Native Heritage, Christian Faith Bring Conflict

April 30, 2009

By Linda Bloom*

April 29, 2009 | STAMFORD, Conn. (UMNS)

Two little girls who wanted to come to church have helped Jennifer Battiest come to terms with her anger over how the church has treated Native Americans.

The daughter of two United Methodist pastors - Samuel, a Choctaw from Oklahoma, and Margaret, a Choctaw from Mississippi - Battiest said she has long had conflicted feelings about her Christian connections, even as she has embraced a calling from God.

The Drew Divinity School graduate gave a brief but powerful account of those feelings on April 28 to directors of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries during their spring board meeting. "I am of a people who have been brutally colonized and brutally Christianized," she told them.

As a child, Battiest, who grew up in Oklahoma, loved attending the small Choctaw church where she was related to most of the members. At the age of four, she wanted to be a missionary. She changed her mind later when she learned how Native Americans were treated by missionaries. "I was embarrassed," she said.

She struggled with a calling from God while in college, finally deciding to follow the call as a way to address the hurting of Native people. In seminary, however, she became even more angry. Then, she said, she read the words of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who pointed out that even God cannot undo the past. "I agreed with him," recalled Battiest, a Board of Global Ministries missionary who also has served at the agency as a summer intern and missionary-in-residence for youth and young adults.

Still, she could not forgive the church. Then, in 2006, the denomination's Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference asked her to take charge of the Clinton Indian United Methodist Church, where the membership consisted of two little girls who faithfully came on their own to the church. She said no, but changed her mind and the membership grew the first year from two to 15 to 30 - all children of the Cheyenne-Arapaho nation who live in a three-block radius of the church. Today, the site includes a community center.

She said she was surprised when she found her anger at the church had disappeared. But, she added, "I've come to realize that forgiving and being forgiven is only the first step."

Battiest was an adult before acknowledging to herself that she had grown up in poverty. That is not true of her young congregation. "My kids, they know they're poor, they tell me so."

For the Native children in her area, college is an abstraction because they do not know anyone who has gone to college. "They see their parents going to jail," she explained. "So they talk about going to jail."

She doesn't want to ask those children to carry the cross of social injustice. But, she told the directors, she has no hesitation about making that request of them.

"I ask you, in solidarity with me and these children ... to pick up and carry the cross of social injustice until we don't have to carry it anymore," Battiest said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.