Give today: Native American ministry requires a long-term view

April 20, 2023 | by Kevin Murphy

Give today: Native American ministry requires a long-term view

Members of California-Nevada CONAM at Round Valley UMC.

Editor's note: This Sunday, April 23rd, is a special Sunday in the United Methodist church calendar when we officially honor our Native American siblings with generous gifts toward ministry that support ministries with Native American communities across the US.  To give, please mail checks to the Conference Treasurer, 1350 Halyard Drive, West Sacramento, CA 95691.  You may also Text-to-Give by texting the word "NASUNDAY" to 916 238 6854.

CONAM is charged with assisting our conference in:

  • developing and supporting new and existing Native American churches and faith communities.
  • advocating for inclusion of Native American United Methodists to serve at all levels of the church.
  • determining the distribution of the Native American Ministries Sunday offering and coordinating the promotion of Native American Ministries Sunday.
  • monitoring Native American ministries within the annual conference.
  • offering the gifts of the Native American Community to the annual conference.
  • identifying, promoting, and supporting the development of Native American clergy and lay leadership.
Click here to access a video resource for worship settings. 
Click here to read another recent article by CONAM Treasurer Kevin Murphy, California-Nevada CONAM.

Our Native American siblings are an essential part of ministry in California-Nevada.  Show your support and solidarity by giving now and often to Native American Ministries.

In my zeal as a Local Paster in the late 1990s serving Round Valley UMC, I was somewhat stunned when Native Methodist leader Homer Noley said to me, “We are sowing seeds in Native American ministry today which we will not see harvested in our lifetime.”

I met him while attending the Western Jurisdiction’s Course of Study at Claremont where he was then leading the National United Methodist Native American Center.  It was a rich blessing to spend time with him. The author of “First White Snow”, which presents a Native viewpoint of the evangelization of Native peoples, he also co-wrote “A Native American Theology,” an early work of Christian Theology from a Native point of view.  He served several local churches, was ordained in 1967 and worked as part of various programs, including as staff at the General Board of Global Ministry.  He died in 2018 at the age of 85 and is well remembered as a cherished trailblazer by both non-Native and Native theologians.

In listening to our Native leaders today, we understand that the long-term view is appropriate in a number of ways. Our own Cal/Nevada Annual Conference voiced that understanding when making a formal Act of Repentance in 2016.  In an open letter in 2014 to U.S. Bishops, three Native Methodist leaders were frank in their response to the growing wave of annual conferences’ Acts of Repentance for the church’s role in the historical traumas inflicted upon Native peoples:  “there can be no timeline to ‘complete’ this work. This will be an ongoing task of the United Methodist Church.”  The Conference Committee on Native American Ministry, (CONAM), which works to support our Native churches, was gratified that our Annual Conference in 2016 clearly understood we were embarking on a long-term process aimed ultimately at reconciliation.

The role Christianity played in the harms done to Native people in the new world have not been forgotten among Native peoples, according to Nathan Sam-Whistler, Pastor at Schurz and Yerington UMCs, and Chair of CONAM. In fact, he said, many Natives blame the history of experiences with systematic racism directly on the church, while still living today in the wake of the historical trauma amid continuing evidence of racism. “Many people today still hold the church accountable for the histories that we carry.  Even the colonization is blamed on the church, not necessarily on the government, or other institutions,” he said.

Just as elders pass down customs and traditions “some of our traumas are passed down the same way” he said.  “Younger people may not know that there may be benefits to be had from the church, that the church offers opportunities to create a sense of community and togetherness.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has never repudiated decisions based on the “Doctrine of Discovery” which originated as a 15th Century declaration authorizing the seizure of lands on behalf of Catholic sovereigns, and which later morphed into a legal justification in U.S. high court rulings.  It essentially stated that the colonizers were “discovering” the lands of indigenous peoples, and because they were not Christian, Natives had no rights to the land. An initial, unanimous 1823 high court decision said Natives were to be considered “merely as occupants” and that those who were said to have discovered the land thus received “exclusive title” to it.

The Vatican issued a statement repudiating the doctrine on March 29 this year, but critics have pointed out that the formal Papal Bulls that codified it have not yet been formally rescinded, making the action more a first step than a conclusive repudiation.

Pastor Sam-Whistler said that the Catholic church “has become a scapegoat for Protestant churches and gets the brunt of the blame for everything, but the church itself, as an institution regardless of the denomination, is also included in that blame.”

Nonetheless, he has hope for the church’s role.  “There are still young people out there interested in what the church can do, as a place that can bring safety or hope for their family, and maybe even the wider community.”

Pastor Nathan also is thankful that the Wesleyan tradition blends well with Native spirituality, making room for Native heritage and cultural practices as part of Christian Worship and life.  Unfortunately, while outright condemnation of Native peoples by more fundamentalist preachers is not as prevalent as it used to be, those attitudes still exist, he said.

Within the Wesleyan tradition, he said, “most importantly, a tribal person can honor God without the fear of judgement and loss of identity, knowing they do not have to ‘destroy the Indian’ to be a person worthy of God’s love.”

His concerns, on the other hand, are also two-fold. “The young people who may be interested in church may have their doubts, and so therefore the church may not be as supported as it could be in its development of Native leaders in the community. And the larger church may neglect its own ways of seeing the importance of church in under-employed, rural communities like this, or not understand that we lack the resources to show what the church can do.”

Hope was also expressed in the 2014 open letter to the Bishops: “We believe this is a time when our UMC can make a vital difference in the lives of our families, communities and nations; and we, your indigenous brothers and sisters, can offer our wisdom and gifts to the UMC, if we cultivate and tend our partnership.”

Although still a relatively modest amount, last year more funds than ever were contributed by local churches in Cal/Nevada to Native American Sunday, in part because of responses to an additional, urgent appeal last fall. 

CONAM is very thankful for the support of local churches. We are hopeful that together we can tend our partnerships well and cultivate our relationships anew going forward.


Kevin Murphy is a member of Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM).