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Disciples Institutional Racism Towards Native Americans

June 15, 2015

Disciples Missional Tokenism to Native Americans

“Disciples’ ministry to Native Americans is accurately described as weak. Ironically, the lack of a strong missionary effort may have ended up being something of a positive. Protestant and Catholic mission work among Native Americans in many instances is believed to have bred destructive effects: a degeneration of Native cultures, societies, and institutions-in some cases warfare and even extinction.”

Duane Cummins, 2009[viii]

Alexander Campbell, like many Protestant missionaries, seems to have viewed North America as a gift from God to the new chosen people of God. Unlike many European Christian missionaries, Campbell came to recognize the inherent social injustice contained within the theology, polity, and especially the political, representations of the Christian movement spreading across North America. Campbell openly opposed the forced relocation of the Cherokees and supported missionaries to the Indigenous nations. [ix]

James Trott, a former Methodist missionary to the Cherokees who joined with Campbell, was devoted to the Cherokee and was deeply concerned about Christian injustice. He married a Cherokee woman and suffered the brutal loss of a child on the Trail of Tears.[x] Despite the efforts of these two men and others like them, however misguided their theology may have been, after the end of the Civil War and the death of Alexander Campbell missionary support to American Indians disappeared. Disciples joined the ranks of other denominations and reasserted their affirmation of the Conqueror Model of Christianity.[xi]

The legalistic dehumanization of Native Americans achieved its height in North America when Chief Justice Marshall made his landmark ruling on the rights of Native Americans. Author Ann Picard quotes Justice Marshall as stating “[T]he character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over who the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy.” With this ruling in Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823 the legal establishment of Institutional Racism towards Native Americans came into being. From this, President Grant established the boarding schools and began the systematic forced assimilation of indigenous peoples. This included the cutting of hair, banning of traditional clothing, banning speaking native languages and forbidding the practice of cultural and spiritual traditions.[xii]

Decades later, in 1921, a century after Justice Marshall’s ruling, the US Government passed the Religious Crimes Act, making it illegal for American Indians to practice their traditional religions. Offenders were often held without being charged, imprisoned and even sent to Alcatraz without trial. During this same year Disciples opened the Yakama Christian Mission. The Yakama Mission subsequently became the one and only ongoing Native American missional ministry of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ denomination, the token effort by the Disciples to include Indigenous nations, albeit by becoming assimilated into the mainline Disciples culture, polity and theology.[xiii]

Tokenism is a term most commonly associated with educational, corporate and government institutions. Tokenism is described as a form of racism in which a sole member of a minority group is represented within a certain structure in order to give the appearance of support for minority groups. Whenever an educational institution, corporation or government agency faces accusations of racism in hiring practices they can then point to a token minority person to demonstrate that they are not racist, despite however much they truly are, or are at least complying with enrollment and hiring regulations.

The Yakama Mission represented the token Native American Ministry within the Christian Church Disciples of Christ denomination. Yet even it has been poorly support especially in recent years. According to Ron Degges, President of Disciples Home Missions, less than $50,000 has been provided to the Yakama Mission since 2008 to present for missional ministry and another $60,000 to replace the roof on the aging original building.

In my years of working with Disciples I have asked many elders, deacons and ministers why they do not support missional work to American Indians. Time and again they have pointed to Yakama as the proof that disciples support Native Americans, using Yakama as moral justification for dismissing the needs of the other more than 500 Native American Nations across North America. In my journey I have also encountered many Native Americans who have assimilated into Disciples’ culture and as a result admit to knowing nothing about their Native cultural heritage, like Trisha and her mother.

Trisha’s Story

Trisha was a sixteen year old African-American/Cherokee girl living in South Chicago. Her mother, Lisa, was a devout member of a local Pentecostal Church. Trisha wanted to receive a Cedar Blessing for her coming of age but her mother was opposed. Lisa had told me that her minister believed that the reason God wiped out American Indians was because they were heathens and it was wrong to participate in any Indian Religious ceremonies.

