Visiting professor, the Rev. Steven Charleston, an Episcopalian and Choctaw, confers with a student at Saint Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma City. UMCom photo by Boyce Bowdon.


Church-related Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University is working a comprehensive plan specifically nurture Native Americans leaders within and beyond the church. A first step was a 2009 gathering of several hundred Native clergy and laity to discuss immediate needs. Thanks to a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the school hired a visiting professor in Native American ministries, the Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, a Choctaw and former bishop of the Episcopal Church in Alaska.

Children are also modeling the church’s call to repentance and reconciliation. Earlier this year, seven children from Harlem (Ga.) UMC, west of Augusta, Ga., a mostly white church with black, Native American and Vietnamese American members in the North Georgia Conference, traveled to the Catawba Indian Reservation near Rock Hill, S.C., on a mission of help and connection.

Harlem’s children’s mission trip—a brainchild of the congregation’s children’s ministry leader, Valarie Wingate—pulled weeds along nature trails and in their community garden, helped clear trash and debris, and listened to tribe members tell their stories. The

The Rev. Mike Shearon, Harlem’s pastor, who is Muscogee-Creek, is a long-time friend of Catawba medicine woman, Becki Garris, whom he met through the Southeastern Jurisdiction Association of Native American Ministry. The two of them, along with the children’s ministry director, worked for two years to set up this exchange. Children gave handpicked blueberries to the Catawba children, who, in turn, also presented the Harlem children with homegrown ground cherries and gifts of pottery.

“Service to God involved service to others, and we want our children to learn that. And we need to understand that all people are God’s people.” Shearon says, adding that the trip also helped Harlem’s children examine issues of poverty.

“I think God smiles when we work together, get dirt under our fingernails, interact with God’s Creation, and try to make a more beautiful, just world,” he adds.

November is Native American Heritage Month
…and it’s a good to time join other United Methodists in acts of reconciliation

Directors of children and youth ministries:

  • Plan a field trip to a local or state Native American heritage center to learn the history of Native Americans in your community.
  • Contact your annual conference Director of Connectional Ministries to learn about ministries with Native Americans in your area, and ask how you can support them.
  • Plan a service of reconciliation and repentance in your congregation, using children and youth as readers and speakers to tell the stories of Native Americans in your community. Avoid offensive or stereotyped images and language. Here is a helpful guide.


Pastors, lay leaders and outreach coordinators:

  • Familiarize yourself with current issues affecting Native people in North America. For example, here is info on a documentary of Native people displaced after a flood. Find how what is going on in you state and community.
  • If you are a non-Native leader, connect with leaders from Native American congregations in your area (United Methodists or other) to discover concerns and contributions of member of that church and community. Discuss ways to work together to raise awareness and foster unity. Plan a join worship service for the coming year and, perhaps, a joint mission project.
  • Ask your district superintendent, district lay leader or other conference group to sponsor a “teach-in” on Native Americans and the United Methodist Church. Discover the history of the church with
  • Non-Native congregations should plan worship service of reconciliation and repentance in your congregation, or in partnership with a Native church. Prepare by planning prayers, liturgies and audiovisual aids to connect historical truths with current reality and with God’s call for all people to treat one another as sisters and brothers in the name of Jesus. Offer tangible next steps to to positive action.


United Methodist Scholarships for Native students:

  • The Ethnic Minority Scholarship for Undergraduate students of Native American, Asian, African American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander parentage pursuing their first degree, and the HANA Scholarship for undergraduate juniors and seniors or grad students of Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or Pacific Island parentage are both administered by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry . Learn about these and more.





GCORR is building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.