Trisha on the other hand recognized that the church was not sharing God’s love but was instead using Jesus to bully people into joining the church. Trisha liked and embraced her Cherokee heritage and knew that God loves everyone. Lisa decided to support her daughter and allow her to make her own choice in beliefs. So Lisa watched as I performed the Cedar Blessing ceremony on her daughter.

It would appear that like other egocentric and ethnocentric Christian denominations, Disciples have expected American Indians to abandon cultural identity and assimilate into mainline Christian culture. This has been the historical Christian model of missional work to American Indians and the Yakama Mission has been no exception. Furthermore, to date anti-racism efforts within Disciples has been focused on reconciliation and rebuilding relations with African-Americans, while no anti-racism efforts have been made to help build a bridge between Disciples and American Indians. Instead, Disciples have ignored the plight of the American Indians while patting themselves on the back for their apathy.

In his book “Blaming the Victim,” author William Ryan opened the door to exploring the many facets of how perpetrators justify racism, oppression, exploitation and violence against vulnerable populations for personal gain. It appears in many ways that Disciples have created and maintained a culture of Institutional Racism towards Native Americans which supports blaming American Indians for their ongoing poverty and suffering.[xiv]

To make matters worse, over the past year I have discovered that Disciples Home Missions (DHM) terminated regular missional support for Yakama Mission and that this was followed not long thereafter with the closing of Yakama Mission. A few months ago the Yakama Mission property was sold and the monies from the sale, at least roughly $90,000 of it, was placed in a Native American permanent fund. I have also found that very few people are actually aware that these events have transpired. So now, any funds that go to support any form of ministry at Yakama must be applied for from DHM or other sources in the form of a grant applications, like applying for a government social services grant. Since grants are competitive in nature, there is also no guarantee the applications will be approved.

In the Gospel of Matthew we find that John the Baptist rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism. John the Baptist challenged them to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (MT 3:1-12, NRSV) if they hoped to avoid the “unquenchable fire” of the Messiah. John the Baptist recognized the double standards and incongruities that the Pharisees and Sadducees represented and called them on their stuff.

Like the Pharisees and Sadducees who sought to be baptized by John the Baptist to avoid God’s wrath, so also Disciples have sought to avoid the “unquenchable fire” of the Messiah (MT 3:1-12). The Pharisees and Sadducees were challenged by John the Baptist to do good deeds that would prove their sincerity to God. In likeness to this, the Disciples denomination continues to promote themselves as true believers while ignoring the pangs of grief and cries of suffering of American Indians within their own areas. Instead of doing good deeds towards American Indians to prove their sincerity to God and the people, Disciples have engaged in the practice of “Tokenism” and are now gradually even phasing the last vestiges of Native American missional ministry out of existence.

How, then, shall Disciples hope to convince God of their righteousness? What good works towards American Indians shall they proclaim they have done? How shall they demonstrate to Christ that they have received and shared God’s loving grace to the Indigenous Peoples of this land in an honoring and respectful way?

Repudiation of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is not enough. For Disciples to achieve wholeness and be viewed by history as inspirational representatives of Christ, walking with genuine integrity, it will take a fundamental shift in Disciples cultural context. The younger generations of today are adept at seeing through those who do not walk their talk and are opposed to racism in all its forms. For Disciples to inspire generations to come they will need to learn the art of taking people with them.

To accomplish this it might be a good idea to turn to David Novak and his book “Taking People with You: The Only way to make BIG things happen.” David points out how significant the culture of the organization is to long-term success. Having a culture which inspires others and helps them feel they are a part of a good missional movement is essential to the spiritual well-being of the community.[xv]

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One Comment
  1. BARBARA ANN MITCHELL REXFORD permalink

    I’m so ashamed of these people who
    are racist.They are supposed to help
    all peoples. Native Americans have been
    used & abused.It’s time to give their land
    back to them & solve their many problems, that were caused hy the
    Europeas & our ancestors. SHAME ON
    US ALL, DAMMIT …

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